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Dustin Putman

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Knowing  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Alex Proyas.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Chandler Canterbury, Rose Byrne, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend, Ben Mendelsohn, D.G. Maloney, Danielle Carter, Alethea McGrath, Alan Hopgood, Benita Collings, Adrienne Pickering.
2009 – 122 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images and brief strong language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 17, 2009.
Special Note: The following review contains minor potential spoilers. While the ending is not discussed in specifics, some readers who prefer to know as little as possible about the plot are recommended to return to this review only after they have seen the film.

As a disaster-laden suspenser and a race-against-the-clock mystery, "Knowing" knows how to press all the right buttons. As something deeper that attempts to touch upon religion, faith, and destiny vs. coincidence, it comes off as a less genuine thematic cousin to 2002's "Signs" that hasn't quite figured out what it wants to say. At least oft-visionary director Alex Proyas (2004's "I, Robot") is at the helm, injecting immediacy, aesthetic imagination, and a looming sense of foreboding into the convoluted screenplay by Ryne Douglas Pearson and partners Juliet Snowden and Stiles White (2005's "Boogeyman"). Proyas' stamp on the material is enough to smooth out this decidedly unwieldy film's rough patches.

At Lexington, Massachusetts' William Dawes Elementary School, a time capsule that has been buried for fifty years is finally pulled from the ground and opened. Inside are drawings of what the children from 1959 predicted the world would be like in five decades. Nine-year-old Caleb (Chandler Canterbury) receives something a little different—a series of numbers that, at first glance, have no detectable meaning. Widower father, science professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage), begs to differ, discovering to his horror and amazement that the numbers are in sequential order of deadly events that have occurred over the last half-century, correctly stating the date, the death toll, and even their longitudinal and latitudinal locations. With three more disasters about to occur, John must figure out a way to stop them while protecting the life of son Caleb, who is being accosted by a group of so-called "whisper people."

"Knowing" opens in a striking manner, a shot of the planet from space segueing into gradually closer aerial views of the earth. Eventually, as if being filmed from the wing of a plane that hasn't yet reached full altitude, cars as small as specks can be seen driving down arterial roads. Suddenly, the viewer feels very, very small, insignificant even—an ant on Mt. Kilimanjaro. As the story proper gets underway and the lead characters, most notably John and Caleb, are introduced, the love and vulnerability that make up their relationship snaps the audience back to the power and beautiful fallibility of one's own humanity. We may be small in the grander universal scheme of things, but is there anything, or anyone, quite like us? While John, who has lost his faith since the death of his wife and is supremely skeptical of an afterlife, struggles to be a good father for Caleb, he more or less has cut off ties with his priest father Rev. Koestler (Alan Hopgood). Meanwhile, younger sister Grace (Nadia Townsend) stops in to check on him now and again, and is usually met with distraction on John's part.

The catalyst for John's spiritual redemption is the pattern of numbers found in the time capsule, a harbinger of doom that puts into perspective how little time he may have left with Caleb. If one can withstand enough disbelief to get through the basic premise of "Knowing," what he or she will find is an at times startling sci-fi thriller that, until the questionable third act (for once, kept out of the trailers and promotional materials for the picture), isn't necessarily as far-fetched as it might seem. Indeed, the traumas faced by John are so realistic that the PG-13 rating is stretched to the boundaries and beyond. A horrible airliner crash in the pouring rain and John's subsequent attempt to save the imperiled passengers while walking through a maze of smoking rubble, debris, and screaming people on fire is chilling and unforgettable, made all the more authentic by being told in a single shot with zero cutaways. Likewise, Caleb's vision of a cataclysmic landscape littered with woodland animals fruitlessly trying to escape the blaze around them is an achievement in both concept and visual effects.

In tracking down Lucinda Embry, the woman whose childhood self prophesized the future, John and Caleb meet her grown daughter, single mother Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne), and young granddaughter Abby (Lara Robinson). Diana flees when John tries to question her about her mom's abilities, but soon comes around as she realizes he is telling the truth. She also knows more than she initially lets on. With the four of them visiting Lucinda's ramshackle home and investigating the source of what she knew as the world hurdles toward calamity, the film reminds of 2002's "The Ring" in atmosphere and dread. Additionally, director Alex Proyas owes Steven Spielberg a debt of gratitude, as at least three of his works are indirectly but undeniably recalled here.

Nicolas Cage's choice in projects is as uneven as any A-lister in Hollywood. For every "Leaving Las Vegas," "Adaptation," and "The Weather Man" there is "The Wicker Man," "Next," and "Bangkok Dangerous." If this latest effort lands somewhere in the middle, credit Cage for delivering a warm, dedicated performance. A scene where he lays in bed beside his son and holds him, perhaps for the last time, is the film's most dramatically affecting moment. Later sequences tugging for emotion are more predictable and so fraught with symbolism that it all becomes too on-the-nose. As son Caleb, Chandler Canterbury (2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") is a child actor whose unpolished line deliveries and reactions are an attribute that add to his naturalism and believability. Canterbury's intuitions on how to handle himself in a wide array of situations guide him toward the truth of each scene. Lending support to what is Cage's and Canterbury's story are Rose Byrne (2007's "28 Weeks Later"), astonishing in her ability to scream and freak out as Diana Wayland; newcomer Lara Robinson, better as spooky, 1959-era Lucinda than in the stone-faced dual role of modern-day Abby; and Nadia Townsend, a likable fresh face who runs with her handful of scenes as John's worried sister Grace.

Alternately ludicrous, eerily plausible and just a tad overreaching, "Knowing" shares its finer points with shortcomings and comes up with an overall cinematic experience more ambitious than most big-budget special effects extravaganzas. For that, it gets points, and for the relentlessly inspired music score by Marco Beltrami (2008's "Max Payne"), tinges of Hitchcock regular Bernard Herrmann showing through, sequences such as one set at a gas station and another in a New York City subway ratchet to near-greatness. Not every plot point is airtight—the hows and whys of one very big revelation, not to be given away here, are left unanswered—and director Alex Proyas' reach for greater meaning is negligibly successful, but the visceral impact should not be discounted. "Knowing" might be flawed, but it is also taut, vivid, and uncompromising. If it takes some wrong steps along the way, that is only because it tries so hard.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman