David Weaver has said that brilliant films like Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa and The Crying Game as well as Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast were primary influences on his new film, The Samaritan. There are other phenomenal films I can think of that are comparable, but the big secrets in those films would reveal a secret in the current movie. These masterpieces (or near-masterpieces depending upon one’s persuasion) neither dominate nor diminish Samaritan. In fact, the film’s greatest strength is that it works as a stand-alone, neo-noir movie about a grift despite its many influences and similarities with other well-known works of cinematic art.
“If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, or keep on being what you’ve always been; nothing changes unless you make it change.” This line opens and closes the film and it is an interesting and powerful statement about evolution of the human spirit. Samuel L. Jackson plays Foley, a former confidence man who kills his partner in order to avoid being killed by he and his partner’s mark. His partner’s son, Ethan (Luke Kirby), is (a) out to get his revenge on Foley and (b) use Foley as part of his own grift. When Foley gets out of prison after 25 years for killing his partner, he wants to make a change for the better alluded to in the opening line above. But his past haunts him in the form of Ethan who will not let go of Foley because he knows the older man is a great grifter and wants him to play one more confidence game on a mark of Ethan’s choosing. The way in which Ethan has Foley trapped is a fascinating one, and I will leave the details for the film’s viewers as I am not one to issue spoilers in a review. But I can say that we meet an interesting woman named Iris (Ruth Negga) who becomes involved with Jackson in more ways than one. Is she also involved with Ethan? Others involved in the grift? There’s much to question about this mysterious woman; her mystery drives key moments of the film.
The grift goes forward, though not exactly as planned. The “inside man” (Ethan) is present, the “outside man” (Foley) is present, the “mark” (Tom Wilkinson as Xavier) is present, but “the catch” presents a bit of a twist that appears in the last quarter of the film. Had the grift gone exactly as planned – even with the new twist of the catch – the film would have been wholly satisfying. In fact, it is the way the film ends that lowers its overall rating for me.
Weaver has given us an expertly-drawn character study and well-plotted film about a confidence game and the players in it. Jackson underplays nearly every second; when was the last time you could say that about Jackson in a leading film role? Kirby, Negga, and the rest of the cast are also at their peak here. Unfortunately, Weaver just gets a bit “too cute” at the end of the film giving us a wild time that is not terribly necessary. Still, what has come before is so terrific, I can forgive the last several moments of the film. Other may find the end exhilarating, and I can understand that perspective as well. I would definitely put this on your “nice for a Friday night” movie list.