With his lean body and anxious features, Adrien Brody was born to skulk. In the new thriller Manhattan Night, he plays Porter Wren, a crime reporter winding his way through New York City streets with the confidence of a man who knows the angles. But he’s hardly a creature of the dark. In one smartly directed moment early in Brian DeCubellis’ debut feature, we see Porter duck into an illuminated tunnel that leads, improbably, to a house neatly tucked away from the rest of the metropolis—a safe haven for the family he hopes to keep separate from the tragedies he’s made his name covering, one column at a time.
The clichés of the crusading journalist who gets in too deep and the loving husband and father tempted away from domestic bliss are both well-worn, and Manhattan Night shamelessly melds them into a single character, topped off by some amateur-sleuth heroics. Luckily, Brody is a resourceful enough actor to make Porter a credible protagonist despite the mechanical nature of both his motivation and the plot around him, which mobilizes other genre standbys—including a femme fatale (Yvonne Strahovski) with a secret and a corporate villain (Steven Berkoff) with an ax to grind—into a satisfyingly labyrinthine parable about privacy.
The script is adapted from a 1996 novel by Colin Harrison. But even if its virtues are largely literary, Manhattan Night weaves cinematic themes into its overall texture. The most compelling character is an eccentric, extravagantly acclaimed film director, Simon Crowley (Campbell Scott), who is seen only in flashbacks tied to his habit of videotaping, sometimes surreptitiously, his encounters with strangers and loved ones alike. There’s something disturbing and recognizably contemporary about Simon’s DV fetish, and Scott, always a fascinating actor, has the stare of a true voyeur. In its best scenes, the film plays with the tension between its antagonist’s insatiable need to transform real life into melodrama and its own relentless narrative gamesmanship. The script plays keep-away with the audience, and the mystery being withheld is so truly, luridly tantalizing that it’s almost disappointing that the filmmakers give it up at all.
DeCubellis used to direct music videos, and there’s a smoothness to his staging and pacing that deserves props, even if he sometimes shows a lack of discipline by not always sticking to his films-within-the-film conceit. (If he had, there could have been moments with the cool tingle of Michael Haneke.) Manhattan Night is modest in a way that automatically consigns it to the margins of the summer movie season. But like its hero’s carefully secluded home, it’s worth seeking out along the sidelines.