Awash in twitchy paranoia and littered with nerve-jangling psychedelic touches, Jonathan Demme’s version of The Manchurian Candidate turns its psychological screws nicely on its own.
Comparisons are inevitable. For some, John Frankenheimer’s 1962 adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel will remain the definitive document. And after Demme’s botched The Truth About Charlie (his adaptation of the great Charade), this easily could have been a rotten remake.
But much as he did in The Silence of the Lambs, he blends together a class cast, stunning style and freaky-deaky B-movie vibes into a tantalizingly jittery thriller.
Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris’ screenplay deftly updates the still scarily plausible material to 2004. Its hapless puppet character pushed into greater political visibility, war terrain changed from Korea to Kuwait and war-machine big business replacing Communism as the shadowy threat.
Denzel Washington stars as Maj. Bennett Marco, a Gulf War veteran plagued by the notion that the dreams of his famous platoon’s fate are more real to him than the media-spread story. In fairness, Frankenheimer couldn’t have gotten away with the graphicness Demme uses in these dream sequences. But Marco’s terrifying memories are more of an unsettling head-trip than the strangely ironic nature of the original.
The story everyone knows is Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schreiber) was the platoon’s day-saving hero, taking out enemies single-handedly during an ambush. Receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, Shaw is poised to assume the vice-presidential slot on a promising ticket.
Meanwhile, Marco’s daily diet is ramen noodles, coffee and pills issued by the Army to quiet his screaming mind. But an unexpected visit from a fellow frazzled platoon member puts him on a one-man mission to uncover the horrible truth about Shaw, himself and what really happened in Kuwait.
His quest is where Demme’s command of camera and mood takes over. He bursts the comfort bubble with in-your-face, center-of-the-frame close-ups, and the soundtrack is filled with constant ambient traffic and siren noise to put us inside Marco’s swimming brain. Even the musical score, featuring rolling waves of distorted guitar from Wyclef Jean, spins the movie on a twisted track.
Certain fringe elements of the plot work better in the 2004 version and some don’t. Inheriting the Janet Leigh role, Kimberly Elise has a sensible M.O. and isn’t just a romantic pushover. But Shaw has no bride here, which toys with the beautiful domino effect of his character’s tragedy.
Still the story’s sacrificial lamb, Schreiber scales back the melodrama, emblematic of this film’s stellar cast. No Three Stooges-style nut-job like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory, Washington endows the role with greater internal fire than Frank Sinatra. And Meryl Streep, as Shaw’s conniving mother, delivers a chillingly fierce supporting performance.
The biggest flaw of this version of The Manchurian Candidate is the one of so many films. Its ending is clearly a test-screening tinker job, separating it from classic, tripped-out paranoiac thrillers such as The Parallax View and Arlington Road.
But this intensely disquieting election-year creep-out marks a return to form for Demme, who hasn’t made a movie as masterful as this in more than a decade.