Downsized Discontent

Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts caretake our paranoia in Conspiracy Theory.

All of this makes for a lot of chase scenes--on motorcycles, across bridges, through burning buildings--and most of them are fairly good. There's a mechanical pleasure to be found in this film and its highly competent march from clue to clue. And though Donner and screenwriter Brian Helgeland may lack the courage (or the test-audience results?) to make Conspiracy Theory as hard and mean a picture as it seems to want to be, it has at its best a sense of disorientation and anxiety that favorably recalls director John Frankenheimer and The Manchurian Candidate. What is most frightening and resonant about that film is its characters' lack of self-knowledge--both individually and collectively--resulting in psycho-political peril. It recalls the maxim of the chronic neurotic: I know I'm paranoid--but am I paranoid enough?

Conspiracy Theory, for all its surface cynicism and facile narrative intrigue, is probably not paranoid enough, and ultimately seems reactionary as a result. A generation ago, films like The Deer Hunter attempted a naturalistic reckoning with some ineffable sense of betrayal and loss. Today, we've returned to an encrypted expression of a downsized discontent. The tawdry catalog of national transgressions has been sublimated yet again into a kind of secret history--a batch of crimes and smaller horrors committed by rogue agencies and arch villains.

And Mel Gibson is caretaker of this amnesia: a perpetual adolescent struggling to come to terms with his personal victimization. He mugs. He weeps. He scours his soul. Hollywood seems determined to go back to the future: Whether that's a working theory or a full-blown conspiracy remains to be seen.

Conspiracy Theory starts Friday at area theaters.

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