A slow movie may not have the action or pacing to keep an audience’s attention, but there is always something to keep them invested, be it character or performance. Director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”) has done well with this type of movie in the past; “Cast Away” and “Flight,” both slow moving character pieces, rank among his best work. His newest film, “Allied,” is a different story. During the first half, it offers the viewer next to nothing to invest in, and by the time it gets the story rolling in hour two, it’s nearly too late.
Not all of these failings can be blamed on Zemeckis, because the script from Steven Knight (“Peaky Blinders”) is at least partially accountable as well. For the first half of the movie, scene after scene passes without making any significant progress in the development of character or plot. It seems to be biding time until something exciting finally happens at the end of the first act. At this point, the characters would ordinarily be holding the film together, but neither of them are all that engaging. They’re both shown to be competent spies, but that alone isn’t enough to capture one’s attention and hold it for any amount of time.
Some of the blame also has to go to the performers, in particular Brad Pitt (“Fight Club”), who plays Max Vatan. It’s something of an understatement to call Pitt a “good actor,” and he has improved with age — as his turns in “Inglorious Basterds,” “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life” can attest. It’s hard to say what his problem is in “Allied,” but he comes across as flat for the bulk of the runtime. Even at Max Vatan’s most emotional, most intense moments, he seems almost incapable of emoting beyond slightly raising his voice or pouting. It’s telling that his best moment on screen is a scene in which he shuffles a deck of cards in magnificently over-the-top fashion.
That blame doesn’t necessarily extend to the entire cast though. Marion Cotillard (“Inception”) gives a layered performance as Marianne Beauséjour once the script gives her something to work with, and is unarguably the best, most interesting part of the movie. The script calls for her to be potentially duplicitous, yet likable enough that the viewer roots for her to be truthful, and she walks the line with ease. Jared Harris (“Mad Men”) doesn’t get as much screen time in his supporting role as Max’s commanding officer, but even he adds more humanity and emotion to the affair than Pitt.
To the movie’s credit, “Allied” does get progressively more interesting as the story comes together. As Max begins to look into the accusations levelled against his wife, the viewer is forced, to a certain extent, to put themselves in his shoes. It’s hard at that point not to feel a little sympathy for him, even if he is the least fascinating part of the ordeal. Zemeckis even manages to draw out the suspense in a couple scenes; a sequence taking place under the cover of dark in a French jailhouse is particularly memorable for its intensity.
It’s ultimately sad that that same intensity — or at least level of engagement — did not spread to the rest of “Allied.” It clearly holds the markers of greatness. Zemeckis has directed some of the most iconic films ever made, Pitt and Cotillard are both spellbinding when they’re operating at the top of their game and Knight proved with “Locke” that the man can write a minimalist script with the best of them. Here, much of that talent feels squandered. “Allied” isn’t a complete loss, as it does slowly become an above-average romantic thriller near its climax, but it is certainly a disappointment.