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John Glenn’s “The Lazarus Project” (formerly called “The Heaven Project” during production) is one of those movies that are tailor-made for DVD viewing. It’s a small psychological thriller about one man’s life that moves at its own deliberate pace, assured in the knowledge that it has what it takes to get from Point A to Point B without the need for flashy editing, over the top camerawork, or all that other garbage moviemakers nowadays indulge in to keep up with the MTV generation. Releasing it straight to DVD after a few festival appearances would seem to be the film’s ultimate destiny; and in this case, that’s exactly what has happened. Having seen the movie, I can’t say as if I disagree with the decision; not because “The Lazarus Project” isn’t any good, but precisely because it is good when viewed in the proper setting.
“The Lazarus Project” stars Paul Walker (“The Fast and Furious” movies) as Ben Garvey, a reformed criminal who lives a happily non-adventurous life with his pretty wife (Piper Perabo) and daughter, not to mention a job with promotion possibilities. After a lot of fits and starts that included a long stint in prison, Ben’s life is finally starting to look up. That is, until his criminal past catches up with him and Ben is unceremoniously laid off from his job. Enter his brother, who comes calling with one of those “so easy it’s not even fair” burglary jobs that require Ben’s former skills as a thief. Jobless, and with a family to support, Ben gives in. The robbery goes horribly awry, as these things usually do in movies about reformed criminals, resulting in deaths that Ben, the lone survivor, is saddled with. Sentenced to die by lethal injection, Ben says his teary goodbyes, before meeting his fate at the end of a needle. And that, as they say, is when things start getting weird.
Death, it would appear, has been put on hold, as Ben finds himself at an isolated psychiatric hospital in the countryside, where he is informed of his new job as the groundskeeper. Ben is understandably confused by his new surroundings, not to mention his current living condition, and so are we. At the hospital, he is surrounded by a myriad of strangers: Ezra (Bob Gunton), a priest who also runs the hospital; Robbie (Malcolm Goodwin), a sweet but mentally handicap patient; William (Tony Curran), a very unstable and violent psychopath who claims to know why Ben is here; and pretty psychiatrist Julie (Linda Cardellini), who seems to take a curious interest in helping Ben let go of the past. And oh yeah, Ben seems to be seeing demonic images around town, and a solemn, mysterious figure (Lambert Wilson) keeps showing up to offer unwanted guidance.
In a lot of ways, “The Lazarus Project” has much in common with the 2003 movie “The I Inside”, which besides sharing co-star Piper Perabo, starred Ryan Phillippe as a patient in a hospital who begins to suspect that not everything is what it seems, including himself. That film also went straight to DVD, and I can’t say as if I disagreed with that decision, either. Of course, the lack of a theatrical release does not in anyway bode poorly for Walker’s “The Lazarus Project”. To be honest, this is one of those movies that just doesn’t lend itself to a theatrical release. The film has an understated, comfortable air about it that allows it to move leisurely through its story. It may seem slow to some, but I found it perfectly plotted, and with just the right beats.
Leading man Paul Walker delivers what is probably his best performance in a movie, which is a good thing as the film is so heavily focused on him that there’s nary a moment where Walker isn’t onscreen. As Ben, Walker is convincing as a man desperately longing for the things he cherishes most in life, and which circumstances have conspired to take from him. The believability of Ben’s motives is helped tremendously by director John Glenn and co-writer Evan Astrowsky’s script, which is careful to properly introduce us to Ben’s life. The build-up throughout the movie is handled with care, including the pre-robbery prologue that makes us believe why Ben would want to get back to his wife and child at all costs. We are convinced, because the script took the time to show us why we should care, and Walker is so emotionally invested in the role that it comes through onscreen.
Let’s face it, not every movie needs a theatrical run. (See “Perfect Stranger” with Bruce Willis and Halle Berry, or the recent “Deception” with Ewan McGregor and Hugh Jackman as two perfect examples of B-grade movies that had no business getting such wide theatrical releases.) John Glenn’s “The Lazarus Project” is a better movie than those two put together, with a great performance from Paul Walker. I was never convinced that Walker actually knew how to act, but now I’m convinced he just never had the right vehicle to show what he could really do. Like the rest of the movie, the film’s ending won’t blow you away, but it will be emotionally very satisfying for those who have stuck with Ben throughout his ordeal.
You won’t see “The Lazarus Project” coming to a theater near you, but keep an eye out for it at your local Blockbusters. The film is due on DVD October 21st, 2008.
John Glenn (director) / John Glenn, Evan Astrowsky (screenplay)
CAST: Paul Walker … Ben Garvey
Linda Cardellini … Julie
Malcolm Goodwin … Robbie
Tony Curran … William
Bob Gunton … Ezra
Lambert Wilson … Avery
Piper Perabo … Lisa Garvey
Brooklynn Proulx … Katie Garvey