Directed by French/Lebanese director Philippe Caland (Boxing Helena), the psychological thriller Vipaka was the opening night film at the Pan African Film Festival in LA last night.
Set in New Orleans, Vipaka (a Buddhist term for Karma) has its share of thrills and twists, but unfortunately fell short of our expectations.
On one hand, it was nice to see black characters in this kind of a story, and in this genre, since that doesn't happen often; but, on the other hand, the film seems content with blending in with other similar thrillers.
Thomas Carter, played by Anthony Mackie, has become a renowned author of a book that recounts his near-death experience after a car wreck five years prior, which was caused by him driving drunk, with his brother (played by Mike Epps) in the car with him. Thomas, who is also a life-coach, begins counseling a distraught man named Angel (Forest Whitaker), who is grieving the death of his mother. When Angel begins his therapy session, we soon realize that he is more mentally disturbed than we'd previously thought, and there’s definitely more to his unresolved grief.
Sanaa Lathan plays Thomas’ wife Maggie. They seem to be in a loving and stable marriage, but their happy coupledom hits a rock as soon as Thomas’ brother Ben (Mike Epps) crashes their pad unannounced, planning to stay for an undetermined amount of time.
There’s initially some mystery surrounding these sequences: Why did Ben go to jail? Why is there a constant rivalry between the brothers? Why does Ben seem to resent Thomas' wife?
Ben is the blue-collar, black sheep of the two, and you sense that Ben knows something shameful about his brother, and that perhaps the straight-laced, successful author/life-coach is not the spiritual-renaissance man that he portrays himself to be.
The most thrilling sequences of the film occur during the physical and psychological tussle between the two men - Mackie's Thomas and Whitaker's Angel. Thomas’ mentally ill client has abducted him, and begins torturing Thomas, as a means to force him to confess to past misgivings, using the counselor’s own teachings against him, giving him a taste of his own medicine. Initially it's not entirely clear what Angel's real motivation is (it will by the end of the film), as Thomas, bound to a chair by Angel, reveals past sins, from one sequence of torment to the next, from childhood through adulthood, with Angel's *encouragement.*
With each passing minute, it becomes obvious that there's a very specific confession that Angel wants from Thomas, although, unfortunately for Thomas, he isn't sure what exactly it is Angel wants. So he simply starts spilling his guts, revealing whatever sin he committed that he can remember, leading to the eventual big reveal that apparently relieves Angel of the burden that's at the root of his grief.
Seemingly compelling on paper, it’s unfortunate that with this caliber of actors, the film misses a wonderful opportunity to be as refreshing and engaging as we think it wants to and initially sets out to be.
It simply doesn’t stand out from the average films of this genre.
First, in terms of production design and cinematography, this is the kind of film that needs "atmosphere," which it lacked given that it's supposed to be this dark, violent, psycho thriller. The budget isn't public yet, but it didn't look like much thought was given to creating mood, setting, atmosphere, which would really help build suspense, generate a genuine edge and even creepiness that would all help amplify the nature and appreciation of the story.
And maybe the most disappointing thing about the film were the uneven performances, given the caliber of actors - especially the film's two stars in Mackie and Whitaker, who are usually in good form in whatever roles they play. Here, in more instances than there should've been, they just weren't as engaging, and we'd say even looked more like they were rehearsing rather than actually performing for tape, even though we'd also say that the characters they play seem very well suited for each - Mackie being more external and an extrovert (seemingly), and Whitaker being more internal, just like their characters. So we could say that we've seen both of them in somewhat similar roles before, albeit in different plot circumstances.
So for all intents and purposes, playing Thomas and Angel should've been routine for both actors; but maybe one sometimes can get too comfortable and confident in one's routine that you just might end up phoning in a performance.
We'd like to think we were supposed to care enough about each character, to be really anxious about whatever fate each of them would eventually be dealt; but key elements just aren't consistent to help audiences settle on an emotional connection.
The women felt ultimately like an after-thought here. And so did Mike Epps, in fact, even though he played an instrumental part as we see towards the end of the film. The actresses’ roles lacked substance; they served more as fillers. Nicole Ari Parker plays Whitaker’s estranged wife (a very small role), who knows he is mentally ill and on medication, and one can’t quite reconcile her leaving their daughter alone under his care, knowing his condition very well, and expecting young “Francesca” to help her father reach some kind of normalcy again.
It was also difficult to truly suspend belief with Epps' character; it's a dramatic role, but he isn't convincing. Perhaps it's due to the fact that we've just seen him in too many comedies. In a way, and not intentionally, you almost expect him to become the film’s comic relief. But the fact that he isn't convincing could also speak to how his character was written.
Furthermore, Vipaka really would’ve worked better without the additional insignificant subplot of a past "love triangle" between Lathan, Mackie and Epps. In fact, we almost would've liked this to be a "chamber drama" between the two men (Mackie and Whitaker), with a lot fewer distractions from all the other characters; a tete-a-tete between two flawed men with secrets, as the stakes escalate, while the clock ticks, the power shifting from one man to the other, like a chess match, leaving the audience in suspense, wondering who's telling the truth, who's lying, whether Forest's Angel is really just crazy, if Mackie really has something major that he's hiding - until the breaking point at the end, when the truth is finally revealed.
The film could've striven for something much more powerful, especially with its religious subtexts, but it unfortunately falls short, getting bogged down in unnecessary secondary plots, characters and other things.
So, we'd say it's an average thriller, which may work for some, but for us, was disappointing, given how high our expectations were for it.
As stated earlier, it's great to see a "color-less" story like this, in this genre, with black characters, since it's such a rare occurrence, especially with "recognizable name" black actors, who don't often get the opportunity to star in Hollywood-made films like this. So that was an aspect of the film we'd say was definitely refreshing.
And the film isn't completely without its share of rousing, suspenseful and even “creepy” sequences; but all the key elements put together just aren't consistently strong enough to keep one fully connected and engaged throughout, and by the time the big reveal at the end happens, you just may not care as much.