Edgar Allan Poe could have used a new liver, but not in his most macabre hallucinations could he have imagined his classic “The Tell-Tale Heart” being transformed into the horror-transplant vision of “Tell Tale,” a thriller that will keep its considerable viewership off balance while providing star Josh Lucas with one of the better opportunities of his career. Under the imprimatur of producers Ridley and Tony Scott, the very talented Michael Cuesta (“L.I.E.”) has made his most accessible film to date, an intelligent creepfest that may have auds imagining the movie playing on and on, beneath the floorboards.
As Terry Bernard, Lucas, an actor of natural intensity, takes his usual edge off, at least initially. Terry has a beautiful doctor girlfriend, Elizabeth (Lena Headey), a menial job and a daughter (Beatrice Miller) with a crippling illness that will eventually cause the calcification of her tendons and connective tissue. But Terry has had a medical emergency, too — a heart transplant, from which he’s just recovering. He’s a mild-mannered guy, so it’s a bit surprising when he starts hyperventilating in the presence of certain people at the local hospital, and then manages to stab to death the same medical technician who harvested his new heart.
But there’s a coronary-pulmonary-style system at work in “Tell Tale,” even if viewers will sometimes wonder how it’s all connected: David Callaham’s script metes out details with tantalizing slowness, so certain things don’t immediately add up — like why Det. Van Doren (a beautifully rough and slouching Brian Cox) is so amenable to Terry finding and then killing the people responsible for the death of Terry’s heart donor. Or who that donor was. Or why certain people are so interested in what Terry knows or may find out.
That Lucas at first plays Terry on the downbeat makes his character’s transformation all the more credible. Just as Terry’s body is changing — his doctor tells him he’s only the second case in history of someone whose blood type has spontaneously changed (he now matches his donor) — so is his mind. His appetites are altered. His attitude toward Elizabeth gets coarser. And his bloodlust is amped.
Cuesta (for whom Cox starred as the predatory pedophile in “L.I.E.”) is the Philippe Petit of narrative wire-walking. All the while, as the intrigue assembles around Terry, his donor and the crime ring operating within the hospital, a fairly lovely story unfolds about Terry, Elizabeth and the daughter who is bringing them together. It’s rare to find quite this believable and warm a domestic subplot rolling out at the same time other characters are meeting horrific, bloody ends, but it never feels strained or forced and ramps up the viewer’s emotional investment.
“Tell Tale” may be a fantastic story, but the supernatural elements of Callaham’s Poe-etics are so tightly woven into the action and emotion that one forgets how unnatural it all is.
Noteworthy among the tech credits is d.p. Terry Stacey’s shooting, which gives an unaccustomed elegance to Providence, R.I.