Déjà Vu

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March 20, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

Déjà Vu is Tony Scott’s Vertigo, not simply because it is his magnum opus and fullest aesthetic statement as a filmmaker but because Scott pillages Hitchcock’s film for spiritual guidance. Its protagonist, an ATF agent attempting to solve an act of domestic terrorism, fixates on the image of a dead woman and becomes obsessed with saving her. Yet where Veritgo dealt with Hitchcock’s psychosexual hangups by confronting them head-on, Déjà Vu tackles Scott’s own obsession: film itself. Scotty drove himself mad manipulating an actual woman; Doug loses himself in poring over the graphic recreation of one.

The opening sequence of the film displays not a tempering of Scott’s élan after the stylistic explosions of his previous two features, but also a refinement. A nine-minute sequence without words, the opening is remarkable, mixing celebration and dread without any indication of what’s about to happen. Naval seamen and their families board a ferry in celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A banner on the riverbank reads “Katrina only made us stronger,” and the revelry aboard the ferry becomes more than a joyous occasion to reunite military personnel with their families. But the slow motion, taken with shots such as a girl dropping her doll into the churning waters and what appears to be a man watching from an overlooking bridge, creates an uncomfortable mood. Suddenly, the boat explodes, the cameras picking up the rolling ball of fire in terrible clarity. This setpiece does not contain any of the tricks Scott employed in his last two films, yet it is no less transfixing or overwhelming.

As authorities swarm the area in an attempt to figure out what happened, an ATF agent, Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), figures out almost instantly that the explosion was an act of terrorism. His own experience with the Oklahoma City bombing surely gives him an insight, but Carlin has the perfect instincts for the job. He pokes around the bottom of the bridge overlooking the ferry and finds chemical residue, and when a woman’s body washes up with a time of death just preceding the explosion, it is Carlin who spots the transparent tape on her lips. The dead woman in question is Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), and her seeming unimportance becomes the driving force of the narrative. Carlin believes that the same person who detonated the bomb on the ferry killed Claire. Figure out who killed Claire, and you’ve got the terrorist.

Carlin maintains this position even after the FBI, at the urging of the impressed agent Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), bring him into a secret surveillance project known as Snow White. At first, Carlin is told only that the program, which utilizes advanced satellite imagery concentrated on a particular spot, relays a steady stream of images and sounds from four days ago. As the satellites are always running and the data stream is so massive, the flow of audio and video can never be paused or rewound. Pryzwarra tells Carlin he needs “someone who can look at a crime scene exactly once,” and Doug’s ability to instantly read a crime scene gives him the intuition to know where to focus the image.

He elects not to have the camera swarm around the dock looking for clues but to head over to Claire’s house and wait for the terrorist to come to her. Yet the second she materializes on the giant monitor in front of Carlin and the team, the look in his eyes communicates a completely altered set of priorities. Carlin aligns the woman with the explosion in his mind long before Scott does through the narrative, and as Washington’s sad eyes linger on Patton’s beautiful face, a political thriller becomes a metaphysical romance across time and space.

Pryzwarra spots the change in Doug’s demeanor instantly, and he even tests Carlin. “Kind of creepy, seeing that lady’s life go down in flames,” he deadpans, speaking for the audience. Carlin does have some decorum, however, refusing to spy on Claire in the shower (though the other men on the team are not as quick to pan away). Gradually, Doug’s behavior toward Claire’s image becomes mournful, as if staring at the portrait of a loved one wondering what he could have done to save her. Carlin’s desire to reach through the screen and save her becomes more acute when, suspecting a hidden nature to Snow White, he shines a laser pointer at the screen and Claire sees the dot.

By unlocking time travel, Scott gives Carlin’s budding obsession a potential outlet. No longer is he merely poring over a video of this woman; he could possibly save her life. Here, the “Vertigo” comparisons become more tangible: just as Scotty altered the world around him in a demented attempt to bring back the dead, so too does Carlin manipulate objects to resurrect the woman he loves, though he actually does upend the world to save her. Scott allows his characters to get into some thick exposition on how time travel was discovered and how it works, but he does not intend Déjà Vu to be hard sci-fi: the ability to interfere in the past matters to Carlin for one reason only because it can help him prevent a tragedy, not merely assess one. “For all of my life, “ he says, “I’ve been trying to catch people after they do something horrible. For once in my life, I’d like to catch somebody before they do something horrible.”

Though it lacks the cross-processing and multiple exposures that made his previous films such dizzying visual smorgasbords, Déjà Vu stands as a summary of Scott’s style and thematic occupations. Its usage of omnipresent surveillance images takes Enemy of the State one step further, the spatial and temporal properties of Snow White allowing the viewers to move through walls, change angles, isolate subjects and move in for close-ups. When Carlin confronts the team about the machine allowing for manipulation of the past, Pryzwarra offers a feeble but metaphorical excuse that, technically, all images are in the past, as light reflects off the eyes and the brain interprets those reflections. That might explain the multiple-exposure aesthetic prevalent in Man on Fire and Domino, as if Scott filmed the reflection in “God’s eye.” The calmer aesthetic recalls his earlier days, but he mixes the more downbeat, straightforward look with his increased kinetic drive, always maintaining the pace of a film that is, frankly, spinning too many plates.

Déjà Vu updates the ideas running through past films, relocating Scott’s visceral, technologically voyeuristic aesthetic fully in a post-9/11 world. Carlin conflates his desire to prevent the death of the woman for whom he’s fallen with the wish to prevent a crime, instead of figuring out who to punish in a futile bid for closure. Scott extrapolates from that a desire on the audience’s part to undo the worst tragedies and atrocities committed against this country in the decade leading up to the film’s 2006 release. Doug’s experience, the nature of the crime that opens the film and the film’s setting conjure memories of Oklahoma City, September 11 and Hurricane Katrina, respectively. The scientists in charge of Snow White are afraid of tampering with the portal they’ve inadvertently opened, but who wouldn’t risk it all for a chance to reset these events? Even the change of target in Déjà Vu reflects this more hopeful side of Scott: Enemy of the State pitted an innocent man against a scheming bureaucratic nightmare, but Déjà Vu wants not only to find some emotional catharsis for America’s pent-up grief and anger but also a justification for the draconian policies we adopted in the wake of these terrible occurrences. What if such measures actually did make us safer?

That line of reasoning opens up a terribly conservative reading, one possibly backed up by the importance placed on faith. However, in both cases, Scott tempers any simplistic message by getting at the emotions behind such thinking. We tend to object to sacrificing freedom for safety because it never follows that such a sacrifice will pay off. If taking off shoes at the security line truly meant another hijacking or sabotage wouldn’t occur, would anyone but a few holdouts complain? If Déjà Vu is about anything, it is about the desperate hope of turning back time, of fixing not just personal losses but national crimes. And because turning back time, changing history, is impossible, Carlin must look to a miracle to bend the universal laws, and therefore he must have faith that a miracle could occur.

Scott has always striven for emotional immediacy in his art, from the lilting “Gassenhauer” sections of True Romance through the fractured close-ups and subjective imagery of Domino. As Claire’s image looms over Carlin, Scott visualizes the dominance of her memory — her perfect smile, her kind demeanor — in Carlin’s mind, a memory that exists only because he is watching the same streaming video that also engenders his reflection. If the film lacks the bag of tricks upended into Scott’s previous film, it contains more standard setups of the same outcomes: this is a film of glimpses, split-second looks at a license plate or a figure in the distance who may or may not be watching. Scott’s penchant for filling the frame with isolated images serves him well when the time travel narrative begins to coalesce, the shots that earlier communicated mood now reshaped into pieces to the puzzle. The titular déjà vu envelops both the audience and the characters as we all see each image at least twice, in the present and past, and usually more often than that, and each new glimpse challenges the viewer to recall a past observation and to alter the perception of it with new information. Here, Scott meshes his tactile, even poetic style with his cinephilia: as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky slyly noted, the control room where the team controls Snow White resembles an editing suite1.

That conflation of metacinematic structuring with visceral impact continues with the best setpiece of the film, an unorthodox car chase that has Carlin in the present pursuing a vehicle in the past. The range of Snow White’s observation is narrow, but someone wearing a special helmet can extend the cameras wherever the wearer goes. So, Carlin hops in a Humvee and speeds off with the helmet on, one eye looking through a viewfinder to see the terrorist driving on nearly empty roads at midnight, the other on the midday congestion. As an action sequence, it is ingenious, a bewildering juxtaposition of like yet warring images that fray nerve endings and tighten the chest. Yet it also makes Carlin the cameraman for the movie the team watches back at base, effectively making the footage he takes into dailies2, connecting the idea of Snow White even more concretely to that of editing and film assembly.

At the other end of this complex approach to metacinema is Scott’s unabashed penchant for taking from other movies. Apart from the Vertigo connection, Déjà Vu also shares traits with 12 Monkeys and Minority Report, the latter of which serves as the philosophical, downbeat mirror to Scott’s hopeful, emotional creation. Pop culture seeps into the dialogue, with quotations from both Airplane! and Saturday Night Live (“I need more cowbell!”) mixing in with the pseudo-scientific jargon and the plaintive naïveté of Carlin. Scott even gets in a shot at Val Kilmer’s bloated frame when Carlin nods at Pryzwarra when discussing lost looks. Never one to mask his plagiarism, Scott by and large restricts these ripoffs in favor of his subtler exploration of filmic creation and interpretation.

“What if there’s more than physics?” asks Carlin when confronted with the seeming impossibility of communicating with the past to change the future. Déjà Vu simplifies science and its cagey reluctance to ruin an experiment even if it could benefit others, but Scott incorporates faith into science in a manner seldom seen in film. It will take a combination of the two to undo great tragedy: the science can explain why images nag at faint memories and seem to explain what’s happening, but it takes faith to risk everything to fully uncover what might be nothing more than a trick of the mind. Nowhere is the meeting point between science and faith more acute than when Carlin effectively crawls inside a giant metal womb to send himself through time, the omniscient viewer using technology to birth himself immaculately to save mankind. Talk about déjà vu.

1 Vishnevetsky, Ignatiy. Scott’s Metaphysical Romances, Pt. 1.

2 Anderson, Michael J. Resurrecting the Rube: Diegesis Formation and Contemporary Trauma in Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu

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