'Awake': The Rapid Pulse Of a Tell-Tale Heart

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

Another reason to stay out of the hospital: You awake one day in the middle of your operation and find that they've cut open your tum-tum, can't find the appendix and are playing strain-the-noodles with your intestines, giggling all the time.

Apparently, it could happen. "Awake," a new medico-conspiracy thriller that opened yesterday without a critics' screening, is based on the premise that a very small number of anesthetized patients awaken during their surgeries. Though paralyzed, they watch the docs cut out the goobers or ram in the new plastic or metal stuff, listen to the chitchat, watch the slow ticktock of the clock's hands and otherwise suffer the pangs of hell. No, thank you very much, even if actress Jessica Alba is hanging around. I'll take my intestines where they belong over a look at Alba any day of the week, no matter how beautiful she is.

"Awake" takes this remote possibility -- the awakening, not the idea that Alba would be in my hospital -- and puts it in the center of a clever conspiracy by asking the question: Can you expect a quality investigation when the detective's heart is in a jar next to the gurney? For it is indeed the operatee in a heart-transplant procedure who becomes the "detective," this by way of a kind of ghostly invention: He "imagines" himself off the operating table, and roams, invisible though in hospital gown and barefoot, the world, passing through past and present. In this condition, he is able to assemble the plot behind the alarming news he acquires as his operating-room team banters between incisions and chest-cracking. (Note: Movie not for faint of heart.)

Hayden Christensen, best known as Anakin Skywalker in the two most recent "Star Wars" installments, plays an extremely wealthy New Yorker named Clayton Beresford Jr., with a dangerously defective heart. He's been on the donor list for a new ticker for a year or so and, having character (i.e., being the hero of the movie), he doesn't pull rank or go to the black market as his domineering mother (Lena Olin) would prefer. Also against her preferences, he wants the young doctor (Terrence Howard) who saved his life on the occasion of his first attack to perform the operation, not the arrogant, seasoned professional his mother endorses.

Writer-director Joby Harold sets all this up so neatly and swiftly that it belies the fact it's his first time calling the shots. What I liked about the movie was the unassuming nature of its craftsmanship, the way it never goes all stylish on us and becomes one of those films about being a film, as opposed to being about telling a story.

Its pi¿ce de r¿sistance is the real-time (about 40-minutes' worth) ordeal by knife as the surgical staff -- Howard, Fisher Stevens, Georgina Chapman and Christopher McDonald as an incompetent anesthesiologist -- open the thoracic cavity (the film seems to find interesting ways to combine surgical footage with actors) and cuts to the waiting room where Ma Olin and the woman the young guy just secretly married-- that would be the aforementioned Alba, in a sweet-as-sugar role -- wait tensely. Harold goes back and forth between the two, tracking Clay's anxiety, and his horror at making the discovery that, first, he is awake and, second, a plot (against him) is afoot.

Let me give away the movie's greatest surprise: It's not a horror picture. It's not "Saw With Wicked Surgical Blades" and there's no Roscoe the Demon Surgeon of Bellevue (it was shot in New York) hacking up nurses in their lingerie. It's an actual, rare mystery thriller, with no true supernatural overtones.

Given the fact that the hero's heart is in a jar, the young director solves the problem of keeping the movie fluid and interesting in clever ways. Oh, and the twists: some nice ones. Wouldn't have guessed that . . . well, never mind. "Awake" is a pleasing if negligible diversion.

Awake (80 minutes at area theaters) is rated R for intense emotional situations, profanity, brief drug use and vivid film of surgical procedures.

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