dir. Lasse Hallstrom
Release Date: Feb 14, 13
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A woman, making a frantic escape from an unknown but clearly dangerous situation, gets on the first bus out of town and heads to a picturesque coastal town, where the townsfolk are quaint and she can reinvent herself while finding the kind of solitude she yearns for. And just when it seems as though life could scarcely become more idyllic, in walks a chiseled hunk who’s bashful and kind, yet a firm and passionate lover, with a couple precocious kids to boot. Alas, the perfect situation cannot simply exist; she first has to face her past before she can move on with her picture-perfect life.
This seems like the Mad Libs synopsis for every women-in-danger Lifetime movie ever made, or for that matter the compiled output of author Nicholas Sparks, who’s made improbable amounts of money riffing on this theme. Film adaptations of his novels have become hugely profitable as well, so ubiquitous that the “Nicholas Sparks movie” has almost become its own subgenre. Safe Haven, the latest of his novels to see the big screen, contributes something new to this clichéd formula: complete and utter madness. If Safe Haven wasn’t such an ugly film for much of its grossly overlong 115 minutes, it would be film’s latest glorious contribution to the So Bad It’s Good canon; the speed at which the film’s narrative machinations escalate would give Ron Burgundy whiplash.
Those machinations start with the romance between Katie (Julianne Hough) and Alex (Josh Duhamel), a romance meticulously scripted from the first glance. Duhamel is so affectless and Hough so unconvincing as a woman hiding deep, emotionally-scarring secrets that the absence of chemistry between the two actually becomes distracting. Most of Safe Haven is devoted to charting the inevitable beats of their relationship: he’s a widower, she’s in hiding and with only her neighbor (Cobie Smulders) to keep her company, his daughter loves Katie right away but his son still remembers his mother too well to embrace this new woman. (One of the movie’s most obnoxious tendencies is its insistence on brushing the young boy’s feelings aside; his are the only emotional motives that make even a lick of sense.) Because this is a Sparks adaptation, the two will come together, go canoeing, dance to an old-timey song on the radio and fall in love, only to be torn apart by a second act-ending deus ex machina that will a) embody Roger Ebert’s Idiot Plot and b) take them apart for an unconvincing 15-20 minutes until they’re reunited.
Where the crazy surrounding Safe Haven emerges is also part of the film’s unpleasant subtext. At this point, it’s time for a
Without which any explanation of Safe Haven’s failings is difficult. Katie’s secret is an abusive husband named Tierney, played by David Lyons with the mannerisms of a meth addict. Director Lasse Hallstrom, who really should know better, directs every one of Tierney’s appearances in the film (in a subplot where he abuses powers that apparently exist beyond any jurisdiction in the United States) with the lurid, ominous tones of a serial killer thriller. Safe Haven is split into two different movies, one of which looks like a Hallmark card and another that looks like a reenactment from Snapped. Instead of bothering to explore the psychology of an abusive relationship, or the emotional trauma that Katie has encountered, the film turns Tierney into a cartoon villain that need only be dispatched in spectacular fashion in order to allow Katie her happily ever after.
What’s so unpleasant about this story is the way in which Safe Haven traffics repeatedly in Katie’s abuse in order to generate suspense that the stillborn narrative can’t dredge up otherwise. There’s something interesting about a redemption story that features slice-of-life observations about starting over (something to which Hallstrom would be well-suited), but there’s only the icky sense of gratification to be found through violence begetting more violence in order to attain a happily-ever-after. The various allusive flashbacks in the form of Katie’s nightmares would’ve sufficed for ominous atmosphere, but Safe Haven is so desperate for a way out of the endless banality of its main story that an unnecessary flashback to Hough being choked, child endangerment and an uproariously nonsensical final twist straight out of the M. Night Shyamalan School of God-Awful Endings are employed to bring the whole thing home. Safe Haven has been sold as escapist Valentine’s Day fare, but one can only shudder to think about the kind of post-film sex couples managed after something so unpleasantly inept.