D: Benjamin Arfmann / 87m
Cast: Kent Osborne, Dylan Sprouse, Rae Gray, Alycia Delmore, Chris Bauer, Leslie Thurston, Robert Longstreet, Mark Kelly, Randall Park
Movies where the central character is menaced by someone they’ve upset or betrayed, or just plain let down in some way (at least in the eyes of that someone), aren’t exactly new, and in many ways the format has been done to death over the years. With each new release riffing on storylines and characters and situations that have been done so often before, it’s difficult for any new movie to buck the trend or provide viewers with anything tangible enough to qualify as “original” or even “offbeat”. With so many movies out there having paved such a wide path already, anyone attempting a psychological thriller has their work cut out for them from day one. So what can an aspiring thriller do to overcome such hurdles?
In the case of Dismissed, the first feature from Benjamin Arfmann, the solution is to embrace those already firmly established tropes and values that come with the territory, and in doing so, treat them with a healthy dose of respect. The result is a thriller that is very much aware that it’s not telling a new story, or that it’s venturing into territory that won’t be over-familiar to anyone watching it. But what the movie does do, is to present everything in a low-key, matter-of-fact way that makes it look and feel more persuasive than if it had played as a flashy, strident melodrama. Thanks to Arfmann’s patient direction, and Yong Ok Lee’s deliberately unremarkable production design, Dismissed is that rare beast: a psychological thriller that doesn’t make the mistake of going overboard in its efforts to keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. Instead it builds tension by degrees, and the screenplay by Brian McAuley allows each new development to happen with a grim sense of inevitability, as what starts off with petty acts of revenge becomes more and more sinister and violent.
The central protagonists are high school English teacher David Butler (Osborne), and new transfer student, Lucas Ward (Sprouse). David’s class is largely disinterested in his teaching them about Othello, or Crime and Punishment (though this level, and kind of lethargy is only seen in the movies), so when super-knowledgeable Lucas makes his presence felt, David is only too glad to have a student who actually knows some (if not all) of the answers. But when David gives one of Lucas’s assignments a B+, Lucas makes his displeasure known: he’s a straight-A student, and that’s what David should have given him for his work. David sticks to his guns, and so begins a series of incidents that are the beginning of Lucas’s retaliation. David leaves for school only to find his tyre is flat. In the classroom his marker pens don’t work, and in the staffroom, his lunch is missing from the fridge. But it’s when his application to a prestigious university, one that will make him a professor and give him tenure, is replaced by a version that costs him the position, David begins to realise that Lucas is behind everything.
Now, at this stage, you might be saying, all this is over a grade? And while that does sound a little shallow, or even a little risible as a motive for Lucas’ behaviour, what the movie does really cleverly is to make Lucas’s psychopathy not only about being the best at all costs, but also what it means in terms of his “place” in the world. The opening scene shows video footage of a young child practising facial expressions, and from this we can understand that Lucas wants to fit in, even if ultimately it’s on his terms. The why is more understandable, and McAuley’s script leaves subtle clues here and there as to the details of why, but in keeping with the genre, it’s the how that leaves much to be desired. Lucas may be outwardly charming and persuasive, but like all good movie psychopaths, inside he’s as hollow as an Easter egg. Cue the aforementioned incidents of petty retaliation, plus the emotional manipulation of another student (Gray), attempted blackmail, veiled threats, murder, and evidence of Lucas having done similar things before.
In assembling all this, the movie does suffer from a handful of narrative short cuts that hurry things along, particularly in the last half an hour, and some of these short cuts are awkward in nature and upset the movie’s measured pace. But these are small prices to pay in respect of a movie that is otherwise confidently handled by Arfmann, and which features two central performances that anchor the story and give both central characters sincerity and credibility. Osborne is quietly effective as the English teacher who’s initially out of his depth in dealing with a teenage psychopath, but as the movie progresses his genial, accommodating persona becomes more steely and determined. At the point where he tells Lucas that if he comes near David’s family, he’ll kill him, Osborne delivers the line in just the way you’d expect an average man to say it: not like an action hero, but with genuine feeling. It’s moments like these, where the supposedly weaker character “turns” but it’s done with care and attention to the character’s personality, that helps make the movie more impressive than expected.
For some viewers though, the main attraction will be Sprouse, making his first acting foray since saying goodbye to the role of Zack Martin in The Suite Life on Deck (2008-11). From TV star to murderous psychopath, one could be forgiven for thinking that Sprouse is doing his best to put behind him the lovable moppet he played for six years, and for the most part he does, making Lucas the kind of over-achiever who really should set off more warning bells than he does. As his plan to get that all-important A inevitably falls apart, Sprouse stays true to the character and keeps him removed from any recognisable emotion until the screenplay requires him to ramp things up for an overly melodramatic showdown that’s as unnecessary as it is unfortunate (the one time the script really drops the ball). Sprouse is on solid ground with his portrayal, and in his own way, is as quietly effective as Osborne. Both actors seem aware of the requirements of the genre they’re working in, and provided with good support from Arfmann, who facilitates the action with a darkly portentous quality that makes it more involving than you might think at first glance, they help the movie overcome some of the more uninspired aspects of the material, and ensure that the game of cat-and-mouse David and Lucas engage in remains as credible as possible.
Rating: 7/10 – a movie that does a lot more with its simple premise than is immediately apparent, Dismissed is let down by the inconsistent way in which it treats some of its supporting characters (David’s wife, Rachel (Delmore), is a perfect example), and those previously noted narrative short cuts; with much to admire, it’s the movie’s decision to adhere to many of the genre’s devices but in a way that’s not lazy or convenient that marks it out from all the other psychological thrillers out there.