"Dirty Pretty Things" (IMDb listing) has the kind of finish I've always wished "Shawshank Redemption" would have opted for (Stephen King had it right in his novella). It not only promises but delivers a final cadence of hope and does what few films attempt anymore: It invites us to imagine what happens beyond the closing credits without prying itself open for a possible sequel. We're involved in the ending of Stephen Frears' gritty thriller because we're involved in the characters. In this regard he even has one up on some of Hitchcock's and De Palma's work. The pacing of "Things" is nicely thought out, too. What kind of thriller would it be without intelligent pacing? But it's not simply paced to thrill. It's paced to catch us off guard for its unusual climax. In fact much of the film is painfully slow. We're on the wavelength of the main character, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who hasn't slept in...I don't know, forever. He's a Nigerian immigrant living illegally in England, and sleeping with one eye open is apparently too risky for him, so he keeps both lids propped up. Fittingly, the film itself is very like a nightmare, and Okwe probably wishes he was dreaming it all. But he's not.
No, kidneys are really being hauled out of the bodies of desperate immigrants, conned into donating their organs in exchange for passports. The success rate of this meatball surgery, which is performed in one of the rooms of the hotel where Okwe works, isn't very good. And therein lies the film's substitute for a murder mystery. It all begins when Okwe makes a grizzly discovery while investigating a clogged toilet in room 510. Sneaky (Sergi López), the smarmy recruiter of donors, is the closest thing we get to a heavy. But one of the many fascinating details of "Things" is that it remains a suspense thriller without any cliched demarcations of good and evil. There isn't even any gun play! But there are levels of evil in the film, and moments of inspiring goodness. They're just not as digestible as we might like them to be.
The politics of "Things" is, in keeping with the vast majority of suspense thrillers, elusive. The film is certainly not interested in superficial trappings such as partisanship or special interest. Of course, black market kidney dealings aren't presented in a positive light, but Okwe does find himself struggling with the paradox that some good comes from the barbarous network in which Sneaky operates: People who might otherwise die are receiving kidney transplants. But everyone has a breaking point. Okwe reaches his when his would-be lover, Senay (Audrey Tautou), is lured to room 510, desperate for a counterfeit passport. Even the one-liners in the film (most of them delivered by Okwe's friend Guo Yi (Benedict Wong)) don't reveal much of a political bent. If anything, they shade "Things" with ambiguity.
So why bother bringing up politics at all? Well, because even though Steve Knight's script isn't political in its particulars, it's of a vaguely political nature. And this is really about the only stunt that "Things" falls short of pulling off. It lacks the intellectual engine needed to power its daring substitution for the tried and true tableu of a man in a suit lying face down on a shag carpet with a stiletto in his back. A film like "The French Connection" can afford to be politically hesitant in places because it favors the violent payoff for all of its suspense. Frears and Knight have, to their credit, taken the suspense thriller in a decidedly non-violent direction. The problem is that their approach leaves a void that might have been filled with any number of compelling head games but isn't.
Still, the writing is good overall. The dialogue is believable, the story compelling. And the climax really is a treat for those who like a surprise ending that connects the dots instead of coloring outside of them.
Filmfodder Grade: B