The Bye Bye Man
The Bye Bye Man is the kind of film that is so boring and bereft of anything of possible interest that it becomes infuriating.
Because the Internet moves with the speed and ferocity of a hornet swarm, there's a chance that by the time you read this, Spike Lee's American remake of "Oldboy" will already have been stung to death. If so, too bad. This American version of Park Chan-Wook's Korean thriller is Lee's most exciting movie since "Inside Man"—not a masterpiece by any stretch, but a lively commercial genre picture with a hypnotic, obsessive quality, and an utter indifference to being liked, much less approved of. The studio that released "Oldboy" doesn't seem to like the movie any more than critics: it stifled pre-release discussion by making reviewers sign non-disclosure agreements, and forced Lee to shorten an apparently much longer director's cut. So barring a miracle, this film is doomed.
Like Park's version, "Oldboy" tells of a drunken, abusive lout named Joe Doucette (Josh Brolin) who's imprisoned for a long time by a mysterious jailer. He gets clean in prison, then escapes to learn the identity of his tormentor and punish him. Like Park's version, this one's a reptilian brain film, all violence and sex and fear and revenge and crying and screaming. The lighting is dark but the colors are supersaturated, especially in scenes with a lot of blood, neon, or wet pavement. The camera goes much lower or much higher than you expect it to, and peers at the characters from disorienting angles. Bruce Hornsby contributes a score in a Bernard Herrmann vein, an instrumental chorus to the modern urban version of a Greek tragedy.
As Joe, the alcoholic ad executive, Brolin is a raw nerve at first—a bloated and haggard man whose smile and laugh are false. From certain angles he looks and sounds like the young Nick Nolte: a brutish alpha male gone to seed, but not without a certain tenderness. Drink is ruining his life and estranging him from his wife and newborn daughter. We sense that his alcoholism is a symptom of long-held guilt that will be explained as the tale unfolds, and we're more right than we could imagine. Joe finds himself trapped in a jail cell made up to look like a hotel suite, getting mysterious updates on the room's TV about the life of the daughter that he never got to know. He stays there for twenty years (five more than in Park's version). After seeming eons of self-pity capped by a suicide attempt, he starts a Travis Bickle-like regimen of Spartan self-improvement, winnowing himself down into a lean, mean killer, and finally escaping to seek vengeance against his tormentor.
Where the film's first half is a Kafka-esque fable of guilt and punishment, the second is a riff on the criminal revenge flick, with Joe working his way through the underbelly of a New York City that's been reimagined as a landscape of the mind. He joins up with a drug clinic worker played by Elizabeth Olsen and slowly begins piecing together the identity of his jailer: a rich and rather effete sadist (Sharlto Copley of "District 9") who knew Joe a long time ago, and who now lives like a drug dealer from an '80s cop thriller.