The reverberating shock felt by the survivors of a senseless massacre in a suburban Los Angeles coffee shop results in paradoxically dull drama in “Winged Creatures.” Most directly reminiscent of ABC’s abruptly canceled series “The Nine,” and aspiring to the tragic levels of Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter,” Aussie helmer Rowan Woods’ Hollywood debut gathers a large lineup of thesps for an ensembler that never coheres, with multiple storylines vying for attention. Carefully planned release date (still TBA) and notably positive critical response will be essential for anything more than mild B.O. results.
Sony, which acquired the film at the script stage but has not yet finalized a distribution deal, may be hoping for the kind of mega-ensemble heat delivered by “Crash” — quite different in many respects, but similarly packed with actors playing stressed L.A. characters — but the likelihood of lightning striking twice is slim indeed. So-called “secret screening” at Los Angeles Film Fest felt more like a nervous test screening to gauge response than a festival event.
Sticking close to his well-received novel (which was published earlier this year and goes unmentioned in the credits), screenwriter Roy Freirich begins with the horror that sets things in motion. In a suburban diner in what looks like L.A.’s San Gabriel Valley area, customers are shocked by a gunman (Marty Maguire) who enters and fires a series of shots; the power of this meaningless act of violence will certainly be deeply upsetting to some viewers.
The most direct witness is waitress Carla (Kate Beckinsale), who has just shared a moment with Dr. Bruce Laraby (Guy Pearce) as he was leaving the diner, and inadvertently opening the door to the gunman. Near Carla is Charlie (Forest Whitaker), who has been thumbing a brochure about cancer at the counter.
Succeeding passages reveal additional moments from the massacre, including the full extent of the gunman’s cruel killing of Aaron (Tim Guinee), the father of Anne (Dakota Fanning), who’s hiding under a booth table with best friend Jimmy (Josh Hutcherson). After a tussle with Charlie, the gunman shoots himself.
In the local hospital’s emergency ward, Bruce futilely attempts to save the gunman’s life, and is told by fellow surgeon Dan (James LeGros) that doctors can’t play God. Thus begins a rather dull, repetitive pattern: The life-and-death event unleashes an extended encounter with God and fate, with each survivor managing it in a different manner.
Told that he’s “beyond lucky” to be alive, Charlie heads off to a casino. Anne resorts to her own personal brand of Christianity, preaching about obedience to God’s will to the point that mother Doris (Jeanne Tripplehorn) grows concerned for her sanity, even as Anne begins to draw a large assembly of believers at school.
Jimmy’s response is to go mute and shut down emotionally, resisting any help from hospital psychologist Ron (Troy Garity), while his father Bob (Jackie Earle Haley) fears his son’s condition may jeopardize his family’s health coverage. Strangest response of all comes from doc Bruce, who seems to be suffering from unarticulated survivor’s guilt, especially since he just happened to miss the massacre by moments.
The film’s long and busy parade of characters and their mini-dramas reaches burnout with Carla, pathetically holding a flame for Bruce while appearing to have no clue how to handle her colicky baby, and with Charlie, whose string of luck predictably goes south.
“Winged Creatures” lacks an organic sense of the unpredictability of human behavior, instead playing like a graph plotting out lines for characters to follow toward their inevitable redemption.
The cast at least doesn’t chew the scenery, and Woods (“Little Fish,” “The Boys”) disposes with conventional camera setups in favor of shots that focus on his actors. He places perhaps too much of a burden on them, however: The usually reliable Fanning and Whitaker seem to run out of steam on several occasions, while other actors like Haley, Davidtz and Tripplehorn deliver with greater impact. Pearce’s perf is fascinating for what his character conceals, which also applies to the formidable Hutcherson. Beckinsale, though topping the bill, leaves little impression.
Pic looks generally bland, though Woods manages some telling views of hospitals, casinos, diners and other iconic American spaces where people mingle and bump into each other — sometimes fatally. Marcelo Zarvos’ doomy, repetitive score tends to burden the film’s already burdensome flow.
Peace Arch Entertainment is distributing “Winged Creatures” under the title “Fragments.”