“Focus” – Christian Movie Review
Will Smith is back on the big screen with “Focus,” which tells the following story: “In the midst of veteran con man Nicky’s latest scheme, a woman from his past — now an accomplished femme fatale — shows up and throws his plans for a loop” (from IMDB).
And, I have to say, Nicky could probably use a few thousand hours of therapy considering his family background: the man who took Nicky in and raised him had killed his own father, and Nicky’s career centers around lying, stealing, and gambling (and murdering, too, but the film doesn’t depict him doing that because it would make him too unsympathetic). Nicky has an unpredictable, glacier-cold, sub-zero heart. This might be the iciest character I’ve seen Will Smith play.
And, like a horse at the track that jumps out with an early lead and then falters, this film was in the “fresh tomato” range on RottenTomatoes.com with 62% positive reviews mid-Thursday, and it’s already slipped down to 56% as of Thursday evening.
We’ll talk about whether the film deserves a rotten tomato rating or not, and then get into the film’s worldview — which has surprising positive elements/moral messages that I didn’t see coming — but first, so you’re aware of why the film is rated R…
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content/Nudity: Two sex scenes, both with nudity (in first one, a woman is seen topless, and it is a very sensual/fleshy scene — though brief; in the second one, we see a prostitute’s rear end during a graphic depiction of her activities with her client). Scores of sexually graphic jokes in the dialogue. A man uses his phone to show a woman a picture of his genitals, though the picture is not seen on-camera.
Violence/Gore: People get punched violently, a woman is almost suffocated and the camera lingers on her writhing limbs as she comes close to death. A graphic gunshot wound in the chest of a man shows blood bubbling out. Another character then places a gadget inside the wound — a very squeamish moment for anyone who can’t handle watching anything in the realm of surgery or dissection — to restore pressure to the “cavity” in the lungs created by the bullet.
Language: Many f-words. Scores of other swear words and misuses of God’s name.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: The film takes place in swanky clubs and bars, so drinking is happening throughout much of the story.
Frightening/Intense Content: Some surprising make-you-jump gun violence and a violent car wreck. The scene where a woman is nearly suffocated, basically as a form of torture, is disturbing.
(Review continues below)
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Entertainment Value and Film Craft
It’s a very well-made movie, in terms of film craft, that knows how to make the audience nervous and unsure of itself. Even cynical, veteran moviegoers who’ve seen it all will suddenly find themselves a little tense because they can’t decode the film’s intentions.
And that’s the whole point of this film. “Get someone’s focus, and you can take anything from them.” That’s Nicky’s advice, and the film practices this motto in its craft.
It uses all sorts of creative little tricks to focus your attention on something while pulling a sleight of hand. And, perhaps most importantly, “Focus” doesn’t give you all the information you need to grasp the basic flow of a scene: for example, we see a character go into a store — and we have no context for this action — he buys a random assortment of bizarre objects, gets in his car, does some unexpected things with those objects, and then intentionally speeds up toward another car. It’s not until a good five minutes of wordless activity, uneasy long shots, and a car wreck — with no musical cues to give you a hint about the mood or meaning of each event — that you finally find out why the character did all of those things he did.
And the film does this all over the place. It really keeps you guessing, and almost every scene there’s this unspoken tension because the audience is just slightly disoriented — not too much to be annoying, but just enough to keep you moving closer to the edge of your seat. Nothing is telegraphed.
Also, the use of ambient noise is exceptional and carefully planned. In one scene, two characters have a tense conversation near a training track for F-1 formula racing cars, but the searing whine and roar of the cars taking practice laps almost overpowers the conversation. It’s not constant though, and that’s the trick. It dies down and you hear the conversation crystal clear. But then 20 seconds later the cars come back around that end of the track, and, once again, you’re straining forward to hear what they’re saying. Then it dies down again. It feels as intrusive as real life.
This audio realism creates extraordinary dramatic tension without the director relying on any musical cues to manufacture emotion. (It was a stand-out scene from the film, in my opinion).
Worldview/Themes of Redemption
At its core — beneath all the sleazy layers of criminally crazed, greedy, glorified con artist psychology — this film is (surprisingly) a message movie. And its message is simple: love cannot exist in any meaningful form in an environment filled with distrust and deceit. Its secondary moral message is similar: lying destroys relationships. Period.
However — and this is a big “however” — the audience will have to wade through a thick stream of R-rated content (that borders on soft-core porn), both visually and in the graphic sex jokes spoken in the dialogue, to get to these messages that arrive by the end of the film.
[Big Spoilers From This Point Forward]
In addition to these positive messages about love’s incompatibility with lying and distrust, the film’s protagonist has a redemptive journey. When he falls in love and begins to care about another person for the first time in his life, this eventually pulls him out of his lifestyle of lying, stealing, and conning. By the film’s ending, it’s strongly implied that he will go clean and stop his criminal career for the sake of love.
[Major Spoilers Below]
“Focus,” like many other con artist movies, glorifies the act of scamming people and theft. It makes con artists look sexy — at least at first.
But as we descend into the conflicted, twisted mind of Nicky, we begin to see how the conning and lying has taken a toll on him. In the final scenes, he finally tells the truth: he regrets all of the destructive dishonesty in his life and he wishes that the only lies he had ever told were “normal” ones (normal meaning non-criminal, won’t-get-you-arrested lies) — like when a married man tells his wife an outfit looks good on her even when he doesn’t like it.
Even though this “confession” takes place in the context of a scam, the way he delivers the lines, and the build-up to the moment, reveals that he genuinely means it.
So, in a strangely twisted kind of way, the heart of this film actually has some edifying messages and a gripping, hard-to-predict journey of redemption for Will Smith’s character.
But the road that the audience must take to get to that point of clarity — to that point of focus — is filled to overflowing with glorified depictions of the “pride of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life” that 1 John describes. Although I found the underlying messages of the film affirming and convicting in positive ways, I also felt like I had just spent a couple hours in the twisted mental cobwebs of very greedy, selfish criminals — a subterranean world that thrives and plunders in broad daylight, and where everyone, even the minor characters, have innocent blood on their hands.
Of course, none of us is perfect, and we’ve all been tainted with degrees of greed and selfishness, but this film submerges you neck-deep into selfish humanity — with graphic visuals and dialogue that’s a little hard to shake from your mind once you’ve left the theater.
On the other hand, “Focus” is also a well thought-out film with brilliant execution in its film craft. I have to give the filmmakers credit; they’ve got some serious talent.
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