By Shadow And Act | Shadow and Act February 28, 2014 at 12:23PM
Editor's Note: We saw the film when it made its world premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2013, when it was titled "Vipaka," which is the print that the below review is based on. The film has since been picked up by Codeblack Films (via Lionsgate), retitled "Repentance," and will be released in theaters, in a limited opening, starting tomorrow, Friday, February 28.
Directed by French/Lebanese filmmaker Philippe Caland (Boxing Helena), the psychological thriller Vipaka, which is set in New Orleans, take its title from a Buddhist term meaning Karma, a major theme in the film, which comes with a few thrills and a twist, but unfortunately fell short of our expectations.
On one hand, it was wonderful to see black characters in this kind of a story, and in this specific genre, given that this doesn't happen often enough; That alone, made it refreshing. But, on the other hand, the film seems content with blending in with other similar psychological thrillers, and really offers nothing new to stimulate the category of films it belongs to.
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 with Thomas, we soon discover his psychosomatic troubles, rooted in a mysterious past that isn't immediately revealed to us, leading the audience to believe that there’s definitely more to his unresolved grief.
Sanaa Lathan plays Thomas’ (Mackie's) wife Maggie. On the surface, they appear 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 happy home, unannounced, with plans to stay for an undetermined amount of time.
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 presents himself to be.
There’s initially some mystery surrounding the initial seemingly non-correlating sequences, as each key character is introduced, which help keep the audience interested and engaged, as you work to tie all the pieces together, and understand where the overall narrative is heading.
Soon, ratcheting up the suspense, Thomas’ mentally ill client, Angel, abducts him, takes him captive, and begins torturing Thomas, as a means to force him to confess to past misgivings, using the counselor’s own teachings against him, essentially giving him a taste of his own medicine. Initially it's not entirely clear what Angel's real motivation is (it will be by the end of the film, in an expected twist), as Thomas, bound to a chair by Angel, eventually caves in to Angel's torments, and gradually starts to confess his past sins, from one sequence 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 at all sure what exactly it is Angel wants. So he simply starts confessing every so-called sin he's committed since his youth, revealing whatever he can remember about each, hoping that one of them is the crime that Angel wants to hear him admit to, 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 really push the envelope, taking some risks with the genre, instead of relying on all-too familiar tropes, which would've made for the kind of far more refreshing and engaging film that it 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 demands "atmosphere," which it lacks, given that it's meant to be this dark, brooding, violent, psycho thriller. The budget isn't public yet, but it didn't look like much thought was given to creating mood, setting, and atmosphere, which would've really help build suspense, generate a genuine edge and even creepiness that would all assist in amplifying 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 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.
The writing certainly didn't help either.
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 in on an emotional connection.
The women feel 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” (the daughter) 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 just isn't convincing. Perhaps it's due to the fact that we've seen him primarily in 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 three of the characters. 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.
Think of a film like Roman Polanski's Death And The Maiden, for example, which starred Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley, in 2 stellar performances.
The most thrilling sequences of the film occur during the physical and psychological tussle between the two leading men - Mackie's Thomas and Whitaker's Angel. It's just too bad that there aren't enough of those kinds of engaging moments throughout the film, which 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, spotty writing, and other things.
So, we'd say it's an average thriller, which may work for some; But for us, it was a let-down, given how high our expectations were for it (it was an S&A much-anticipated highlight in 2012 and 2013, before it premiered).
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 - in short, the psychological thriller. So that was an aspect of the film we'd say was definitely refreshing; But despite a few scattered moments of suspense, 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.
There's probably a pretty good film in it somewhere; it's just too bad that the filmmakers didn't really take the time to find it.
We grade it a C.