Revisiting the genre-twisting thrillers of Gregory Hoblit

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Gregory Hoblit has directed several twisty thrillers, including Primal Fear, Frequency, and Fracture – here’s our look at an underrated and unconventional run of films.

Known throughout his career as one of US TV’s premier directors, Gregory Hoblit’s run as a feature filmmaker gave us a strong run of thrillers that constantly bucks audience expectations. He has numerous Primetime Emmys to his name for series about the justice system, including Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue, and is credited with pioneering the ‘loose camera’ techniques that were popularised again in Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films.

Hoblit credits his fascination with law and order to his formative years as an activist with an FBI agent for a father, which put them on “opposite sides of the street” politically. Nevertheless, his films revolve around characters who are lawyers, police officers, federal agents, servicemen, and even the occasional firefighter. But in terms of the projects he chooses, his big-screen work is more difficult to box in than the small-screen procedurals that made his name.

His first big-screen gig was to be the 1989 Al Pacino thriller Sea Of Love, but he was fired 10 days before shooting began, due to strong creative differences with producers and studio executives. Disappointed by the experience, he worked on TV movies such as the legal drama Roe Vs Wade and the Steven Spielberg-produced Civil War film Class Of ’61, but continued to turn down feature offers until 1996’s Primal Fear.

But whether it’s a plot twist (as in the case of Primal Fear) or a spot of genre hybridisation, there’s usually something that marks Hoblit’s films apart from the other mid-range Hollywood thrillers of their time. Put simply, he made the kind of multiplex-friendly fare we’ve come to miss as the industry increasingly only gives the greenlight to projects on one extreme or the other of budgeting.

Perhaps as a result of the changing market, Hoblit hasn’t been attached to a new film since The Good Samaritan, a romantic thriller that was announced back in 2014. While he arguably hasn’t made any classics, the director still has an unconventional and often underrated filmography, made up of the kind of star-led mid-range movies that have all but disappeared from the studio system nowadays.

Primal Fear (1996)

“I don’t have to believe you. I don’t care if you are innocent. I’m your mother, your father, your priest.”

Based on the novel by William Diehl, Hoblit’s first feature follows cocky defence attorney Martin Vail, (Richard Gere) who defends altar boy Aaron Stampler, (Edward Norton) as he faces charges of brutally murdering a beloved Catholic archbishop. Facing the umbrage of high-ranking officials, as well as his ex-lover-turned-prosecutor Janet Venable, (Laura Linney) Vail comes to believe his client may not be guilty after all.

We’re not getting into spoilers here, but even if you haven’t seen Primal Fear, you may already know that it’s one of the big mid-1990s Hollywood thrillers that offered up a bit of a rug pull. Movies like The Usual Suspects and Seven had cemented the trend only a year before this one came out, but even so, Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman’s adapted screenplay was a hot property with casting agents because of the character of Aaron Stampler, with more than 2,100 young actors auditioning for the part.

However, the ultimate success of Primal Fear was due in no small part to Hoblit’s discovery and support of Norton. It became obvious on set that Shagan and Biderman’s script was running long as written and the director encouraged his leading men to ad lib and improvise, including the jaw-dropping final scene of the film. You can see Gere’s genuine reactions to some of the newcomer’s more surprising choices throughout the final cut too.

Norton’s nuanced performance went on to be the toast of the Best Supporting Actor field during the following year’s awards season, including the Oscars. Another casting success on Hoblit’s part was choosing one-time Hill Street Blues guest star Alfre Woodard to play the judge, a role written for a 60-year-old man. Woodard was better known for films by that point, but the supporting cast also includes a wealth of small-screen character actors like Andre Braugher, John Mahoney, and Maura Tierney, alongside bigger stars like Gere, Linney, and Frances McDormand.

As mentioned, Hoblit had turned down other feature offers after his experience on Sea Of Love but felt the experience had toughened him up. And so, he felt that Primal Fear was a process of proving himself in the studio system. The resulting film is an entertainingly cynical tale, which keeps you on edge until the very last moments.

Although the film was a big hit, recouping over $102 million on a $30m budget, Hoblit wanted to make very different films from here on, telling The New York Times: “If I don’t see the inside of another courtroom for as long as I live, it will be too soon.”

Fallen (1998)

“Open your eyes. Look around sometime.”

That drive for something different is evident from his next choice of project. Riding high after Primal Fear, Hoblit assembled an incredible cast, including Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Donald Sutherland, Elias Koteas, Embeth Davidtz, and James Gandolfini, to star in writer Nicholas Kazan’s supernatural detective thriller about a vengeful fallen angel.

Fallen opens with Philadelphia detective John Hobbes (Washington) attending the execution of Edgar Reese, (Koteas) a serial killer he helped to put on death row. When a new killer seemingly replicates Reese’s M.O. in the subsequent weeks, Hobbes is stunned to learn that there might be a more unearthly connection at work and that the immortal being Azazel has made it his business to break the detective, seemingly for his own amusement.

Nicholas Kazan’s script is much more of a horror film than a police drama, but Hoblit brings his directorial flair to it all the same. From the dark lighting to the none-more-90s villain POV sequences, the unique look of the film lends it oodles of atmosphere, as does the repeated motif of a certain Rolling Stones song (not the obvious one, which gets played over the end credits instead) as the antagonist travels throughout the supporting cast of potential hosts.

You know what you’re in for with Washington, whose unflappable screen presence lends to the movie’s serious tone, but he brings a much-needed extra dimension to Hobbes. Elsewhere, Koteas makes such an indelible impression in a very brief cameo at the start of the movie, Hoblit made a point of screening his scenes for every other actor who essays the antagonist throughout the film, ensuring a consistency of character that gives us some excellent scenes.

You can see what might attract the director of Primal Fear to this sort of unpredictable screen story, but Hoblit leans less on ambiguity here than on pure, febrile paranoia to an entertaining effect. Despite mixed reviews and an underpowered box-office performance at the time, its pitch-black sensibilities have earned it a loyal following since its release. Again, we wouldn’t dream of spoiling the ending, which is brilliantly screwed in right at the last moment of the film, but it’s the type of twist that makes Fallen a very different film on repeat viewings.

However, we’ll wrap up with a very mild spoiler, unrelated to the plot, because it’s one of our favourite examples of a test screening affecting a movie. Fallen isn’t a traditional horror movie and in its original cut, a scene where Hobbes visits a cabin in the woods was sufficiently low-key enough for one of the early screening attendees to go for a toilet break. The door of the screening room slammed behind them, causing several other audience members to jump out of their skin.

Warner Bros executives logged this response and ordered a speedy reshoot to insert the film’s sole jump scare at that same moment, as the rafters of the cabin suddenly and inexplicably fall in. Boo!

Frequency (2000)

“You’re still my Little Chief, right?”

Frustrated but motivated after the underperformance of Fallen, Hoblit set out to look for a project that would give him another run at mixing disparate genres. He found Frequency, one of only two films scripted by Toby Emmerich, who was then a young executive at New Line Cinema. At the time, the project was in turnaround after director Renny Harlin and star Sylvester Stallone had developed and then ultimately passed on it.

Like Field Of Dreams with social distancing, the timey-wimey sci-fi drama unfolds primarily in Queens in 1999, where emotionally shut-off NYPD detective John Sullivan (Jim Caviezel) sets up an old ham radio belonging to his late father Frank (Dennis Quaid), who died in the line of duty as a firefighter in 1969. Incredibly, John manages to use the radio to converse with Frank through time, but fond reminiscences give way to history-changing events, creating a cold case that endangers both men.

All genre-bending aside, Hoblit took a shine to this particular script because he first read it 18 months after his own father had passed away, and he felt a connection to the story of a bereft son who got to talk to his dad again. Once he was attached, Hoblit decided to cast Quaid as Frank, despite the dad being much older as scripted, (this was the role Stallone was supposed to play) partly because he felt a 30-year-old man in 1969 would have a very different life experience to a 30-year-old in 1999, but mostly to narrow the age-gap between the two leads.

After a quite sweet and moving first act, the film becomes more of a crime thriller as a consequence of information that John gives Frank. The two time periods are further connected by Andre Braugher’s character, a detective who is investigating a serial killer in the past and later becomes John’s boss. Hoblit expertly jumps between settings, including the increasingly different present-day timeline, for maximum tension and suspense as the case unfolds and refolds back on itself.

This is the only one of Hoblit’s films where the law-and-order aspect is strictly secondary to the genre in which he’s operating, but it really shows off what a versatile director he can be. We don’t evoke Field Of Dreams lightly around these parts, and even though Emmerich’s script sweats the cause of the temporal phenomenon a tad too much, (“There was something on the news about this space anomaly…”) it’s rarely tripped up by its magical realism.

Performing respectably at the box office in between mega-hits like Gladiator and enormous bombs like Battlefield Earth, Frequency was a solid word-of-mouth hit when it opened in April 2000. Although it spawned a short-lived TV spin-off in 2016, the film is probably Hoblit’s most underrated work, and it’s well worth rediscovering.

Hart’s War (2002)

“For you, the war is over.”

Bruce Willis is front and centre in the marketing materials for Hoblit’s next film, 2002’s Hart’s War, a prisoner-of-war drama adapted from John Katzenbach’s novel of the same name. As with the poster, the trailers presented Bruno as the lead of a World War II thriller, but that’s not what the film is. In fact, Willis isn’t even playing the title character.

Although he’s second-billed, Colin Farrell plays the protagonist, First Lieutenant Tommy Hart, a second-year Yale law student and son of a senator stationed in Europe in 1944, who’s captured by the Germans during the Ardennes counter-offensive and taken to a stalag. When a staff sergeant is mysteriously murdered shortly after his arrival, the ranking American officer Colonel McNamara (Willis) tasks Hart with defending the accused – African-American airman Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) – in the hastily arranged court martial permitted by the amused German guards.

Farrell was right at the start of his breakthrough in Hollywood when the film was released in February 2002, so MGM must have felt that selling Willis, the bigger star, was a safer bet for a $70 million war movie. In reality, Billy Ray and Terry George’s script has more in common with Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 than it does with The Great Escape.

Hoblit was very unhappy about the marketing, feeling that this approach was a disservice to both the source material and the subject matter, telling The Los Angeles Times: “Here we are making a movie about honesty and decency and behaving well and that’s exactly what we don’t behave like in selling a movie.”

Frustratingly, the marketing tactics didn’t even prove effective, as the film was a box-office flop that earned less than half of its budget back. However, it stands up today as a stirring mixture of POW movie and legal drama elements, which isn’t shy about probing the racial aspect of the story either. For instance, at the peak of his intellectual antagonism of the prisoners, camp commandant and Yale graduate Oberst Werner Visser, (Marcel Iureş) relishes the irony of Scott getting a fairer trial under the Nazis than he would in Alabama.

Although the film is a mite overlong and still manages to dovetail into a slightly neater conclusion than the subject warrants, Hart’s War is one of those films that’s underappreciated and quite probably underseen because it’s not how the studio painted it. We recommend watching the movie and then watching the (spoiler-heavy) theatrical trailer, if you want to see just how far a film can drift from its original intention via the marketing process.

Fracture (2007)

“It was like I just suddenly snapped. I got the gun and I shot my wife.”

By contrast, Hoblit made his next film for a cool $10m and scored his biggest hit since Primal Fear. Inverting the dynamic of that movie, 2007’s Fracture casts Ryan Gosling as Willy Beachum, a cocky prosecutor who agrees to go to trial immediately in bringing charges of attempted murder against brilliant aeronautical engineer Ted Crawford.

In fairness to him, the film opens with Ted committing and then confessing to the crime, but Beachum has no way of knowing that Crawford is played by Anthony Hopkins. The prolonged cat-and-mouse battle of wits that ensues is a delight to watch, primarily because Hopkins is having tons of fun playing up the gallows comedy that comes part and parcel with his character’s absurdly perfect plan.

Better still, you can see the younger actor working twice as hard to match Hopkins’ criminal genius. Beachum states early on that an embarrassing oversight could have happened to any other lawyer, “but if I’d been paying attention, it wouldn’t happen to me”, which sells the personal stakes for his unusually pro-active lawyer more effectively than Gere’s aloof attorney in Primal Fear. The star had just earned his first Oscar nomination for his part in Half Nelson, but this remains one of his more unsung roles – he only got a Teen Choice Award nod for this one.

The film is undeniably elevated by their game lead performances, and by nice supporting turns from Cliff Curtis, Billy Burke, and Rosamund Pike. But beyond the various twists and mysteries to be unpacked, part of what makes this one so satisfying is that it feels like the director coming around full circle. Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers’ script was once earmarked for George Clooney to direct, but Hoblit’s pedigree makes this something of a spiritual follow-up to his debut feature.

Perfect for double-billing with the earlier film, Fracture feels at once of a pair with Primal Fear and a total subversion of it. We’d strongly encourage you to revisit them back-to-back and see how they play when watched together.

Untraceable (2008)

“The whole world wants to watch you die, and they don’t even know you.”

Hoblit’s most recent feature film to date is the post-Saw 2008 torture horror movie Untraceable. Garnering a cooler reception than anything of the other films we’ve covered in this feature, this over-inflated CSI-calibre thriller has looked more and more prescient as the internet of horrors has expanded over time.

Diane Lane plays FBI Special Agent Jennifer Marsh, a cyber-crimes specialist who is locked in a cat-and-mouse game with the unknown webmaster of KillWithMe dot com, a website that live-streams videos of seemingly random hostages with the tagline “the more you watch, the faster they die.” With every new victim, Marsh and her team (including Billy Burke and Colin Hanks) are left racing against the hit-count to catch and stop the killer.

In lesser hands, this could be as woefully generic as it sounds, but the pitch-black script (credited to Robert Fyvolent, Mark Brinker, and Allison Burnett) feels ahead of its time in more ways than one. Even 12 years after its release, when some strides have been made towards greater equality in casting and writing, it’s still comparatively rare to see a movie this hard-bitten lead with a female protagonist and Hoblit spoke in interviews about the importance of creating more of these roles for women.

But then Lane didn’t come in for much of the flak when notices came out. Before the film was even released, there was controversy about a viral marketing stunt in which footage of one of the graphic torture scenes was gradually revealed as the fake “KillWithMe” Facebook fan page gained more followers. Facebook soon banned the page, stating that it could be mistaken for the real thing, and similarly, the vlogging community Seesmic banned a Flash game created to promote the film.

Once the reviews came in, the majority of the negative press was focused on the film’s supposed hypocrisy, in decrying voyeurism and violence but then trading in violent setpieces. However, the film is much more a critique of this particular moment of “torture porn” in the horror genre than it is an example of it.

Its cynicism feels familiar from Hoblit’s earlier films, but compared to other examples of the genre, there’s a more worldly and interrogative quality to it. While the annual Saw sequels showed the cult of Jigsaw growing year on year, Untraceable is a more self-contained thriller that doesn’t just trade on gory thrills. Counter-intuitive though this may be for a genre mash-up that was then marketed to the torture horror audience, the director naturally leans more towards the procedural than the visceral element.

Looking back at the film now, KillWithMe’s wall of repellent chat room comments foreshadow similar depictions of social media in drama, (most notably, the Black Mirror episode Hated In The Nation) as well as a few real-life cases of trolling. Like other mid-2000s cyber-thrillers, its grasp of technology hasn’t held up perfectly, but its bleak, queasy outlook on the people who misuse it feels evergreen from the gills down. Untraceable is far from Hoblit’s finest film, but it’s got enough going on to hold up better than many of the Saw knock-offs of its era.

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