What the hell has happened to Dario Argento?
Following up the mega-disappointment that was MOTHER OF TEARS, Argento gives us GIALLO, a kinda / sorta homage to the brand of film that made him famous - or that HE made famous, I should say. Pre-release buzz for this film was not good. It certainly seemed to have everything going in it's favor: a director returning to his old stomping grounds, a cast which included Oscar winner Adrien Brody, Frederic Fasano behind the camera... But still it fails. And I, for one, blame the screenwriters, Sean Keller and Jim Agnew.
Simply put, as an homage to the giallo film, GIALLO doesn't work. If anything, the film feels like an American ATTEMPT at a giallo film. It never moves out of the shadow of similar cross-breeds like SEVEN and BASIC INSTINCT - and both of those films are much closer to the feel of the giallo than anything on display here. Keller and Agnew reportedly wrote this film specifically as an homage to the giallo films of Argento and, if that is true, the film is an even more spectacular failure. There is nothing here that remotely resembles any of Argento's earlier, stronger gialli. It has a similar feel to THE CARD PLAYER, sure, but that really, really isn't a good thing. For supposed fans of the form, it feels like Keller and Agnew never watched a giallo film that predated the 1990s.
Taken as "just another film in the giallo canon", GIALLO fares a bit better but it is still far from being good. It suffers from a standard plot - hard-nosed detective hunts down a deformed serial killer targeting beautiful women with the help of a kidnaped model's sister - and hits every cliched point along the way. It works in fits and starts, lacks any real sense of purpose, contains barely any excitement or violence... This is simply one of those films that doesn't make an impact on any level. It feels old in the sense that you've seen it all before and it feels tired in the sense that you've seen it all done better.
In Adrien Brody, Argento has his strongest lead actor to date but the screenplay gives him incredibly little to work with. The character of Enzo is one of the dullest police detectives you'll encounter in the giallo film. He mainly spends his time brooding, lighting cigarettes and staring off into space. The back story concocted by Keller and Agnew for the character stretches credibility to a dangerous level. As a young boy, Enzo witnessed the death of his mother. He later found the man responsible and stabbed him to death. The first police officer on the scene listened to the young Enzo's tragic story and decided to - get this - LET HIM OFF THE HOOK! So Enzo, because of his past as a killer, has a special skill for this kind of work. He's also one of those "plays by his own rules" kinda cops, although never once does the film actually allow him to do anything but wander around looking for clues. A good lead character is someone dynamic, active and interesting. Enzo is not. He's quiet, passive and dull.
Brody also portrays the film's killer, a deformed loner with a bad case of jaundice - which explains the film's title; "Giallo" is Italian for "yellow". Whether this was Argento's idea or not is unknown to me. It seems to suggest that both Enzo and the killer are somehow connected. One is simply a monstrous exaggeration of the other. That might be giving the film a bit too much credit. Brody manages a certain level of pathos in his portrayal of Enzo but his heart just doesn't seem in it. With his portrayal of the killer, however, Brody goes WAYYYY the fuck out there. It's obvious which one he had more fun with and whenever the killer is on-screen, GIALLO, at the very least, becomes interesting to watch, if only for the giggles. Like a good lead character, the villain should also be dynamic and interesting, especially if they're going to occupy as much screen time as the killer does in this film. Brody's portrayal of the villain is a bonafide freak show. Far from threatening, the killer is mostly just weird and strangely comical. Sadly, this completely off-the-wall performance breaks any tension the film may have had going for it while, again strangely, becoming the single best thing about it. Everything, from his speech to his appearance, is so jarring and so exaggerated that you can't help but laugh. I found myself waiting for his next appearance on-screen if for no other reason than he is the only character in the film that seems to have a pulse.
As for Argento himself... Look, it's not worth beating around the bush. Argento is a shell of his former self. His direction hasn't so much fallen apart but it has worsened. He's still more than capable of directing a decent scene. He just doesn't seem interesting in pushing the boundaries and limitations of the form anymore. It's fascinating to watch Argento's early work - from THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE up to OPERA - and then contrast it with his last 5 or 6 films. The spark is gone. Argento's style has quieted down and his films have suffered because of it. The screenplays for most of those early films were far from perfect but they didn't have to be because Argento kept you visually occupied. His films were always brilliant to watch even if they were largely recycled from bits and pieces of his own filmography. Now that Argento's visual style has died down, there isn't anything left to distract you from the shoddy material he often works with. That, more than anything else, has been the downfall of his more recent films.
GIALLO will probably please Argento fanboys. It's not going to appeal to giallo purists nor is it going to appeal to mainstream horror fans. It's dull, relatively bloodless and lacking any real conviction. It's yet another reminder that the bigger they are, the harder they fall.