Jonathan Demme’s reimagining of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic sees Denzel Washington as Gulf War veteran Bennett Marco who comes to suspect that his unit was captured and brainwashed in Kuwait and that his fellow soldier Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), now a Vice Presidential candidate, is being used as a conditioned tool of the influential corporation Manchurian Global.
The 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate manages to retain the same basic foundation as its predecessor but it also effectively modernises it all as well. The setting moves from the Cold War to the Gulf War and primarily focuses on the modern(ish) political system and the hot button issue of terrorism that we are still all too aware of today.
The character of Bennett Marco is the main focus of the film, more so than in the original, and Denzel Washington is clearly a confident lead. It is initially uncertain as to whether there is any truth in what Marco is saying, what he believes, or whether he is simply suffering from the trauma brought on by the war, coupled with the medication that he is on. Washington conveys a definite sense of desperation and determination and he gives the film a solid foundation. In addition, Liev Schreiber delivers a somewhat sinister turn as Shaw, acting the confident, strong political candidate while at the same time, having a certain vulnerability.
We also have Meryl Streep taking on the role that Angela Lansbury took on so effectively. Her character is quite different from the original incarnation as she is more clearly based on certain American politicians that we know, very outspoken and confident. While not quite as effective as Lansbury, Streep is appropriately creepy, dangerous and a strong force to be reckoned with.
Jonathan Demme’s direction is particularly noteworthy, making generous use of first person perspective and close up facial shots, a technique he’s given us before with The Silence of the Lambs. Through this, the film feels claustrophobic and ensures that the audience hangs on every word that the characters say. In addition, the slow zoom-ins and listing camera pans help give the film an unnerving edge.
Accompanied by an effectively ominous score, courtesy of Rachel Portman, Demme’s film confidently establishes a sense of paranoia and unease as we watch Washington’s character desperately try to get to the bottom of the pivotal conspiracy. It is reminiscent of Enemy of the State due to its focus on surveillance and political conspiracy.
Unlike the original, in this film we see far more of the brainwashing process and it is shown very effectively. Through the characters’ dreams, we can see how awful and nightmarish the process was and these scenes are particularly jarring and tense. In particular, the scenes wherein Shaw has a “check up” and certain things are visibly implanted into his brain are very unnerving and horrific.
It is also interesting to note that the character of Eugenie Rose, as portrayed by Janet Leigh in the original, Kimberly Elise here, is given more to do and her loyalties are made perfectly clear in this film, as opposed to in the original version where she was a bit more of an enigma.
Ultimately, this is a very good remake, far darker than the original, although it does tend to get a bit generic in the final act. The film doesn’t quite sustain its momentum and events do tend to get far less interesting as time goes on.
A relentlessly tense, unnerving film with masterful direction, unsettling visuals and strong performances.