Edinburgh International Film Festival

WAZ (2007)

Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Melissa George, Selma Blair, Ashley Walters, John Sharian

Directed by: Tom Shankland

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Melissa George and Stellan Skarsgard in psychological horror/thriller WAZ

You'd be forgiven for thinking a serial killer who carves algebraic equations into their victim's flesh would be more up the winding cobbled streets of Inspector Morse than the seedy alleyways and grimy crack dens of a hardboiled New Yoik cop. But when the mutilated bodies start piling up in this dark horror/thriller, it's world-weary, chain-smoking, whisky-drinking detective Eddie Argo (Stellan Skarsgård ) who's tasked with putting the grisly pieces of the puzzle together.

But this grumpy, monosyllabic cop-who-walks-alone is none too pleased to be saddled with a sidekick, rookie detective Helen Westcott, (Melissa George, aka Angel from Home and Away, bizarrely enough). Terrified by life on the gang-run, bullet-riddled streets, she's nonetheless sharper than her gung ho partner when it comes to police work, and refuses to be intimidated by the sexist banter down the precinct.

Speaking of banter, the dialogue is a bit stiff and stereotypical at times, leading to some occasional awkward acting. But fortunately the plot avoids as many clichéd potholes as the script falls into. For a start, our serial killer turns out to be a woman, out on a terrible, blood-curdling I Spit On Your Grave-style rape revenge quest. And then there's the relationship between Eddie and Helen, which robustly refuses to fit the mould of your traditional mismatched cop duo. There's no mutual bond to be discovered here: the pair simply dislike each other, and that's an end to it.

Other aspects of the film, however, are less clear cut. Morally, this is a most ambiguous movie, each character encompassing so many shades of grey it's hard to know where one's sympathies are meant to lie. It's coming to something when the most appealing, sympathetic character is the serial killer (played movingly and convincingly by Selma Blair). Certainly we root for her over the violent, amoral scum she preys upon, whilst Eddie's surly demeanour and Helen's self-righteousness makes it hard like them much.

Harsh, depressing and unflinchingly violent, this is a bold, bleak, uncompromising debut from new director Tom Shankland, but he pulls it off with gritty flair. Shaky handheld camerawork induces a panicky feeling of paranoia and claustrophobia that echoes perfectly the simmering mistrust between the characters, while the grimy New York backdrop is a hundred per cent convincing – even if the script isn't.

As a woman, I actually found the concept of a female serial killer with an agenda far less frightening than the casual, random brutality of the villains of, say, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog or Se7en – or, indeed, the victims of this film. But if the psychology of violence fascinates you, then WAZ will be right up your alley – cobbled or grimy alike.

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