It’s been only a couple of hours since my screening of the latest Nicholas Sparks movie adaptation, and I’m still having difficulty figuring out how to critique it without giving away any spoilers or crucial plot points. Safe Haven may not look like the type of movie that warrants a cautious review, but it’s a twisty film that can be uncovered by the simple slip of a certain character’s name.
The first character we’re introduced to is Katie, played by Julianne Hough. She’s the epitome of a damsel in distress as she runs away from a bloody incident and whimpers to a nearby neighbour, “I don’t know what happened”.
We then immediately cut to Katie with a different haircut and looking frantic as she dodges police officers and hops on a train to an unknown destination. To quote her character from Rock of Ages, “she took the midnight train going anywhere.”
But, where things were more straightforward in something like Rock of Ages, Safe Haven wants to lead us down a twisty path. A big theme that is at play throughout the film is that things and people may not be as they seem to be. Everyone has a story.
In Safe Haven, moviegoers are strung along to think one thing and often the rug is pulled out from underneath us. The problem is an odd one – director Lasse Hallström does too good of a job fooling us to a fault and screenwriters Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens don’t do a good enough job on their part.
Having talked to an avid fan of Sparks’ novel, the film followed the source material very closely. Nicholas Sparks served as a producer after all. So, Safe Haven’s script may be faithful but these initial scenes have to at least make audiences want to follow our leading lady.
This first run-in with Hough is problematic because we’re led to believe that she’s a wanted felon. Because this evidence has been presented to us with little bologna attached and because Hallström has crafted this pivitol event in such a way that pits Hough as anything except a victim, it’s unbelievably tough to care about what happens to her character – other than our need to see her get caught.
Safe Haven then goes through the usual motions viewers expect out of a film based on material written by Sparks. Nicholas Sparks may be able to successfully write about that budding, shy romance that slowly develops between two polar opposites but, after the umpteenth book-to-screen adaptation, Hollywood’s representation is now getting to a point where it’s hard to give it a passing grade for creativity.
We, yet again, see two highly recognizable stars play two attractive leads who dismiss each other at first (in this case, Hough and Josh Duhmel), and then have that first date that starts as an awkward encounter, but then finds itself to be a time where both leads can deeply emote to each other leading to various montages of “good times” and caressing set to soft, acoustic music.
This formula may be running out of steam, but it’s essentially what audiences want to see. What makes Safe Haven not work as well as those other adaptations is that absence of sympathy or compassion for Katie. Why should we care if she’s falling in love with the small town single Dad hunk when the cops are trying to trace her down?
Safe Haven is predictable, until that final stretch. This is when those aforementioned twists occur. Twists that I’ll shut up about. Because that last third is what saves the film from being considered “just another slice of Sparks”.
Because Hallström was able to lead us on a path that may have not been the most trustworthy one, these reveals still catch us off guard. Safe Haven then starts to explain itself a bit more, leading to more details and more reasonings to back up motivations and questions like, “why was she holding that knife?” and “why is that police officer so persistent to catch this runaway?”.
These twists may be well executed, but because we’ve been so determined thinking one thing about a certain character, it makes us wonder what the film would be like now, knowing this new info. Hallström and company have fooled us but they’ve also removed an element of enjoyability from their film by persuading moviegoers too far from the actual truth.
However, the bottom line is Safe Haven has me wanting to re-watch it; which makes it hard to dismiss it as a misfire.
Hallström proves he’s still able to pull genuine reactions out of his actors – especially with cute kids – but he does need some work with his grittier filmmaking. In this case, the scenes with the cops. It takes more than a shaky camera and some muted colours to make a tense mood. These techniques make the film look dated – as if I was watching a thriller from the early 2000’s.
Finally, the events leading up to the game changers may be by-the-numbers but Hough and Duhmel are charismatic and have an alluring screen presence – even if we’re rooting against one of them for a main portion of the film.