Film: Déjà Vu

Mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer has recently released Déjà Vu, his sixth collaboration with British director Tony Scott. Their previous films include Top Gun (1986), Crimson Tide (1995), Enemy of the State (1998), and Man on Fire (2004); Bruckheimer is also the producer of television’s top-rated show CSI, as well as its multiple spinoffs. As the current maestro of fast- paced feature thrillers, Bruckheimer has recently vowed to work harder to make more “quality” films, and Déjà Vu, although not fully achieving that ambition, is both an intriguing and entertaining film.

On Fat Tuesday, a tremendous explosion destroys a large New Orleans ferry carrying regular passengers and a large contingent of sailors on leave, ready to celebrate Mardi Gras. When ATF Officer Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) arrives at the scene, he exercises his extraordinary investigative skills and quickly establishes that the tragedy was an act of terrorism. When the body of an apparent victim washes up on shore and it’s definitively established that she died two hours before the explosion, Carlin becomes convinced that this beautiful young woman, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), is the key to solving the crime.

As the search for the bomber continues, Carlin is brought to a top- secret government facility that allows FBI observers to hear anything, anywhere, that happened exactly four days previously. This “time window,” discovered by accident and related to satellite surveillance, allows Carlin to observe and hear whatever he wishes, and he naturally focuses on Claire, carefully tracking the dead woman’s movements. Eventually, Carlin discovers that Claire has the clear sense that she’s being watched, and Carlin wonders if the machine can do more than just observe. Can it also send a message into the past? Could it even transport a person back in time? This, of course, raises the familiar but always intriguing question: If you go back in time, can you alter the future? Would it be possible for Carlin to save Claire’s life and prevent the ferry bombing?

In the course of these fast-paced developments, Carlin has also fallen in love with Claire. It’s reminiscent of Otto Preminger’s rather dated classic Laura (1944), in which a detective (Dana Andrews) trying to solve a murder falls in love with the dead woman (Gene Tierney). It also conjures memories of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful Vertigo (1958), in which another detective (Jimmy Stewart) falls in love with someone he’s never met—a suicidal woman (Kim Novak) whom he’s been hired to follow. But in Déjà Vu, Claire is clearly dead and buried, and only the government’s “time bridge” can allow Carlin to go into the past, encounter Claire, and try to prevent her murder and the bombing of the ferry.

The concept of time travel (including time aberrations and multiple universes) is always an intriguing and challenging narrative premise, and numerous films have tackled the subject. A few of the more recent are Groundhog Day (1993), the popular romantic comedy starring Bill Murray; Sliding Doors (1998), an interesting drama featuring Gwyneth Paltrow; Frequency (2000), a very effective drama/thriller with Jim Caviezel (who also gives an eerily compelling supporting performance in Déjà Vu as a Timothy McVeigh clone); and Donnie Darko (2001), the adolescent cult favorite starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

But Déjà Vu, being a race-against-the-clock thriller, can only spend a limited amount of time discussing whether Carlin might “meet himself” in the past, and various other time conundrums; a bit more consideration would have given more depth to the film. Nevertheless, it still creates some interesting scenarios, as when Denny (Adam Goldberg), the government’s brilliant scientist (who actually admits he believes in God), tells Carlin, “You know you don’t have to do this,” and Carlin responds, “What if I already have?” Similarly intriguing is a wild car chase in which Carlin, wearing a “time window” monitor, relentlessly tracks down the terrorist’s movements four days earlier while weaving recklessly through the present day’s traffic.

Scott, just like his older brother Ridley, is well-known for his flashy, hyperkinetic directorial style. Fortunately, in Déjà Vu the distracting stylistic excesses of his two most recent films (Man on Fire and Domino) have been toned down, and cinematographer Paul Cameron has created a stylish look that’s appropriate to both the film and the ambiance of the city of New Orleans. Unfortunately, the script by Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii, although fundamentally intriguing, is seriously damaged by a lack of character development, especially regarding Agent Carlin. Washington is always a compelling cinematic personality, both charming and believable, and he carries the film as best he can. But one wishes that there were fewer discussions speculating about how the “time bridge” works, and more about the inner feelings of this intriguing loner who’s fallen deeply in love with a woman he’s never met.

In Vertigo, for example, screen-writers Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor carefully delineated the character and personal background of Detective Scottie Ferguson. We witness the tragic incident that incited his acrophobia; we meet Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), his closest friend and one-time fiancée; and we carefully observe his desperate longings and isolation. But in Déjà Vu, Washington is given very little to work with, which is always a problem when thrillers refuse to slow down and develop the main character. It also undercuts the romance. When Carlin finally encounters Claire, he asks, “What if you had to tell someone the most important thing in the world, but you knew they’d never believe you?” And Claire, who instinctively trusts him, answers, “I’d try.” Yet despite this auspicious beginning and a fine performance by Patton, the narrative’s time constraints and the superficial portrayal of Carlin seriously debilitate the effectiveness of their emotional relationship.

As with most thrillers, especially those that incorporate science fiction, there are a number of problems in the narrative that the director hopes will be overlooked in the frantic, ever-forward thrust of the film. Yet it’s still hard to believe that Carlin is so easily brought into the top-secret program, and that he’s so quickly allowed to dictate how it should be used. It also seems highly unlikely that a driven man like Carlin, with time running out, would waste valuable time with Claire at her apartment for some romantic flirting. Nevertheless, the film’s ending, which will not please everyone, seems appropriate and satisfying given all that’s come before.

As thrillers go, Déjà Vu is no Thirty-Nine Steps or Vertigo. There was only one Hitchcock. But the film is still an enjoyable thriller that unfortunately misses the opportunity to adequately explore its subject matter and produce the kind of “quality” film Bruckheimer is still striving for.


  • William Baer

    William Baer is a graduate of U.S.C. Cinema where he received the Jack Nicholson Screening Award and taught in the Filmic Writing department. He currently teaches English and Film at the University of Evansville, Indiana and is a frequent contributor to Creative Screenwriting.

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