Lodger, The (2008)


By Michael T. Dennis


Arriving with the stigma of a direct-to-DVD release, "The Lodger" is the fourth attempt to film Marie Belloc Lowndes's 1913 novel, a fictionalized account of the murderous exploits of Jack the Ripper.  The story concerns a reticent lodger who comes under the suspicion of his landlord during a well-publicized killing spree.  Trouble is, such an attempt succeeded the first time around, in 1927, by no other than the young Alfred Hitchcock. Hence, despite its good production design and pedigreed cast, the new "Lodger" is too little, too late.


Venturing into the realm of forensic psychology must have been exciting when the field was still in its infancy and unknown by the public at large.  With 1927's silent "The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog," Hitchcock recognized this fact in adapting Lowndes's celebrated novel, placing emphasis on the pathological sexuality of a murder suspect. He established new thematic conventions for the mystery thriller genre that he would continue to redefine and refine throughout his career.  Thus began the legacy of one of cinema's greatest auteurs.


In the process, Hitchcock became one of cinema's great subjects of imitation, endlessly remade and plagiarized.  Thankfully, this is not the case of 2009's "The Lodger."  Taking its place beside mostly forgettable versions, "The Lodger" (John Brahm, 1944) and "Man in the Attic" (Hugo Fregonese, 1953), it marks the feature debut of writer-director David Ondaatje.  The film makes few attempts to update Hitchcock, instead drawing inspiration directly from Lowndes's novel to tell the story of a string of successive murders in modern West Hollywood.  Alfred Molina stars as Detective Chandler Manning, the damaged cop with few friends and a lot to prove.  Beginning with this clichéd characterization, "The Lodger" offers many more in its narrative.


As the bodies pile up, Manning is paired with a naïve rookie cop (Shane West).  Meanwhile, across town, Ellen Bunting (Hope Davis), a mentally unstable, neglected housewife in financial straits, rents her guest house to Malcolm (Simon Baker), a mysterious tenant in a black coat, who seems to get in late every night another murder occurs.


Imparting his unconventional wisdom to his new partner, Manning trudges through the history of Jack the Ripper–just in case viewers might think the idea of a copycat killer is an original one–and listens as a host of experts (the medical examiner, the Fed profiler) deliver dry expository dialogue straight out of TV's "C.S.I."  When not on the case, Manning attends to his strained relationships with an untrusting daughter and institutionalized wife, driven to a suicide attempt by his single-minded obsession with work.


The clichés continue to pile up.  No fewer than three of the principle characters are implicated as suspects before the final twist comes, just when it is expected.  A tacked-on epilogue suggests that despite the neat-and-tidy ending things still may not be as they seem.  It doesn't help that these overused storytelling tricks are illustrated by an overly conspicuous visual style, which does nothing but distract from the characters and plot.  Where Hitchcock brought elements of expressionism to the look of his psychologically taut film, creating the perfect marriage of style and substance, Ondaatje is content to copy shots–even an entire title sequence–from better films, most notably David Fincher's brilliant serial killer "Se7en" (1995).  Are the fast-motion, flickering images of traffic and clouds intended to suggest the mindset of a frantic maniac, or just look cool  Regrettably, they do neither.


In this climate of worn pathways, it is difficult to find fault with individual performances.  Molina, usually a delightful chameleon, is underwhelming in a role that gives him nothing but an American accent to master.  For Davis, fresh off making the most of a decidedly minor role in Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008), there is little to do besides alternate between salacious and suspicious expressions.  Simon Baker's title character is made menacing through no fault of his own but rather by the accompanying musical score (more than a little reminiscent of the late great Bernard Herrmann) and shadowy framing that scream out danger so obvious as to guarantee he will not in fact turn out to be the killer. 


The sole bright spot may be Shane West, whose Street Wilkenson is enjoyable to watch as he progresses from bumbling novice to seasoned ace in the course of a week. His banter with Molina is well-timed and the running gag, in which the senior partner insults his co-worker's sexuality sets up the only funny moment in the film when his wife comes to answer the door, much to the surprise of the "open minded" homophobe.


Ultimately, it's the lack of originality that damages "The Lodger" rather than any particular shortcoming.  And the film is not composed or deliberate enough to function as homage to Hitchcock–or anyone else—but just a sampler of formulaic filmmaking.  There is a mild kind of insult that comes from being Showing so many cinematic banalities as if they were new and exciting, may offend intelligent viewers in underestimating their sensibilities.  Which begs the question, what is the target audience for "The Lodger" anyway  Perhaps the lack of suitable answer is the reason for the straight-to-DVD route, rather than theatrical release.