Film Review: A Crooked Somebody

A fake psychic gets entangled in a real crime in this psychological thriller, which features excellent performances and a plot firmly rooted in relationships rather than stunts.
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Michael Vaughn (Rich Sommer) is touring the southwest U.S. with his partner, Chelsea Mills (Joanne Froggatt), in support of his new book, Dialogue with the Departed. The returns are modest and the hours rough, but Michael is determined to make it to the “next level”—his role model, tellingly, is ghost whisperer John Edwards rather than the briskly professional mentalist George Kresge (“The Amazing Kreskin”)—and he’s more than a little frustrated that he isn’t there yet.

Not that Mike harbors any illusions about his abilities. He knows he can no more speak to the dead than he can fly with the angels, something that makes his dour father Sam (Ed Harris), a pastor, decidedly uncomfortable. It’s one thing, Sam points out, to be the light entertainment at kiddie birthday parties, and quite another to profit from the emotional pain of the parents of abducted children or the raw grief of men and women whose loved ones have been murdered, committed suicide or simply vanished on the way home from work—the kind of open-ended loss that puts people’s lives on hold for years.

Even Chelsea has some misgivings, but Mike has become a master of self-serving justifications—until the night his claim to have contacted a spirit named “Jim” intersects randomly with the guilty conscience of credulous audience member Nathan (Clifton Collins, Jr.), who’s pretty sure he knows who Jim is and doesn’t want him blabbing from the great beyond. So he kidnaps Mike, who, having spent years mastering the arts of psychological manipulation and self-promotion, figures he stands a good chance of not only getting out of this mess but spinning it to his own advantage.

Directed by Trevor White and written by producer/director/first-time feature screenwriter Andrew Zilch, A Crooked Somebody (the title derives from pastor Sam’s unheeded advice that “it’s better to be an honest nobody…”) is a meticulously balanced blend of character-based drama and genre conventions—for evidence that getting the proportions right is harder than it appears, look no farther than pretty much any list of recent limited-release and direct-to-VOD/DVD thrillers and crime movies. The film's main characters are introduced with remarkable efficiency that nonetheless doesn’t feel rushed, then allowed not so much to develop—the action unfolds over the course of a fraught couple of days—as to reveal themselves through their actions and reactions to the mess in which they’re entangled.

Good though the writing is, major credit goes to the leads, especially Sommer (“Mad Men”), given that Mike is a singularly unlikeable protagonist. He does a good superficial impression of a modest, self-effacing nice guy using his unusual gift to help others, but the fact is that he’s an unrepentant con man, self-centered and completely comfortable with taking advantage of other people; for him, life is a game defined by possible moves, none of them dictated by concerns like common decency. He’s got the conscience of P.T. Barnum—there’s no harm in giving people what they want, even if you have to fake it—coupled with a gangster’s ruthlessness. Not only would Mike kick a man who was down, he’d argue that’s the best time to do it—less chance of getting hurt yourself. 

Credit also to Amanda Crew as Stacy Bishop, who brings real depth to her portrayal of a woman who’s lived most of her life in the shadow of her father’s disappearance; to Collins for his complex rendering of Nathan, and to Harris and Amy Madigan as Mike’s parents; they bring subtle complexity to their characters in just a handful of scenes. By the time the final twist has turned, A Crooked Somebody has traveled some dark back roads of the mind…perhaps not quite as dark as the one where, say, the classic Nightmare Alley (1947) winds up, but close. And that’s plenty dark.