Supporting good-guy roles in horror movies are notoriously thankless: you generally get to hang around and make wisecracks until it's your turn to kick it so that the actual heroes can live to fight another day. The biggest surprise in The Crazies, Breck Eisner's remake of the 1973 low-budget classic by George A. Romero, is that its highlight turns out to be not the murderous pseudo-zombies or Eisner's many horror set pieces, but the dude who plays the affable sheriff's deputy. The movie isn't actually bad, per se, just been-there-done-that tiresome in a way that makes the 101-minute running time seem quite a bit longer. What almost saves it is a surprising attention to detail, much of which is embodied in Joe Anderson's unexpectedly touching performance as the unassuming -- but increasingly crucial -- Deputy Russell Clark.
To this point, Anderson hadn't made much of an impression in his short career. I vaguely remember him in The Ruins, playing another supporting character fated for a quick death. The IMDb informs me that he was also in Control, which I loved, and Across the Universe, which I did not, but I'll be damned if I can recall his role in either.
His performance in The Crazies doesn't start out as anything special either: his Deputy Clark plays second fiddle to Timothy Olyphant's noble, sturdy Sheriff David Dutton. Anderson and Olyphant do have a nice moment early on when they have to confront the town drunk who wanders onto the baseball field with a shotgun -- the two move in sync in a way that gives you the sense that they've worked together for years. There are other such authentic little moments, not all of them involving Anderson: I loved the way the Sheriff takes a moment to react to a late-night phone call, letting out a weary sigh before springing out of bed.
Anderson's performance doesn't turn extraordinary until all hell breaks loose -- and here this post wanders into some spoiler territory, so be warned. The premise of the film is a disease that spreads among the population of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, turning its denizens into unstable, malevolent, zombie-ish creatures. The difference between this sickness and the zombie plagues we're more accustomed to is that the effects of this one are more gradual: there's a 48-hour incubation period during which you only get hints that something's gone wrong. Predictably, one of the main plot threads in the second act involves the question of whether the trusted Deputy Clark's gone over to the dark side.
This is not groundbreaking stuff, but the reason it works so well is how convincing and organic Anderson's makes Deputy Clark's transformation. There's a scene where Clark puts a half-dozen bullets into the heads of a couple crazies that he, Sherriff Dutton, and his lovely wife (Radha Mitchell) recently dispatched. It's not a terribly shocking act -- in fact it seems wise, to make sure they're dead; I wish more horror movie characters would do that sort of thing -- but Anderson gives Clark's movements a subtle edge that sent a chill down my spine. His character arc culminates in a dramatic confrontation with Dutton that has more raw, authentic emotion than a dozen typical Hollywood horror flicks.
This is superior craft elevating mediocre material -- and there are a number of such examples in The Crazies. I can't really recommend the movie, but I'm not sorry I saw it: there was clearly care and talent involved.