Review: Salma Hayek’s got to get primal to survive the action movie ‘Everly’

AUSTIN – “Everly” puts me in an uncomfortable position.

Sure, nowhere near as uncomfortable as the circumstances faced by Everly (Salma Hayek) over the course of the film, a one-room action movie, but as a film critic, I find myself really wrestling with my reaction.

On the one hand, I like the energy of the film, and I think Hayek is about as appealing a lead as she's been in a while as the film opens in media hell, with her as a sex slave who finds herself at a turning point, freedom in her sights, but with a whole wall of mayhem between her and escape. The film makes a lot out of its single location, and I'm a fan of films where you watch one space get more and more destroyed over the course of an evening. Director Joe Lynch directs the film like a hungry man chasing a ham sandwich, and it's that eagerness-to-please that I genuinely like about the film.

There's a problem, though, and it's not a new problem. In January of 2012, I wrote a piece that was inspired by a partial viewing of the film “The Divide” in which I tapped out of being able to sit through rape as a device in exploitation films. When I wrote that piece, Fantastic Fest was certainly on my mind, which makes sense because this is a festival where the programmers are pulling genre films from around the world, and they have an appetite for the extreme. I know full well when I'm going to go to Fantastic Fest that I'll see things that will challenge me and that will push me out of my comfort zone, and that there will be plenty of times I will be upset. Sexual violence was prevalent this year, as it is every year, because the filmmakers who the programmers are drawn to have certain subjects they consider worth discussion, provocations that they feel are important.

In “Everly,” the film opens with Salma Hayek in a bathroom, nude and in shock, desperate. Something has just happened. She retrieves a cell phone and a gun from the toilet tank and, with someone banging on the locked door, tries to call the cops for help. When that door finally opens, she makes a choice, and that choice kicks off the rest of the film, and as a scene, it's a great place to start. You're immediately on her side. She's freaking out, but she's ready to fight back. That's exactly what you want in an action/revenge movie like this.

But what is it that just happened? Well, that's where it gets problematic. Everly is essentially owned by a crazed Japanese gangster/boogeyman named Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe), and for the last four years, she's been under constant lock and key. She finally found a way to try to escape, and just as she thought she was going to get away with it, Taiko caught wind of it, and he ordered his men to not only stop her, but also to punish her.

See where this is going? Well, it does, and while the event itself is not portrayed on-screen (sort of), I got that familiar sinking feeling, and it was clear from conversations afterwards that many people at the festival felt the same way. One of the reasons it feels like such a frustrating call is because the film is aiming for a fun tone overall. It's rough, and the world leaves scars, but it's played for a sort of “Kill Bill” style glee. After the reveal of the rape, though, the film begins to steer into the sexual violence more and more heavily, and eventually a well-oiled Hayek ends up bound in a torture device in a way that is pure “Perils of Pauline,” and we're unmistakably in that territory where exploitation and empowerment trade places.

Having said that, maybe I'm just extra-squeamish about all of this at this particular point in time. We're at a flashpoint in terms of the conversation about some of these ideas, and one of the things I find myself drawn to right now is art that engages that conversation. When we've got the first female UAE pilot ever being heckled by a news channel in a grotesque sexualized manner, it's obvious that we have to start really grappling with the idea of what constitutes a strong woman and illustrating it in new ways. I want to be able to enjoy cinema that can be thrilling and crazy and kinetic and concussive, but we have to motivate these stories in new ways.

“Everly” served as an interesting counterpoint to “Khalili Gibran's The Prophet,” the animated film that Hayek produced that I saw and adored at the Toronto Film Festival. That film is pretty much an act of motherly love by Hayek, an ode to her own Lebanese heritage and also a project designed to give her daughter something spiritually nourishing to enjoy. In “Everly,” the character is driven not only by her own degradation but also by the threat that the same might happen to her four-year-old daughter Maisey (Aisha Ayamah), and Hayek rings true in every beat about her daughter or especially when she's acting with her. Hayek's always had an energy that works well when she's got a director who understands how to play with her. I thought she was a fascinating black widow in Oliver Stone's “Savages” recently, for example. She hasn't made an action film since “Bandidas,” though, and when you look at her whole career, she really isn't known for this sort of thing. She's not really an action star. Maybe that's why she impressed me here. I think she is aggressively good in the role, and it makes me hope that maybe she'll get her Liam Neeson moment.

For director Lynch, this is a defining moment. He and his partner in crime Adam Green are both well-liked members of the horror fandom community, and he's worked in various capacities on all sorts of things over the years. As a director, he got his break with the sequel “Wrong Turn 2: Dead End,” and then contributed a segment to the anthology film “Chillerama.” His follow-up was supposed to be “Knights Of Badassdom,” which had a great cast and a promising premise, but which got wrenched away from the filmmaker during post-production. While he's had some success with his comedy series “Holliston” and he made a really slick and gnarly Marvel fan film called “Venom: Truth In Journalism,” he's never really had a feature that was undeniably his. “Everly” is that moment, as he's a co-writer on the film with Yale Hannon. He's got a good creative team around him, including composer Bear McCreary and Evan Schiff, his editor, and perhaps the most important person he hired was Ondrej Nekvasil, his production designer. Nekvasil also was the production designer on this year's “Snowpiercer,” another movie that leans heavily on an environment. This guy's a pretty major talent, and in an age of big-budget world-building, he seems like someone who should be working on those projects.

Lynch's energy is evident in the way the film whips from tone to tone, and also from the way action happens in these giddy spastic explosions. He never quite holds the throttle down all the way, instead choosing to build moments where he can set up a domino display and then knock it down. What I would hope is that on Lynch's next film, he'll have more than a couple of weeks to shoot a movie. It's hard to nail down the kind of details that push something like this over the top if you're having to work like you're being chased. That's ambition, though, and “Everly” is positively spilling over with that. He's making the sort of film that he has enjoyed, each time out, and there's a real jump in terms of muscle from film to film. It makes Lynch the sort of filmmaker I'm always rooting for, and perhaps that's the reason some of the film's weakest choices frustrated me. He's got it in him to make big brash wackadoo movies that mash up genre and influence and that also have his sense of humor, and “Everly” is the best example yet of just why I'll always set the time aside to see whatever he makes.

And, look, I don't want to make it sound like “Everly” is the worst offender about any of what I discussed at the head of the review. Far from it. But it's because the film could so obviously deliver a thrilling experience without ever including rape in the film, it feels emblematic of just how pervasive a choice it is. You'll be able to weigh in yourself, because “Everly” will be in theaters… soon. Just how soon depends on a number of factors, but it's obvious that Radius-TWC has plans for it, particularly after this week's enthusiastic audience response.

The film was reviewed as part of Fantastic Fest 2014.