(by Dustin Putman
"Case 39" has taken a long, winding and unfortunate road to U.S. theater screens. Shot in the autumn of 2006, the film was originally scheduled for release by distributor Paramount Pictures in February 2008, then was pushed to April 2009, then January 2010, and is finally coming out in October 2010. In that time, director Christian Alvart has made and released a follow-up effort (2009's "Pandorum"), star Renee Zellweger's career has cooled considerably after a couple box-office bombs (i.e., 2009's "New in Town"), then-unknown supporting cast member Bradley Cooper's status has blown up since the success of 2009's "The Hangover," and the picture has come to virtually every other international territory across the globe and been released to DVD. Usually when movies are delayed like this, it's a tell-tale sign that they are of the awful persuasion. In the case of "Case 39," however, it has simply become the victim of a studio that changed heads soon after filming, got rid of the execs that greenlit the project to begin with, and placed it as low priority on the schedule. The shame of it all is that "Case 39" deserved a whole lot better. As far as major studio supernatural thrillers are concerned, this one is pretty darn good, smarter and certainly more classically compelling than recent turkeys like 2007's "The Reaping," 2009's "The Unborn," and 2009's "The Haunting in Connecticut." Thematically and quality-wise, "Case 39" is more in step with 2005's "Dark Water" and 2009's "Orphan." Article continues below
Overextended social worker Emily Jenkins (Renee Zellweger) has too much on her plate to take on an additional case—her thirty-ninth—but she has no choice after boss Wayne (Adrian Lester) drops it on her desk. Her investigation into the welfare of 10-year-old Lilith Sullivan (Jodelle Ferland) leads her to the little girl's home and to ominous, wild-eyed parents Edward (Callum Keith Rennie) and Margaret (Kerry O'Malley). Emily is convinced Lilith is in danger—Lilith confides that her parents hate her and regularly tell her she's going to hell—and her fears are all the more confirmed when she and cop friend Detective Barron (Ian McShane) barge in just as Lilith is about to be burned alive in her family's kitchen oven. Single and living alone, having bonded already with Lilith, Emily petitions to the court that she get custody until a loving foster family is found. Lilith's parents may have seemed insane, but there was a very good reason why they were trying to kill her. Emily is about to find out.
A horror-thriller that touches upon several familiar tropes of the genre—supernatural and religious threats, creepy kids—and appears at least partially influenced by the Japanese (several shots could have been pulled straight out of "Ringu" or "The Grudge"), the film is atmospherically directed by Christian Alvart with an almost casual layer of portent. The script by Ray Wright (2010's "The Crazies"), meanwhile, is sturdily conceived, unhurried and engrossing. Side characters, such as Detective Barron, whom Emily confides in, and Emily's sort-of boyfriend, child counselor Doug (Bradley Cooper), are familiar types, but written with specificity. At its center is Emily Jenkins, a woman who surprises herself by actively seeking to care for Lilith even as she has never appropriately gotten over her haunting childhood and the reverberations of an absent father and clinically unwell mother. As Lilith's personality and demeanor curve downward and mysterious deaths connected to them both start occurring, Emily's ostensibly indomitable conflict is split in two. There doesn't seem to be an escape from Lilith—in one devious scene, she calmly demands that Emily do whatever she says, or else—but if there is, Emily's only hope comes in not only facing her present-day nightmare, but simultaneously the demons from her past.
Renee Zellweger has been criticized in the last few years for everything from her project choices to her physical appearance. When things aren't going an actor's way in Hollywood, it is far too easy for people to suddenly lose their long-term memory as a means of forgetting just how talented they are and what they're capable of. Indeed, Zellweger was nominated for an Academy Award two years in a row (for 2002's "Chicago" and 2003's "Cold Mountain") and won for the latter, but none of that seems to matter if she's got a couple of duds since then under her belt. Because of its rocky history, "Case 39" will most definitely be lopped in as just one more sign that her career has lost its way. If this happens—and it will, regrettably—it will be based purely upon the film's belated release and not on her performance, which is strong, likable, and fully committed. Zellweger fully anchors the potentially ridiculous story in a reality that the audience can believe in. She's a kind, professional, identifiable protagonist who's worth following for nearly two hours. As Emily loses control, begins to fear for her life, and struggles to find someone else who will believe her about Lilith's devious true identity, we are placed in her shoes, wondering what we'd do in the same situation.
As Lilith, Jodelle Ferland (2006's "Silent Hill") is scarily confident in her deceptive, multilayered role. Meek and sensitive at the onset, Lilith appears every bit the victim until a switch is flipped midway through and she transforms into an entirely different person who just happens to look the same. Now the victimizer—and a passive-aggressive one, at that—Ferland is exceptional at getting under one's skin without so much as having to raise her voice. Lending fine support are Ian McShane (2008's "Death Race") as Det. Barron, a religious man who Emily succinctly points out has trouble believing in his own life the same things he's taught to believe in church; Bradley Cooper as Doug, whose phobia of bees comes back to terrorize him in a big way; and Alexander Conti (2005's "Cheaper by the Dozen 2") as Diego, another one of Emily's young subjects led to commit an unthinkable crime.
Looping around to where it began before diverging on a game-changing tangent, "Case 39" makes a case for how easy it is to repeat the past, and also how possible it is to knowingly change it. Stylishly shot in brooding gray and blue hues by cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, the sky consistently overcast and the anonymous city in which it's set (is it New York, Seattle, Vancouver, or somewhere else?) lending an added air of mystery to the happenings, the film looks stupendously sleek. With tension mounting but the ending seemingly written in stone, director Christian Alvart cunningly dodges expectations during the climax. At once satisfyingly finite and frustratingly open-ended, the movie ends on a note of catharsis for Emily, but also one that doesn't bother to suggest what the ramifications will be for what she's just done. A moment's thought reveals a grimness to the end that Alvart overlooks, or simply chooses not to deal with. Either way, it's the one element that doesn't quite sit well in a well-crafted, aesthetically artful suspenser that looks and feels awfully good in spite of such a conventional plot.