Derailed hinges on a familiar pitch, a theme that’s endured because it works, from here back to Hitchcock back to Shakespeare and all down the years to the beginning of human storytelling: You’re doing something that you know is wrong … and you stumble into something worse. Charles Schine (Clive Owen) has a big house, a loving-but-sick daughter and a relationship that feels more like a business partnership than a marriage with his wife Deanna (Melissa George). One day on the train, Charles meets Lucinda (Jennifer Aniston), who is funny and breezy and pretty ... and married. Charles knows he shouldn’t, but he seeks her out over the next few days, and their casual chats turn into lunches which turn into drinks and before you know it, Charles and Lucinda are in a cheap hotel room about to sleep together. Which is when the door bursts open and they’re interrupted by a ski-mask wearing tough. Threatened. Robbed. Charles is beaten; Lucinda is raped. Charles wants to call the authorities; Lucinda, fearful, is hesitant. “The police are going to want to know what we were doing here!” They go their separate ways. And Charles gets a call from their assailant, Mr. Laroche (Vincent Cassel), asking for money to go away, to not tell Charles’s wife about Lucinda. … And things get worse from there.
Based on a novel by James Siegel, Derailed marks the North American debut of director Mikael Hafstrom, working from a script by Collateral scribe Stuart Beattie. Siegel’s book was a well-received page-turner; I read it when it came out, and I suppose that it tells you a certain something about the novel that I recall its premise and pitch far better than I recall its finale and execution. Yes, the theme of Derailed is one that’s endured because it when it’s done well it’s incredibly effective, but the ugly fact is that Derailed isn’t done well, with mis-casting, awkward direction and a slightly clumsy adaptation all disturbing the forward motion of Derailed’s plot. Derailed is never an actual train wreck, but there are much better story vehicles to take if you’re looking to disembark from the theater with goose bumps and a sense of satisfaction.
This is Owen’s largest North American role, and it’s not just by the script but also by the curiously mingled manner Owen has as an actor. In dramas like Closer and Gosford Park, his scenes have the coiled, tense possibilities of crime films by virtue of his very presence; conversely, even in action films like The Bourne Identity and the ephemeral promotional shorts he starred in for BMW, he brings a sense of lived-in gravity to the most fanciful action-film scenes. Owen is such an extraordinary screen presence (even in vapid dreck like Sin City) that it’s hard to believe him as playing an ordinary man. This, however, is what Derailed asks us to do. A slightly different approach to casting might have helped us buy Charles as a beleaguered, unhappily married salary man – someone less strikingly handsome, someone we weren’t so used to seeing take charge, someone more usual.
Aniston can, in fact, act – a cursory check of The Good Girl will be enough to prove that contention – but her part in Derailed is so shamefully under-written that there’s nothing there for her to do. Siegel’s book is all first-person narrative from Charles, so his incomplete vision of Lucinda is a reflection of the view from his eyes; on film, seen through the all-seeing lens of the camera, Lucinda’s character seems woefully thin. As for Cassel, watching him play ‘that French slimeball’ in big-studio film after film after film is hopefully becoming to him; it’s definitely become boring to me. There are a few glimmering lights in the supporting cast – notably hip-hop producer The RZA playing Charles’s inter-office mail guy Winston, who did a few years in prison: “I sold a pure commodity at a fair market price.” Winston provides the film with a sense of life -- and a few jumps -- but when he's off-screen, he takes a lot of our interest with him.
Hafstrom is no great shakes as a director -- he doesn't have a lot of style, nor does he bring anything new to the process of getting from set-up to end credits. But the majority of the blame for Derailed has to go to Stuart Beattie. I read Siegel’s book when it came out – I had a lengthy plane flight ahead of me – and, like I said, months later I recall the premise much better than I do the finale. I did recall, however, two elements of the plotting that I felt pretty sure the film altered and where subsequent research proved me right. In the film, Charles and Lucinda are interrupted before they make love; in the novel, they’re accosted after. This change feels almost comically nonsensical – you can just picture some studio executive demanding that, to be ‘likable,’ Charles must contemplate adultery and not consummate it. Why not have them make love? It could have been a tender scene, or even an erotic one; it definitely would have upped the stakes substantially. The second big gap comes in the timing of events, as a twist in the book that takes place weeks and months after that fateful night occurs in the film pretty much within a week. It’s jarring, and it doesn’t do anything to improve the story’s flow; it actually works against the tone of despair and moral free-fall Siegel’s book used to sink the hooks in.
Derailed ultimately put me in that weird movie-going state where, as I was watching it, I kept thinking about how I’d rather be watching a similarly-themed, better film. You’ve felt it: You’re watching Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai and all you can think of is how you’d rather be watching The Seven Samurai; you’re watching Unidentified Flying Oddball and all you can think of is how fiercely they’ve ripped off Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester. Watching Derailed, my mind kept wandering to John Frankenheimer’s blackmail and guilt flick, the Elmore Leonard adaptation 52 Pick-Up (regrettably not on DVD) -- which does not require that all cops be idiots for its plot to work, that does not feel its characters have to be moral paragons, that has some sly casting and great work from unfamiliar actors and that actually entertains. Derailed’s a classic Hollywood piece of over-selling and under-delivering right down to the title: This movie never gets up enough steam to go anywhere, much less jump the track.