One of the students is not a ‘50s Stepford Child. Her name is Lucinda Embry (Lara Robison) and she looks just as wan, forlorn and dead-eyed as the actress Rose Byrne always does (kudos to the casting director, the resemblance is truly uncanny). Knowing’s female lead will be playing an Embry descendant in the present day. Little Lucy hears creepy, loud and overlapping voices which drive her cuckoo. They’re later referred to as “whisper people” though the decibel level the sound team chooses for these voices suggests not such much whispering as “shouty people with lisps”. The voices are feeding her information and the information isn’t pleasant. She scribbles seemingly nonsensical numbers frantically for two pages until her teacher pulls the sheet out from under her preventing its completion. Miss Taylor is annoyed that Lucy didn’t follow the “draw the future” assignment. Chant it with me now “But she did Miss Taylor, she did!"
In the present day we meet a sad widower Professor Koestler (Nicolas Cage) and his hearing impaired son Caleb. We know it won’t be long before they discover Lucy’s “drawing” and all hell breaks loose. We know this because Knowing is the furthest thing from subtle in mood or gradual in its foreshadowing. As early as the prologue the filmmaker makes no differentiation between the creepy parts and the mundane. It’s all scored and shot the same negating the twisting effect of true creepiness. Thriller music, spooky production design choices and low camera angles prevail. Professor Koestler and his son don’t just live in a normal house where we might see their world unravel as the thrills emerge. Their world is already creepy and doomed. They live in a house that could be the Amityville Horror‘s cousin. It’s out in the foggy woods. Of course it is!
Most embarrassing is Knowing’s intimate familiarity with extremely loud “SCARE” sound cues. Sometimes this desperate tendency botches the suspense entirely. There’s one shot in the film involving a piece of furniture that should be a genuinely unsettling “reveal” It’s preceded by a THIS IS SCARY sound cue so eardrum crushing loud I felt my seat vibrating. But instead of timing it to the reveal, it happens before. We’re actually still looking at Nicolas Cage looking at something when we're told to be very afraid. When the edit hits and we see the scary thing for ourselves it's still creepy but way anticlimactic. The movie was scared for us so we don't have to be.
An early scene of Koestler giving a lecture to his class attempts to establish an underlying theme for the film in the question “Determinism or Randomness?” but it’s a red herring of the most cynical variety. The film is crushingly deterministic and besides, no mainstream Hollywood thriller would ever opt for randomness when “everything happens for a reason” is on offer. It’s not the comfort motto of the masses for nothing. This sad man believes in randomness. His wife’s death has killed his faith. Movie stars playing characters who’ve lost their faith before the movie begins always regain it before the end credits. It’s a rule. Just ask Mel Gibson in Signs.
(some spoilers now)
Lucy’s list of numbers is revealed to be prophetic codes to past and future catastrophes with large body counts. Those whispering voices are soon embodied by mysterious blond child-stalking men. Numbers in thrillers always means code breaking which always means Determinism. When will Professor Koestler shuck his “Randomness” preaching and join Team Determinism? Very soon, moviegoer, very soon.
Once Koestler gets his paws on the Lucy’s disaster clock paper, he immediately starts underlining and circling groups of numbers with a big fat red marker. He breaks the code. He becomes a daredevil throwing himself in harm’s way repeatedly to save lives since he knows where and when the disasters will happen. Huge budgeted special effects follow – the first setpiece is the most successful and startling, probably because it’s the only one that the movie hasn’t relentlessly prepped us for. The unknown is always scarier than the known. Which is why people prefer the known (Determinism!) to the unknown (Randomness!). Some of the disasters are well realized but the effect isn’t so enjoyable. The director Alex Proyas sinks low, even panning up to an American flag blowing in the wind, as the end note of a New York City disaster sequence. Cheap shot Proyas, cheap shot. More troubling is the dehumanizing dumb religiosity of the whole enterprise, capped by one of the silliest endings I can recall seeing in a movie theater. Knowing’s spectacle of death and disaster and that final scene will probably be a huge hit with apocalypse-loving evangelical Christians considering its commitment to doomsday prophesies. Watch the world burn –we knew it would!!!
Nicolas Cage charts his acting process.
The days of Nicolas Cage’s sensitivity and risk-taking as an actor have been over for so long it’s hard to get worked up about a new lame performance. But I’ll try. He makes only the broadest of acting choices. He MOPES in capital letters. He DRINKS in capital letters. He SHOUTS whenever he can get away with it (the late film bad acting shouting duet with Rose Byrne is especially funny). When the movie needs him to cry he doesn’t cry so much as hunch his shoulders and jam his eyelids together as if he can force tears out physically. He’s like a Terminator mimicking emotions they’ve seen humans express that they don't quite grasp. Cage doesn’t just overact. He overacts and then underlines. Then he starts circling his emotions with a big fat red marker. For years he’s collected massive paychecks as a student of the Joey Tribiano “I smelled a fart” school of acting. He who smelt it, dealt it. This time Cage has an excuse for the face pulling. The movie stinks. D