There’s a thin line between psychic and psychotic in “Solace,” a dark and corny serial-killer thriller delivered with enough conviction by a strong enough cast that the movie’s hokey premise — that the murderer, played by Colin Farrell, is targeting terminally ill individuals and “killing them with kindness” — actually starts to sound like a real psychological conundrum. Shot more than two years ago in Atlanta, but orphaned by Stateside distribs, the film acquired the reputation along the way of being a sequel to “Seven.” It isn’t, though like half the allegations made against its bad-boy star, the implication can only boost its notoriety, especially now that “Solace” has become an unfortunate victim of the Relativity bankruptcy — a setback that hasn’t thwarted its performance in several European territories, where a generally positive reception for this reasonably clever genre entry could eventually redeem its damaged-goods status back home.
While clearly not an extension of David Fincher’s unhappy head-in-a-box classic, this nowhere-near-as-depressing paranormal procedural (credited to “Matchstick Men” co-writer Ted Griffin and one of that pic’s producers, Sean Bailey, now head of production at Disney) might as well be a spec script for NBC’s “Medium,” featuring Anthony Hopkins as a premonition-prone doctor enlisted to solve especially tough cases. Comfortably enigmatic as he eases back into laid-back Hannibal Lecter mode, Hopkins plays John Clancy, the sort of cranky old clairvoyant who — when vaguely Clarice Starling-like FBI agent Katherine Cowles (Abbie Cornish, of the stiff jaw) and her partner, Joe Merriweather (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, of the even stiffer line reading), show up hoping to coax him out of retirement — senses them on his porch and cracks wise about how he’d been expecting them. (Because he’s psychic, get it?)
Clancy and Merriweather evidently go way back, though none of their past cases could possibly have been as weird as the criminal the Bureau is tracking now: a mastermind with an uncanny ability to anticipate the cops’ every move. As if to taunt them, he leaves behind creepy clues written on a knackered old typewriter (the sort that pawn shops routinely sell to serial killers) indicating that he knew exactly how their investigation would proceed. “4:16,” reads a notecard pinned to the doorway of one crimescene. Quick, is that a Bible verse? No, it’s the exact time the cops were predicted to arrive. Cue the chills running down your spine — which they most probably will, since Brazilian director Afonso Poyart (“Two Rabbits”) proves quite effective at building and sustaining a grim sense of suspense throughout.
“He’s just like me,” Hopkins’ character muses. “He sees things, only he’s a lot better at it.” Evidently, it takes a psychic to catch a psychic, and Clancy is just the man for the job — at least, that’s what fellow clairvoyant Charles Ambrose (Farrell), who is always several steps ahead, is counting on. He claims to have foreseen exactly how things will go down, though we have to take him at his word, since the film has access only to John’s premonitions, usually triggered by some sort of physical contact and always depicted in that abstract, highly symbolical, strobe-cut style you expect from the opening credits of an edgy new HBO series (say, “True Detective” season three).
Significantly, Clancy sees things differently from his lead suspect, raising the question which of them is right — and whether it’s possible to change the future. Clancy certainly hopes so, since he is plagued by dark visions of both Cowles’ and Merriweather’s deaths, and it would be a shame for Cornish’s character, a pit-bull psychopathologist who went into law enforcement because she’d get to carry a gun, to end up taking that fatal blow to the head Clancy keeps seeing when he thinks about her. (Speaking of guns, why does Clancy get to carry one?)
The psychic element provides a convenient perk in that Poyart is free to depict extremely grisly deaths for shock value, only to needle-scratch audiences back to reality, where Ambrose and Clancy are allowed to rewrite their own fates. “Solace” bears the relatively unique quality of being the sort of movie in which every lead character dies at least once, only to be resurrected moments later (though some do officially call it curtains before the final credits roll). Again, the premise here is that Ambrose believes himself to be doing his victims a favor, “mercy killing” those with massive suffering ahead and at one point even pitching in to apprehend the other kind of sicko — the sort who disembowels perfectly healthy victims for gruesome sport.
As he attempts to integrate genuine philosophical debate into such a corpse-accumulating genre format, Poyart has the formidable challenge of making the preposterous seem plausible. While the director is by no means Brazil’s answer to Fincher, he shares a valuable quality that American film schools don’t teach but foreign helmers often learn on their own, delivering studio-grade production value on a relatively tight budget (they didn’t pick Georgia for the scenery).
Poyart caught Hollywood’s attention with his hip, effects-driven 2012 actioner, “Two Rabbits,” and though “Solace” seems tame by comparison, it features a few touches that could only be his, including a device whereby multiple versions of the past or future coexist onscreen at the same time — first spotted when Clancy mentally re-creates the circumstances behind a murder in which a naked woman ended up dead in a bathtub full of blooming lilies and tainted blood. The latter detail is but one of the movie’s appallingly outdated details (Griffin’s script has been kicking around since at least 2002, back when New Line was attached — and when the “Seven” rumors started).
Thanks to Clancy’s supernatural sleuthing skills, we learn — skip the rest of this sentence if you’re easily upset by either spoilers or incredibly tacky screenwriting — that Ambrose targeted this gratuitously naked victim because her secretly gay husband had infected her with HIV. It’s not easy to make a motive like that seem even remotely reasonable, but that’s how Farrell made the five or six days he spent on the production count: Though glimpsed earlier in psychic flashes, he makes his entrance late in the film, and things suddenly get interesting as the dueling soothsayers really put their powers to work. (There’s a nifty moment mid-car chase when Clancy instructs Cowles to park and wait, knowing that the taxi they’re tailing will circle back their way.) Of course, if anyone involved could accurately predict things, they would’ve handled this troubled production quite differently, and yet, with any luck, “Solace” still does have a future ahead of it.