Thrillers come and go in the blinking of an eye, but rarely are they about the blinking of an eye. So on that count alone -- and many others as it turns out -- does "Blink," which opens today, merit a nod of appreciation.
Not set in the usual landscape of the thriller -- the zone of moral ambiguity -- it takes place in a much more intriguing neighborhood: the raggedy twilight between sight and vision, between actual, not metaphorical, light and dark.
Essentially, it takes us into the mind of a woman who's been blind for over 20 years but has just inherited an accident victim's eyes and is seeing the world anew. This condition gets at the nature of vision, which we take so for granted: Vision is not merely seeing things but having a frame of reference against which to interpret them so that they may be recognized.
Lacking that frame of reference, Madeleine Stowe's Emma Brody has visions that resemble hallucinations; it sometimes takes days for her to process them, at which point they pop back into her head with the force of a sharp memory.
And it doesn't help that one of the first things she sees in this state of visual pixilation is a murderer.
Stowe plays a Chicago musician -- a member of a very good Irish folk-rock group called the Drovers, which the film highlights nicely -- who in the first week of post-surgical sightedness hears a late-night sound outside her apartment, checks it out, and sees a man behaving strangely. She goes to the police, who quite naturally find her suspicions and her lack of visual acuity quite amusing. Only three days later is the body found in the apartment above hers.
The cop assigned to the case soon tumbles to the fact that the murder bears the hallmarks of several others in the region and that, clearly, a serial murderer driven by strange and almost unknowable obsessions is working.
The only clues lie in the memory of the once-blind woman.
The problem is familiar to many mysteries, but here it is much more carefully worked out. Can Emma's visual memory, so new to actuality, be trusted? Are her sudden "flashes" of memory the real thing or the products of a stressed mind?
But at least there is a principle at play, a reason for her memory to be patchy. In so many variations on this theme -- "Mortal Thoughts" with Bruce Willis and Demi Moore comes to mind -- the only principle is the sheer randomness of memory: The character in question remembers just exactly when it's most excitingfor her to remember.
Aidan Quinn, as the detective, is proably the weakest link in the film. I must confess a prejudice here: The allure of this guy has always eluded me.
I'm thinking how much better a cop Dennis Franz makes, or DavidCaruso, or even, for cryin' out loud, Richard Belzer! Real-looking cops are all over the tube, and here we have a scrawny poet-type guy who lacks entirely the easy command, the masculine presence, the hidden but still palpable familiarity with force that is at the center of homicide detective style. Even the very good James Remar, in a supporting role (and once the nasty bad boy in "48 HRS.") is a more believable badge than Boy Quinn.
But Quinn was presumably brought in because he has a reputed romantic mystery to him, and that is used to justify the affair that quickly follows. In no time flat, he's completely violated every professional principle by hopping into the sack with the naturally vulnerable Stowe. At the same time, back in his cop life, he discovers that the killer's real target was Stowe, not the poor woman upstairs.
There's some time wasted on the agony he feels over his dereliction of duty and that other sensitive-guy thing from hell, his fear of commitment! Please, enough.
But neatly, the script by Dana Stevens constructs a double-narrative, which follows as the police try and untangle the motive for the killings and the killer begins to stalk Stowe; at the same time, it does a nice job exploring her engagement with the visual world and the memories -- highly neurotic -- of losing her vision when she was 8.
The superb British director Michael Apted does a fine job evoking the sloshy dreariness of Chicago in the late winter, when no longer toddles and everybody hates the wind.
But Apted's best trick of all is in the resolution, which by the standards of recent movie thrillers is reasonably clever. Let's put it this way: The bad guy is extremely environment unfriendly. He's against recycling in the worst possible way.
Starring Madeleine Stowe and Aidan Quinn
Directed by Michael Apted
Released by New Line