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Andrew Lau’s American debut “The Flock” opens with a disturbing factoid: There are over half a million registered sex offenders in the United States, and for every thousand, a single person is assigned to monitor them. And that’s just the registered sex offenders, mind you; that is, the ones that have been caught. Can you imagine how many of them are actually out there, waiting, that have yet to be caught, and will never be caught? What terrible, sick acts are they contemplating at this very moment? Such is the sad and twisted world of Erroll Babbage.
Richard Gere plays Babbage, a case worker tasked with keeping an eye on the thousand or so sex offenders charged to him — his “flock”. After years on the job, the grizzled and disheveled Babbage is being put out to pasture, and his boss has assigned the young Allison Laurie (Claire Danes) to replace him. In the three weeks or so that he has left on the job, Babbage is prepared to teach Allison all that he knows, so that she will distinguish herself from his fellow case workers. Babbage has open disdain for his colleagues’ lack of work ethic and commitment, and is determined to mold Allison in his image.
“The Flock” starts off well, with Babbage taking Allison on a tour of her new serfdom. They meet a rich young man who likes to hit his girlfriends (punk rocker Avril Lavigne has a cameo as one of them), the wife of a serial killer (KaDee Strickland) who Babbage suspects was more than an unwilling accomplish to her husband’s evil deeds, and a sadist who likes to tie up his victims and go on trips with his wolf. Intercut with Babbage’s tutelage of Allison is the quickly worsening state of a 17-year old girl who has been abducted. As circumstances draw Babbage into the girl’s case, we realize that Babbage is an outcast to his colleagues as well as the law-enforcement community, who dismisses his input with disdain.
The film doesn’t really kick into thriller territory until the forty-minute mark, when Babbage takes Allison on a hunt for the abducted girl. Babbage has become convinced that one of his charges is responsible, but Allison is receiving information to the contrary. How much faith does she have in him? When is the right time to jump ship? Babbage is clearly unhinged, and seems to be in a desperate race to find the girl. Or is he in a desperate race for redemption, having missed an opportunity to catch a killer and save a girl just like this one many years ago?
In his first American film, director Andrew Lau makes good use of his Hollywood budget. There are some great soaring overhead shots of the vast stretches of Interstate road that populate the film’s setting. There is also a purposeful focus on the barren landscape, as if to say, “You can’t hide anything here,” and yet, everyone is hiding something, even our hero. Halfway into the film, Babbage and Allison find themselves in a den where every sexual perversion imaginable is being put to the test. This also brings up a quibble I have with the film: the quick-cut, too-slick-by-a-half editing gets ridiculously out of control at times. It’s annoying and pointless, and does nothing for the film except to superfluously show off the skills of an unrestrained editor.
“The Flock” is not completely without humor, although such moments are rare. There is an amusing scene early on where Babbage refuses to let an attractive woman pick him up at a bar. Instead of going along, he mischievously asks her the same standard questions he asks his sex offenders. We also meet a support group made up entirely of Babbage’s flock, men and women who have done vile things in the past, but who now get together on a weekly basis to complain about his aggressive methods. Or as Babbage’s boss puts it: “The offenders are offended!”
Make no mistake, this is clearly Richard Gere’s movie, and he turns in a great performance as the burdened hero. Babbage is a conflicted human who wants to believe in good, but has seen too much to allow himself that luxury. Claire Danes’ Allison is a bit harder to pin down; we are never really sure why a young woman is entering what is obviously a soul-grinding field. Screenwriters Hans Bauer and Craig Mitchell are stingy about her motivations, as slowly but surely we watch her start to grow into the job, spurred on by a secret that Babbage reveals to her in, of all places, a grocery store.
The fact that Gere’s Babbage is a watcher of perverts, but is himself not authorized to do very much to stop them, is one of the film’s main talking points. At the start of this review, I mentioned the movie’s factoid about there being a thousand sex offenders for every case worker. The film drives that point home, as well as the seemingly lost cause of trying to keep the refuse of our society in check. When someone like Babbage is ostracized for doing his job too well (if a tad over zealously), there is cause for concern.
For a film with its pedigree, it’s surprising that “The Flock” has sat on the shelf for so long. It has only appeared in theaters overseas, and is, in all likelihood, headed straight to DVD in the States. The film will be of most interest to Asian film fans that have followed director Andrew Lau’s career in Hong Kong, where he made his bones on international hits like the “Infernal Affairs” films (since remade into the Martin Scorsese crime flick “The Departed”). According to IMDB.com, the film has also undergone reshoots by Niels Mueller (“The Assassination of Richard Nixon”), though who directed which portion of the film is open to interpretation.
Should “The Flock” have been released into theaters? I’m not sure. It’s certainly a finely acted piece, with good direction by Lau, but the film was probably doomed from the start: its premise is too dark and too depressing for a moviegoing crowd looking for a good time. There aren’t a whole lot of good times to be had, and at the end of the day, maybe it’s on DVD and cable, sans popcorn, where “The Flock” can be fully absorbed and appreciated.
Andrew Lau (director), Niels Mueller (reshoots) (uncredited) / Hans Bauer, Craig Mitchell (screenplay)
CAST: Richard Gere … Agent Erroll Babbage
Claire Danes … Allison Laurie
Ed Ackerman … Louis Kessler
KaDee Strickland … Viola
Ray Wise … Robert Stiller
Matt Schulze … Custis
Russell Sams … Edmund Wells
Matt Sanford … James Ray Ward
Avril Lavigne … Young Woman