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Garrett Hedlund’s is a screen presence I can take or leave alone. So it’s saying something that about halfway through this remarkably inconsequential thriller, I was thinking, “What did the poor guy do to deserve this?” And then thinking similar thoughts about Victoria Justice, who plays Annie, his pregnant girlfriend.
“The Tutor,” directed by Jordan Ross from a Ryan King screenplay that could have benefitted from a few more drafts, or perhaps complete abandonment, opens with a low-angle shot of the gates of a stately manse and follows that with a montage of Hedlund’s title character, Ethan, applying pedagogical skills to an array of snotty children of privilege. A sharp guy, he gives almost as good as he gets to his charges.
We learn that he’s a vinyl guy who’s starting a family with Justice's Annie without the benefit of clergy. This is brought up so frequently that one wonders if this story has uncredited source material, one dating back to 1905. A colleague hooks him up with a plum assignment out in Long Island, honing the test skills of some kid whose mysterious dad will pay him $2500 a day.
The kid is Jackson, played by “Stranger Things” person Noah Schnapp, and he’s as white as a mime with pink cheeks and slicked-back black hair, and a robotic bearing. He knows a lot about Ethan. Almost right off the bat, he asks, “Are you worried about having a bastard?” Neat question, Horatio Alger! The whole setup with Jackson is weird. He’s got an older cousin, who’s played by Jonny Weston—enacting the role of a ticcy sleazoid like he wants to be Caleb Landry Jones when he grows up—who one afternoon helps bribe Ethan into canceling a session for $5,000, which Jackson contemptuously stuffs onto Ethan’s chest. This whole deal, in other words, feels mighty shady from the get-go.
There comes a point where Ethan discovers that Jackson has pictures of him and his girlfriend on his computer. This is the point in which, in a properly developed story, Ethan speaks to his office and perhaps the authorities and gets the hell out of Dodge. But that won’t work here, so Ethan sticks around, meets another oily dude who may or may not be Jackson’s father, gets fired from the tutoring gig, looks for work in the service industry, gets accused of crimes he didn’t commit, etc. As this unfolds, Ethan’s manifold issues—daddy, booze, and, aha, a bizarre out-of-nowhere connection to Jackson from Ethan’s past—are revealed.
Ethan may not be the man he presents to his peers, and as it turns out, he may not even be the man the movie initially presents to its audience. But the scenario’s twists—which slothfully lift from Alfred Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol—are far-fetched on both logistical and psychological levels. And ultimately, they’re just not that interesting.
In part because Ross’ direction has minimal energy. There’s a shot early on of a convex mirror where you think maybe he’s setting up some kind of character dynamic recalling Joseph Losey’s use of the same prop in “The Servant,” but no, the shot serves zero function; it’s neither a homage nor a thing unto itself. And while Hedlund’s character eventually melts into the kind of dissolute puddle that Hedlund has made performance meals of before, no real dividends are paid off on the viewer’s investment of time.
Now playing in theaters.
Garrett Hedlund as Ethan Campbell
Noah Schnapp as Jackson
Victoria Justice as Annie