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A Review of "Anna" (2014)

So excited, guys!  I got to see a movie before its theatrical release!  And granted, it's available to literally anybody right now on Vudu, and true, I did have to pay to see it, but I still feel like a proper Film Critic.  I'm totally gonna review the shit out of this movie!  I'm even gonna throw in some snippets that can be used as pull quotes in case they decide that my blog sounds like a good resource for their poster!

Prepare yourself for my review of... Mindscape.  I mean, Anna.

The blurb for people who don't like to read actual criticism:

'Salright.  Has some nifty ideas and strong acting, but the buildup is kinda weak and it doesn't totally stick the landing.  I'd recommend renting it instead of going to the theater.

My Rating:  3 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

This is the (feature) debut of director Jorge Dorado, a guy who has made a few shorts before and has done Second Unit work on a variety of acclaimed Spanish movies in the past, including Talk to Her, Bad Education, and The Devil's Backbone.  He already has an excellent resume and I'm expecting he'll have an interesting career in the years to come.

It also features Mark Strong and Taissa Farmiga in leading roles.  I've enjoyed Strong's work in pretty much everything he's appeared in, but I believe this is the first time I've seen him front and center for a movie.   Farmiga is fantastic in American Horror Story and I've been looking forward to seeing her in something with a broader scope.  The cast/crew seems to be full of people who have done great work and haven't had a chance to totally take center stage until just now.

The story is basically Inception meets Stoker: a brilliant man troubled by the memories of his dead wife enters people's minds to uncover their secrets, but meets his match in a troubled young woman who may or may not be harboring deadly intentions.  They play a high-stakes cat and mouse game of terror and manipulation.

Inasmuch as a cat will sometimes kill a mouse and then drag its body around like a toy.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Plot

Anna has an intriguing premise.  The idea is that there is a growing demand for Memory Detectives, who can jump into the minds of their clients and actually see their memories.  MDs are used by the police when investigating crimes and/or assist lawyers in building up evidence to take to court.  In the words of the movie, MDs are "more accurate than polygraphs."

Incidentally, that's kind of a meaningless statement.  My cat is more accurate than polygraph testing, but at least she's fluffy and hasn't ever been used by lazy cops to wrongfully convict innocent people.  While we're at it, wouldn't an MD only be as good as the memories that he's observing?  And isn't it pretty well-known that memory is unreliable?

This isn't me being a pedantic little twerp about things.  It's important for the movie to sell you on the validity of the entire MD concept before you delve too deep into it - especially if the story is going to take any kind of reality-bending turns later on.  (Spoiler Alert:  It does.)

I'm also a little confused as to whether or not the MDs are straight-up psychics or if they are more like technicians who apply newfangled devices to jump into their clients' minds.  The movie kind of presents it as a bit of both and doesn't make it clear.

While I'm on this tangent, let me say a couple things about the opening fifteen minutes.  It begins with Mark Strong as John Washington, MD extraordinaire, in his element as an investigative mind explorer.  He is watching the memory of a woman who was attacked by a stalker / killer.  But there's a problem... during the woman's memory, she starts filling a bath with water.  The running water prompts some of Washington's own memories to come to the surface, and suddenly he's remembering the suicide of his wife instead of observing his client.  He goes into a seizure and there is a sudden smash cut.

This whole sequence is great.  It's interesting, well-shot, and effective.  You get a lot of info just from observation.  There's a brief moment where the camera cuts away to some guys in a Control Room, and one of them shouts two sentences' worth of exposition - "Oh, no, his own memories are interfering!  He's having a seizure!" - but other than that it's presented in such a way that you can just figure out the premise and its pitfalls on your own.  I liked this part.

But then it immediately follows that up with a two minute narration sequence over top of archival footage where we are told that Memory Detectives are the offspring of a psychic research project conducted by the CIA and blah blah blah.  I hated that.  You've got this great opening scene that gets you into the movie without holding your hand too tight, and then they just start force-feeding you information that you don't even need.

In fact, the only real effect of that little blip of narration is that now I have no idea how the MD process even works.  I actually had a better concept of the premise when I knew less - back when there was a guy with a sticky thing on his head sitting on the other side of a Control Room, I figured that it was some kind of new mind tech, and that was more informative than the info-dump that follows.


The point is that John Washington has hit hard times.  He used to be one of the best MDs, but because of his memories of his wife, he can't stay focused on his work.  He no longer does MD work and now he's running low on funds.  He owns a beach house that he could sell for a quick profit - but that's where his wife died and he's reluctant to let it go just yet.

Enter Taissa Farmiga as Anna, the daughter of Rich People.  Anna has stopped eating.  Her parents are worried that she's making herself ill, so they're looking for help from anybody who might be able to intervene.  They've turned to an MD firm in hopes that somebody can uncover a psychological block in her past and help her to overcome it.  Washington decides to take on Anna's case as One Last Job to tide him over until he can pool his resources properly.

Washington and Anna hit it off almost immediately.  They take on a sort of surrogate father/daughter relationship and bond over a sandwich.  Life seems to be looking up for everybody.

But then.... one of the housekeeping staff at Rich People Manor is pushed down the stairs.  Nobody has witnessed who did it, but they believe it was Anna.  Rich Stepdad wants to have her committed to one of those miserable Movie Sanitariums that don't exist in real life.  Meanwhile, Anna maintains her innocence.  She believes that her stepfather is framing her so that she can be deprived of her inheritance to the vast Rich People Fortune.

Is Anna actually innocent?  A victim of a series of terrible events and circumstances that have made her out to be a villain?  Or is she actually the sociopath that her family and former classmates say that she is?

The only way to find out is for Washington to begin a series of MD sessions with Anna where he can relive her worst memories and see the truth for himself.

Movie poster pull quote time!  Ahem.  Then the movie ends with a twist that you won't see coming!

The Bit Wherein I Spoil and then Discuss the Ending which I mean it doesn't really have an ending.  This is one of the most anti-climactic movies I've ever seen.

The thing is, it's pretty obvious from the beginning that Anna is lying about virtually everything in her past.  The movie doesn't do a good job of hiding that from you.  In fact, it's so plain and clear that she's lying about things that I can't tell if we, as viewers, are even supposed to be second-guessing it.

There's a bunch of memories Anna has where she is a victim of circumstance and bad things just happen around her.  The idea is that if you saw only her memories, then you'd realize she had no agency in these things and you'd take her side.

The problem is that there's all this actual evidence that surrounds her where it's clear that things didn't happen the way that she's remembering them.  Which is totally plausible because memory is a crappy, faulty thing.  In the real world, this is why eyewitness testimony is considered weak evidence.  In the real world, this is why Science is based on tests and experimentation.

Hell, Washington even says at one point early on that he needs to do some follow-up investigation on his memory-watching "just to be sure" because memories can be false.  Even the main character of the story doesn't fully buy into the premise.

And yet even though all the evidence is telling us that Anna is absolutely lying to him, Washington believes that her memories must be true.  So he ends up unwittingly allowing her to fake her death and frame him for her own murder, which allows her to escape Rich People Manor and vanish into the night.  Meanwhile, John is arrested and sent to prison where he will seemingly be stuck for a crime he didn't commit.

All of this by itself is frustrating and preposterous because you wonder why the protagonist is such a dummy.  But you shrug and you say, "Okay, fine.  He got himself into a pickle.  That happens in movies.  I'll deal with it.  Where's it going to go from here?"  By this point, you're not really sitting on the edge of your seat, but you're at least sitting upright and paying attention.

So, how does it end?

Well... in a series of scenes that happen almost entirely off screen, Anna mails him a photograph that will clear his name, John is exonerated, he sells his house to a young family, and he decides to finally move on with his life.  It's practically a smash cut from him sitting in prison to him sitting in his car and narrating, "Gee, I'm glad all that's over with."

Then he drives away.  So... movie's over, I guess?  You didn't want to have like, say, a thrilling showdown or something?  You're just going to say, "Everything is fine," and leave?

Can you imagine if that's how other movies ended?  What if Chinatown ended with Jake smoking a cigarette at his desk and saying, "Turns out there was this conspiracy about the water supply or something.  I dunno, I wasn't listening.  Anyway, I banged Faye Dunaway.  Case closed!"

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

I really wanted to like this movie a lot more.  It features top-notch performances and makes me hope for more of Farmiga in movies for years to come.  The plot is perfect for a cerebral night of mind games and philosophy, and all the technical elements are there: great directing, great music, excellent lighting and camerawork.

The problem is the script.  This is a movie whose premise is paper-thin and yet it still manages to become unnecessarily convoluted.  It's the kind of story that can only be told if you ignore the fact that Washington basically has a Deus Ex Machina Device in his pocket the whole time.  At any point in the movie, he could have plugged his little brain doohickey into anybody else and been like, "Alright, let me see what you remember from that night.  Oh, you also saw Anna try to kill all these people?  Okay, I guess she's evil."

Actually, it's not even the script that's the problem.  It's just the fact that it's all about memory.  You want to save this story?  Here's what you do:

1) First, scrap the memory detective part.  Washington doesn't explore memories.  Instead, he uses a little implant that allows him to wander around inside people's brains and view latent content that they've absorbed through their senses, even if they weren't conscious of it. Call him a "Mind Spelunker" or something.

2) Next, get rid of the dead wife stuff.  It never actually goes anywhere and you don't need it.

3) Finally, make it a point that he actually tries to Mind Spelunk inside all the other witnesses, but none of them actually saw anything useful.  That way it still ends up being Anna's word versus everyone else's.  You can even use this as a way to discuss the frailty of memory because then you can have people saying stuff like, "I know what I saw!" and then Washington can be like, "No... I know what you saw!"

There you go.  You only have to change maybe 10 minutes of footage and you end up with a way better movie.

I'm still looking forward to seeing Dorado's huge break.  Maybe it'll be the next one.

Postscript, 10/5/14:  Since this review has been driving a lot of traffic to my site, I'm assuming that people are looking for mind-trip movies about bitter men who explore the memories of others.  If that's the case, I recommend you check out Extracted.  Or maybe you're just looking for science fiction movies about troubled young women named "Anna," in which case I recommend Anna to the Infinite Power. Either one is better than this, although Anna is an okay consolation prize.

Post-Postscript, 12/2/14:  Wow, this post continues to be almost the only thing generating traffic around here, and almost all of it comes from people looking for an explanation of the ending.  I guess Wikipedia hasn't been updated yet?

Well, I've already been chewed out in the comments for not thoroughly remembering a so-so movie I saw more than 6 months ago, so I don't want to speak as an authority on the subject.  But I also want to give people what they want.  So, if you came here searching for "explain the ending of the movie Anna," this next bit's for you.

The Bit Where I Explain the Ending (As Well As I Can Remember)

One of my biggest complaints about this movie, which I already described above, is that it's got a complete shit ending. Things conclude, sure, but they do so with one of the laziest and most disinterested reveals I've ever seen.  It's a real shame, too, because until then it's actually an okay movie.

My point is, if you don't understand the ending, it's not your fault - it's because the director chose not to include it.  There's no climax.  Just a kind of premature ejaculation of an explanation.  Here's the gist of it, point by point, to the best of my memory.  (Internet, feel free to correct me on the parts I got wrong.)

  • Anna's been lying to John about almost everything.  (Big fucking surprise, movie.)  Her memories are "fake" because John can only see things the way she wants him to see it / the way she remembers it.
  • Anna's goal is to fake her death and frame John for her murder so she can run away.  By luring him into a false sense of security, she's able to plant evidence on him and manipulate him.
Quick tangent:  One of the pieces of planted evidence is a completely dropped plot thread involving child porn that Anna loads onto John's computer.  I didn't mention this before, but since I'm taking the time to do a post-postscript, I want to make sure I point this out. The movie really glosses over this like it's no big thang, but c'mon... whether John is ever exonerated for murder or not doesn't change the fact that he's going to be on an FBI list until the day he dies.  Also, I repeat: this movie has a plot threat about child porn and it's only a plot device for about twenty seconds.  That's like having a movie about an alien invasion, then introducing Dracula for one minute and never talking about him again.  Yo, Dorado!  Haven't you seen The Hunt?  People take that kinda shit seriously!
  • Anyway.  So, Anna runs away and the cops arrest John.  He maintains his innocence, but nobody believes him, so another Memory Detective, Peter Lundgren, views John's memory to try to corroborate his story.
  • The end reveal is that the movie we've been watching has been wholly (or at least largely) John's memory, as viewed by Lundgren.
  • After Anna successfully gets to wherever the hell she's trying to get to, she sends the police a photo that proves she's alive.
  • Lundgren's discovery, combined with Anna's photo, is ostensibly enough to have the charges against John dropped.  Still no explanation on what they did about all that child porn though.
Seriously, I hate to keep going at this point, but there was a lot of child porn on his computer.  Many, many different kids, of different ages.  How do you explain that away?  Did Anna send an "I'm sorry I put a bunch of child porn on your computer" card?  Was the cop working on that case just really stupid?  Was there a power failure that caused the hard drive to blow up and they lost the evidence against him?  Or... was Anna just not actually all that clever and it was totally clear that the child porn was planted?  And if it was so obviously planted, then why even have this in your fucking movie oh God this plot thread sucks.
  • John sells his house and the credits roll.

That's it.  That's the ending.

Now, if you're looking for a multi-layered movie that lends itself to close analysis and actually does have a thrilling conclusion, I recommend Miller's Crossing.  It has nothing to do with memory or troubled teenagers, but it's just a really good movie that actually earns its complexity.