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British actor Dan Stevens is best known as appealingly dough-faced Matthew Crawley on the recently departed Downton Abbey, but not for long. Leaner and meaner, his baby blues narrowed in a smoldering glare, Stevens proved he could play sexy and sinister in the 2014 thriller The Guest, and he goes convincingly dark again in The Ticket, a sleek downer that premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
A fable centered on a sweet blind man who regains his sight and, surprise, turns into a bastard, the movie also could be read as a cautionary allegory about Stevens’ career ambitions: Leaving behind quainter English pastures in pursuit of the Hollywood spotlight — he’ll play leading man to Anne Hathaway and Emma Watson, respectively, in Colossal and Beauty and the Beast, and has jumped on the Marvel bandwagon as star of the upcoming FX series Legion — comes with risks as well as potential rewards.
That said, Stevens may be the real deal. The Ticket is underwhelming in several ways, but the performance driving it is magnetic — and helps alleviate some of the bludgeoning obviousness of a morality tale that New York-based Israeli writer-director Ido Fluk hasn’t fully figured out how to tell. Fluk brings his original script (co-written with Sharon Mashihi) to the screen with a mix of Malickian lyricism and Euro-flavored neorealism, stylistic influences that feel too lofty for what is, despite biblical undertones, a rather thin story. The Ticket might have been better served by a bit of the lower-brow — some noirish snap or a dash of horror. As it is, the movie is full of intricately pretty images that fail to resonate with real meaning.
The film’s opening pulls us right into the protagonist’s perspective: We hear whispered snippets of pillow talk between James (Stevens) and his wife, Sam (Billions star Malin Akerman, underplaying beautifully), but see only blurry shapes and white spots floating across a black screen. Soon thereafter, James awakens to find his vision has returned. A trip to the doctor reveals that the inoperable pituitary tumor that had been pressing on his optic nerves since he was a teenager has miraculously shrunk. These early scenes are some of The Ticket‘s most promising, enhanced by a playful, vaguely creepy piano score (by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans) that helps set a tone of gentle foreboding.
Giddy with the promise of a more carefree life, James and Sam start making plans: He’ll pursue a promotion at the real estate firm where he works the phones, and they’ll move, with their young son Jonah (Skylar Gaertner), to a bigger house in their bucolic upstate New York neighborhood.
The turning point comes during a family vacation, when James, gel in his hair and some new pep in his step, strikes up a tentatively flirty conversation with a woman at the hotel bar. The door to a world of temptations is cracked open, and by the time a comely colleague leans close to him to press the elevator button one morning, James is a goner.
James and that woman, a redhead named Jessica (Halt and Catch Fire‘s Kerry Bishe), soon are exchanging naughty looks — and then much more, in one of those rare “sex” scenes that actually carries a hint of genuine erotic charge. In addition to taking a lover, James starts hitting the treadmill, buys a fancy new car, engages in some shady business practices, alienates blind best friend/co-worker Bob (Oliver Platt) and generally starts acting like a world-class asshole.
It’s an impossibly abrupt character shift, but Stevens navigates it deftly, conveying a man whose soul darkens as he grows intoxicated with his own powers of seduction. What makes the character intriguing, despite a predictable arc, is the sense of fragility the actor conjures; James may become a cad, but he’s never a fully confident or comfortable one.
Fluk’s compositions are at once chilly and sensual, with a European art cinema buff’s attention to bodies, and there are lovely moments throughout: James and Jonah in a swimming hole, scanning the water’s surface in search of fish; James and Sam’s regret-soaked slow dance at a community center social; a tracking shot that trails Jessica through a grassy field as she looks back teasingly at the camera. That shot, along with fleeting flashes of amorous smiles, caresses and fingers being run through hair against leafy, light-filled backdrops, calls to mind Terrence Malick in his current post-Tree of Life period. You get what Fluk is going for: The vibrant visuals (and intensified ambient sounds) of the film’s middle section represent the world as James is experiencing it, literally through new eyes. Everything appears shimmery and sublime.
Moreover, The Ticket, like most Malick films, is about a fall from grace, a corruption of nature (though in this case it’s human nature, rather than the natural world, that gets poisoned). But whereas Malick’s visual approach, at its most effective, elevates his slight narratives, coaxing out their universality and making them feel weighty and ancient, Fluk’s style has a somewhat opposite effect; the formal richness is a bit like a fancy disguise that only makes us more aware of the plainness of the story beneath it.
Indeed, there’s not much to The Ticket aside from its central gimmick, and once you see where the movie’s going it’s a bit of a slog. Making the stark character and plot shifts of a parable feel organic in a realistic modern setting is a tall order. But if the film had gone bolder, wilder — if it had leaned more toward pulpy pitch-black thriller rather than wispy semi-impressionistic drama, for example — it wouldn’t have been bound by expectations of psychological and narrative credibility. Stevens plays wicked well; too bad the movie doesn’t follow his lead.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
Production companies: A BCDF Pictures, Cave Pictures, Initiate Productions, Liberty Liquid Films, Lightstream Entertainment, Rush River Entertainment Production
Director: Ido Fluk
Writers: Ido Fluk, Sharon Mashihi
Producers: Lawrence Inglee, Oren Moverman, William L. Walton, Matthew J. Malek, Claude Dal Farra
Executive producers: Dale A. Brown, Mark Rodgers, Tyler Zacharia, Nick Byassee, Katie Heidy, Lisa Wilson, Myles Nystel, Frederick Taouil
Director of photography: Zachary Galler
Production designer: Gino Fortebuono
Editor: Phillip Kimsey
Costume designer: Carisa Kelly
Original score: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Casting: Jodi Angstreich
Not rated, 97 minutes