Film Review: The Samaritan

This small-bore Canadian noir, starring Samuel L. Jackson as a paroled grifter doing battle with demons from his past, goes from mechanical to (unintentionally) hilarious, stopping frequently at the cliché shop along the way.

Sometime in between playing his pivotal role as Nick Fury in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, starring as Martin Luther King, Jr. on Broadway, and gearing up for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Samuel L. Jackson decided to star in and executive produce this little noir-ish exercise from Canadian director David Weaver. It’s difficult to understand why, because with the exception of one especially shocking plot twist about an hour in, there’s nothing in this film that hasn’t been done at least ten-thousand times previously—and at least nine-thousand of those films did it better.

Jackson plays Foley (no other name needed, he’s that kind of guy), who we first see as he’s being released from prison after serving a quarter-century for murder. We know he’s a decent character because we hear Foley in a voiceover at the start of the film talking thoughtfully about having to work at changing your life. That’s about all we get for interior life with his character. He spends a little time hitting old haunts in Toronto, just long enough to discover that the old crowd he ran with is either dead or long retired from crime and wanting nothing to do with him. So he drinks alone in a bar, works construction, and tries to keep his nose clean.

That becomes harder when Ethan (Luke Kirby), the sleazoid son of Foley’s old grifter partner, comes calling, trying to get him interested in returning to the old life. Just as Foley’s decency is telegraphed by his simple clothes and oldster’s fedora, Ethan’s scum factor is highlighted by his penchant for slick black suits, minimalist apartment, and hanging out in louche nightclubs. Ethan’s maneuvers involve sending party-girl-for-hire Iris (Ruth Negga, impressively sly) to seduce Foley and then just happening to have Foley watching when Ethan’s mobster boss Xavier (Tom Wilkinson) bloodily dispatches a man who stole from him. Ethan continues tightening the screws on Foley from every angle, trying to convince him to pull a very profitable long con.

Weaver’s film is extremely old-fashioned, and not in the way that implies deft writing and an attention to the rhythms of filmmaking and story. Every single element here feels borrowed, from the bolted-on lingo (“grift” and “mark” used very ostentatiously, with the feel of screenwriters who have spent five minutes on research) to the late appearance of a femme fatale (a very tired and distracted-seeming Deborah Kara Unger). Just about the only thing that feels fresh is the relationship between Iris and Foley; there’s something in the honest, quietly desperate interaction between these two highly damaged people that jumps off the screen—it doesn’t hurt that Jackson only seems to come alive in his scenes with Negga.

For a film about cons, The Samaritan is extraordinarily straightforward, with little in the way of twists or surprises. An especially gothic turn of events sends the film from merely dull into the realm of first squirm-inducing and then laughable. Only Kirby and Wilkinson really pick up on that tone, however, highlighting their lines with a camp gusto that the film could have used much more of. After all, if a film is going to be forgettable, it might as well have fun before disappearing altogether.