What’s cooler than being a hardboiled detective? A “memory detective,” duh! That’s what Mark Strong plays in the new psychological thriller, Anna. As a memory detective, Strong goes into people’s past to relive their experiences and get to the root of their problems. Wisely, the film never wastes time explaining how this ability actually works. The idea of a memory detective is too fun to blow on silly exposition.
John Washington (Strong) has been down on his luck lately. The death of his wife is haunting the world-weary detective so bad he was seeing her in the memories his clients, making it impossible to do his job. Just like the details of memory detecting, Anna breezes over what exactly happened to John’s wife. All we know is that her demise was not pretty. This is a prime example of economic storytelling and it works really well here under the sharp eye of first-time director Jorge Dorado.
His boss Sebastian (the always reliable Brian Cox, criminally underused here) sympathizes for John’s plight, so he throws him what smells like a simple case. Anna Greene (Taissa Farmiga) is a disturbed young girl from a very affluent family. Like John, she’s haunted. But by what? Whatever it is, it’s caused Anna to go on a hunger strike. John’s job is to delve into her psyche to find out what’s driven her to this disturbed state.
During their first session, it becomes clear this goes beyond a girl refusing to eat to spite her parents. There are ulterior motives swarming around the Greene’s tremendous estate and Anna quickly realizes that John could be her ticket outta the confines of distant stepfather’s clutches. The story here balances on whether Anna really does need to be institutionalized or if she’s just a mixed up kid who experienced some darkness coming up.
One of the tests John uses is a hypothetical scenario-based quiz similar to the one Deckard uses on Rachel in Blade Runner (essentially the Voight-Kampff test without the cool little eye reader thingy). And just like testing apathy to shake out the replicants, John is testing if Anna is a sociopath or not, indifferent to violence.
As we’re treated to flashbacks further into Anna’s unnerving past, the film becomes progressively more convoluted, choked up with private school grudges, molestation, suggestive photos, and family inheritance. Many great detective stories are convoluted (The Big Sleep being a prominent example), but as along as the pieces fit together in the end, it’s forgiven. Though Anna presents a coherent story, a few of the elements simply feel like they’re sidetracking the main narrative. The climactic twists go for Hitchcock but never really follow through. Attentive viewers will probably see them coming way before John ever does (he’s really not a very good detective).
Gracefully shot, skillfully made and finely acted (especially by Strong,who practically carries Farmiga through the film), Anna has all of the elements for a terrific thriller in the classic mold. It has its clever moments, but when it was over I didn’t feel compelled to see how all the pieces fit together (like after watching, says, Usual Suspects or Memento). The themes explored focus on contemporary horrors such as repressed childhood abuse, but Dorado never dips into the truly disturbing territory with it.
Anna is a satisfying experience overall but not as smart as it’s trying to be (like your mom).