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The Casual, Increasingly Rare Brilliance of 2009’s ‘A Perfect Getaway’

As the film industry’s middle class shrinks to the point of near extinction, it’s a marvel to look back just 10 years to a self-contained B-movie with sublime, unparalleled highs—to a movie that couldn’t exist today

Rogue Pictures/Ringer illustration

Fully self-contained, stand-alone movies are rare these days. In the current Hollywood ecosystem, they are, for lack of a better analogy, an endangered species, not so much hunted into extinction as malnourished and marginalized in favor of competitors spliced or directly cloned from the DNA of their predecessors. It’s less a natural evolution than a real-life re-enactment of Jurassic Park, easily the most prophetic blockbuster of the 1990s even as it looks, paradoxically, more and more like a piece of old-fashioned classicism. The tectonic cultural shift by which the genres that used to comprise the ancient and honorable American category of “B-movies”—horror and science fiction; crime thrillers and film noir—have been inflated into mainstream behemoths is well-documented. The box office dominance of superhero movies, considered a risky economic bet as recently as 1989, serves as Exhibit A in the case for (and, depending on your level of MCU fatigue, against) the clustering of individual films within the spacious and ever-expanding boundaries of “cinematic universes.”

This summer, finding films outside the gated communities hoarding valuable pre-existing IP has been particularly arduous. I probably overrated Alexandre Aja’s Crawl because it was just so nice to watch something without an Avenger or Hobbs and Shaw in it; say what you will about Brightburn or Ma (neither of which is very good) but at least they’re original scripts. “There is less space than ever for medium-sized films about everyday life and relationships unless they are anchored by major auteurs,” writes Simran Hans in Dazed. While the relative success of fully personalized, culturally specific films like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is heartening, they’re also examples of titles that, whatever their actual artistic merits or intentions, are primarily seen (and valued by distributors, exhibitors, and audiences) as examples of counterprogramming. Even Quentin Tarantino, whose (admittedly idiosyncratic) version of a medium-sized film about everyday life and relationships is currently the no. 2 movie in the country, embodies the all-devouring logic of brand recognition, right down to the mock promo for Red Apple cigarettes that serves as Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’s version of a Marvel end-credits stinger—an in-joke 25 years in the making.

Tarantino is also a good test case for another symptom of the lack of decent stand-alone movies: the rhetorical clusterfuck in which nothing is ever “just” a movie. Us and Midsommar aren’t horror movies; Booksmart isn’t a woke Superbad; The Lion King isn’t a movie, period. Tarantino’s scrupulously beautiful exercise in Old Hollywood nostalgia—set, it should be said, in the golden hour before Jaws spawned a series of literal and figurative sequels—merits celebration and scrutiny, but amid all the discussion about what it isn’t or isn’t “saying,” the work itself gets reduced to load-bearing material amid consideration of larger ideological issues. The idea of taking a movie on its own terms has become almost retrograde.

If this all seems like a pretty long runway to retrospectively celebrating the existence of a mostly forgotten mini-major studio thriller from the late 2000s, that’s because it is; when it comes to writing about anything that’s not a new release, elaborately framed justification is half the battle. Anniversaries—ideally nice, solid ones ending with a five or a zero—are always a good shortcut for revisiting important works, but there is absolutely nothing important about A Perfect Getaway, a film too slick and pedigreed to be plausibly considered “obscure,” but not possessed of any real legacy, either. It wasn’t a surprise hit or a notable flop; it hasn’t become a surprise cult classic or taken on unexpected historical resonance. It doesn’t need to be reclaimed, because nobody stole it in the first place. It will never be remade. If you’re reading this, there is probably about a 60-40 chance that you haven’t seen it. It’s got a take-it-or-leave it score of 62 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It didn’t matter when it came out, and it doesn’t matter now. But it’s also one of the most flawlessly conceived and executed American genre movies of its era, a casual masterpiece of 21st century B-movie craftsmanship that wins out, pound for pound and scene for scene, over pretty much anything in its weight class (or above) in the 10 years since its release.

Considering that I’m positioning A Perfect Getaway as a heroic example of the kind of self-contained, mid-budget, original American action thriller that doesn’t get made any more—and that was already in decline in 2009, the year of Avatar, a parable about the perils of unchecked corporate-cultural colonialism with three sequels slated for release—it’s important to note that it owes its very existence to the perils of franchise gigantism. In 2004, writer-director David Twohy, a gifted genre specialist who’d broken through in 2000 with the lean, mean Alien riff Pitch Black, took his best shot at James Cameron–sized grandeur with its sequel, The Chronicles of Riddick. It wasn’t necessarily a bad bet, with the $105 million budget pegged to Vin Diesel’s newly chiseled box office muscles circa The Fast and the Furious, and the film retained some of its predecessor’s nasty attitude while building up an intergalactic-fantasy mythology in the pulpy spirit of Dune or Conan the Barbarian. But Riddick provided almost no return on Universal’s massive investment, presenting Twohy with a more limited set of options going forward.

In this context, the intimacy of A Perfect Getaway can be read as Twohy’s response to his adventures in mega-budget moviemaking, as can its smartly self-reflexive references to the craft of storytelling itself. In Pitch Black and Riddick, Twohy smartly marshaled Diesel’s larger-than-life presence in the service of a classic antihero narrative, imagining a vicious, nasty universe filled with extraterrestrial monsters (and even nastier human beings) and granting Riddick a sliver of moral authority via his comically sociopathic indifference to it all. By contrast, the figure at the center of A Perfect Getaway is Cliff (Steve Zahn), a Hollywood screenwriter whose nebbish tendencies are strictly beta male; it’s his job to imagine compelling kick-ass characters, not to be one. Which is why it’s all the funnier when, while honeymooning in Hawaii with his wife Cydney (Milla Jovovich), he is confronted with a real-life analog to the kinds of he-men you only encounter in the movies—Nick (Timothy Olyphant), a former elite black-ops agent who likes to tell stories about classified exploits. “I’m a goddamned American Jedi,” laughs Nick, who’s also travelling with his partner Gina (Kiele Sanchez), a sweet girl whose folksy, straight-talking personality clashes with Cydney’s yuppified smugness as surely as Nick’s machismo throws Cliff’s geekiness into sharp relief. Moving through the island paradise’s trails on separate but interlacing trajectories, the two couples are a study in social, economic, and behavioural contrasts, and each duo seems envious of the other: Cliff and Cydney of Nick and Gina’s easy rapport and sexual heat; Nick and Gina of Cliff and Cydney’s proudly flaunted material wealth.

Such tensions are the stuff of old-fashioned screwball comedies, and A Perfect Getaway is extremely funny, especially when Olyphant digs into his lines: in his preternatural confidence in his own abilities, he’s like a sweeter version of Riddick, projecting good vibes while being potentially capable of anything. “He is really hard to kill,” Gina lovingly says of her fiancé, a line that in a romantic comedy would be hilariously out of context but here is woven snugly into the overall paranoid texture of the narrative. But the story of a couple of couples feeling each other out against stunning jungle backdrops is not all that Twohy is up to. Early in the film, we learn that Cliff and Cydney’s arrival in Hawaii is concurrent with the predations of a pair of his-and-hers serial killers, and the slightly serrated edges of Nick and Gina’s personalities—their tendency for odd flare-ups; their mutual ease handling knives and other weapons—plant the possibility in the protagonists’ (and our) minds that their friendliness could be concealing something sinister. Or maybe Cliff has just seen—and written—too many movies.

Or maybe we have, which is the point. The pleasure of A Perfect Getaway lies in how elegantly Twohy has constructed his script on every possible level, concealing its intricate architecture, precision-tuned narrative, and emotional pivots beneath the supple, full-bodied performances of his four leads. In 2009, Olyphant was best known for Deadwood, with Justified still only on the horizon, and so while he’d already had some high-profile roles (such as the villain in Live Free or Die Hard), his performance in A Perfect Getaway works as a coming-out party that accesses every aspect of his charisma. Nick’s hopeless devotion to Gina gives Olyphant a chance to play a sly-eyed romantic, while Sanchez toes a fine line between free-spiritedness and lunacy; they could be madly in love or natural-born killers. At the same time, Zahn and Jovovich use their comparative familiarity to draw us closer to Cliff and Cydney, even as the script takes odd pains to make them seem a bit like front-running, J-Crew catalog–style assholes—either slightly too entitled to be our heroes, or else unflattering mirror images of what Twohy imagines to be his movie’s audience.

It’d spoil the plot to say much more about how and why A Perfect Getaway is designed around these ideas of complicity and perspective, though it’s probably wrong to err on the side of caution with a movie that’s been around for 10 years when we get articles like “Let’s Talk About the Ending of Midsommar” one day after the movie is released. But the point is that A Perfect Getaway’s excellence derives from both the originality of its content and its fully self-contained, no-sequel-on-the-horizon storytelling. It’s futile to be too coy, so let’s put it this way: The sneaking suspicion, encoded into the writing and the acting, that Cliff and Cydney might be less likable than Nick and Gina, even as the latter keep giving off signs that they might be murderers, is not only intentional, but very much the point of the exercise. The first line in the film, overheard in the sound mix of a camcorder wedding video, is “You gotta dance with the one who brung ya,” which by the time Twohy reveals the full, time-hopping scope of his story, resonates as a kind of mission statement, tied not only to the theme of monogamy but also to the question of spectator identification. Are we rooting for Cliff and Cydney because we want to? Or because the movie has been constructed to give us no other choice? And what if, suddenly, it did?

So yeah, there’s a significant twist in A Perfect Getaway, and it’s a good one that comes wrapped in a set of insidious deceptions but plays surprisingly fair on a rewatch. If there’s a common denominator to the most famous all-time “gotcha” endings—from The Usual Suspects to Primal Fear to The Sixth Sense—it’s that they tend to tie off the movies they’re attached to, showing that you’ve been had while guiding you toward the exits. But perhaps no movie pivots as dramatically as A Perfect Getaway without losing its sense of momentum and, if anything, accelerating in the home stretch. It’s not just that Twohy radically transforms our ideas about his situation and characters; without ever violating the relative realism of the situation, he also raises the pulse and tempo to the level of an ultra-action movie—unlocking the repressed potential of Jovovich’s well-honed, zombie-movie-tested physicality and fulfilling the full badass potential of Olyphant as well.

The last 20 minutes of A Perfect Getaway are fast, intense, extremely violent, and extremely satisfying. They’re the satisfactions of a movie with a beautifully sculpted outer shape and rich, vivid insides that’s both aware and unafraid of clichés, instead finding the right moments to embrace and reject them. It’s rare to watch something that’s so committed to its own showmanship without ever acting like it’s above it, either by putting its conventions in scare quotes or flattering its audience through relentless references; instead of coasting on expensive, bought-and-sold movie-star personas, A Perfect Getaway uses its talented cast of character actors so smartly that they become movie stars for two glorious hours. Every one of the script’s “red snappers”—what movie fan Nick calls “red herrings”—pays off, right down to little bits of costume detail.

And when it’s over, it’s over. That finality makes A Perfect Getaway seem like a throwback ahead of its time, an outlier in an age of overbearing serialization, and a stand-alone movie that truly stands alone. Not that I wouldn’t watch the shit out of American Jedi.