Cast: Maura Tierney, Adrien Brody, Terry Kinney, Laila Robins, James Naughton, Paul Calderon, Dylan Baker, Frankie Faison, Michael Henderson…
Writer/Director: Richard Shepard
Released: November 12, 1999
Overall score: 6/10
Brody score: 7/10
Commentary track score: 9/10 (more about that below)
A side note
I want to start off this post by recommending that if you get your hands on a DVD of Oxygen, you listen to the commentary track. It features writer/director Richard Shepard, along with the movie’s stars: Maura Tierney and Adrien Brody. It is so entertaining. Really. Funny in parts, informative in parts, and deliciously awkward in parts. It’s a must hear.
A Familiar Feeling
Oxygen is what you might call “Silence of the Lambs Light,” with Adrien’s character getting into a seasoned police officer’s psyche almost as adeptly as Dr. Hannibal Lecter would. There is a sense of urgency in both films that drives these otherwise guarded women to allow these men (Lecter and “Harry,” respectively) in. To permit themselves to think like a monster for the good of the case. The story lines of the two films aren’t much alike at all, it’s the psychological aspect I find comparable.
We are introduced to Brody’s “Harry Houdini” (the police eventually discover his real name, but it isn’t disclosed to the audience) in the first frames of the film. He approaches a woman walking her dog and strikes up a conversation. This chat takes a dark turn when it’s revealed Harry knows her name (Frances Hannon – played by a remarkable Laila Robins) and he is carrying a gun. He asks Frances to get in the car several times, before swapping his calm and almost playful exterior for a frightening one and forcing her in (along with her dog, Pooch).
This is the first role I saw Brody in that actually startled me. An anecdote from the commentary: the woman Adrien brought as his date to this film’s premiere never spoke to him again. That gives you some idea of the level of creepy and scary we’re dealing with, here. And just how convincingly he plays his roles.
Detective Madeline Foster (Maura Tierney of NewsRadio and Liar, Liar fame) is a recovering alcoholic who has had a relapse her husband Tim (Terry Kinney) knows nothing about. She also cheats on him via a mystery man with whom she engages in a BDSM relationship. To further complicate matters, Tim is also her Captain (her boss).
Laila Robins is so good as Frances Hannon, at times you actually forget she is an actor. She almost seems like a real person who was thrown into the movie without being told it’s a movie and is genuinely terrified. It makes the film all the more disturbing. She is basically teaching a master class in acting, here. I can’t wait to see her in more things — prior to Oxygen, I only knew her from Planes, Trains and Automobiles.
On to the film itself…
Essentially, this film is about Detective Foster’s inner struggles. Her desire to be the “perfect cop wife,” as she puts it, is doing battle with her desire to give in to her darker temptations. It’s not quite a double life, but it’s close.
The kidnapping and live burial of Frances Hannon (and her dog) is almost a side story. It’s basically the common thread that brings Harry and Madeline together and keeps them talking to each other. It’s Madeline’s motivation to put up with this guy.
Harry Houdini is a great antagonist for Det. Madeline Foster, because he seems to read her right away, and better than the people who know and work with her. Clearly better than her own husband, with whom she doesn’t seem to communicate fully. This doesn’t scare her at first, but rather, she finds it frustrating. Foster’s goal is to find Hannon before she runs out of air. Harry seems to have no desire to help this happen.
Harry is almost childlike, which I think may be part of why the decision was made to give him braces (well that, and so he’d be smuggling a wire in his mouth). He’s like a spoiled brat, kicking and screaming on the toy store floor to get what he wants. Foster has to practically parent him at times to get any type of cooperation. Harry further demonstrates this inner child when he’s being transported by helicopter and is almost comically excited about it. Adrien plays this aspect very carefully (as does Shepard in his script and direction). He doesn’t reach the point of appearing naive or challenged in any way, he just strikes you as someone who has always gotten his way and only considers himself in the grand scheme of things.
After irritating her for most of the film, Harry eventually gets so far into Madeline’s head that is does start to rattle her and prey on her fears. We see her hard exterior break down and her vulnerability come through. She starts to identify with Harry, after he essentially forces her to do so. This, however, is critical to her getting to the information she so desperately needs.
Overall, I think this film is quite effective. It tells a good story and the actors do a good job. The direction is also good, and filled with quite a few pleasing camera angles (such as filming Harry and Madeline from above the interrogation table, and a close up of Madeline reflected in Harry’s eye). There are some weak aspects, such as a few movie and dialog cliches tossed in, and the fact that it was made in 1999 with a limited budget. However, none of those things would stop me from recommending this one. I think it’s required watching for fans of Brody, Tierney or Robins. Oh, and as I said before: don’t forget to rewatch it with the commentary track on.
P.S. – A nitpick (possible plot hole)
From clues provided in the film, such as the paint splatters on “Harry’s” shoes, and his intimate knowledge of the Poughkeepsie police station’s floor plan, he was likely the one who painted the yellow walls in the interrogation room. Probably as a means to get in there and familiarize himself with the surroundings as he formulated his plans. My question is, why didn’t any of the officers there say, “hey, we know that guy” at some point? How is it Harry was present enough in the station to get his shoes splattered in paint, but not enough to be remembered? Perhaps he broke in undetected to case the place and happened to come in contact with the paint? He is a master escape artist, after all. Just something that bugged me a bit. Why make such a big deal about the paint without exploring it fully?