Swedish director Mikael Håfström tips off audiences early that we’ll never know what’s coming next in his first American feature film. He does it by having ad exec Charles Shine suggest to his daughter that she describe a novel in her book report as containing surprise changes of direction. Just as I am now describing this movie. So much of this film revolves around "surprises," in fact, that it would be impossible to review it without giving away some of them. So consider this your spoiler warning.
Based on the novel by James Siegel, Derailed tells a brutal story of adultery and its consequences. Charles still loves his wife, but they’ve drifted apart, their relationship strained by their daughter’s critical type 1 diabetes and Charles’ stressful job as an ad exec in downtown Chicago. He nurtures a flirtation begun on his morning train with Lucinda Harris, a married woman with a young daughter of her own. After several long lunches with her, he calls his wife one night to tell her he’ll be working late and the seemingly reluctant pair find themselves in a seedy hotel room in a bad part of town.
After fully giving in to temptation, they suffer an explosive attack by a gunman who takes their money, beats Charles severely and rapes Lucinda. Already overwhelmed with guilt, Charles’ desperation grows when Laroche, the attacker, starts calling to ask for money, threatening to expose the affair and to harm his wife and daughter. Lucinda begs Charles not to go to the police, so he begins a dangerous game to get Laroche out of his life.
Although its objectionable content is severe, Derailed carefully avoids glamorizing adultery. No attempt is made to seduce us into rooting for the act. In fact, we’re compelled to root for the opposite choice. The atmosphere of regret for what they’re about to do grows more and more palpable around Charles and Lucinda the closer they move toward giving in. And the awareness that all of the awful things that follow could have been avoided by simple faithfulness never dissipates. The director doesn’t let us forget that Charles’ suffering and the risk to his family are his own doing.
The film’s pivotal scene is the one in which Charles and Lucinda come together in a dank hotel room to commit adultery. After some initial reluctance, they give in and begin to kiss passionately and undress each other. (His shirt is unbuttoned and pants unbuckled; she is seen in a revealing camisole.)
Then the attacker Laroche explodes into the room. With brutal and profane aggression, he rapes Lucinda as Charles lays semi-conscious on the floor. And the audience endures much of the experience. No nudity is seen, but the rape itself is depicted in explicit detail.
Throughout the ordeal, Laroche taunts Charles with expletives and description. It’s a disturbing, disgusting and ugly scene. It barely matters that the impact of the rape is moderated by revelations later in the film. The viewer is still forced to witness it and carry the weight of it for most of the story—and after the credits roll, too.
In addition to the rape scene, Derailed contains several fatal shootings as well as multiple scenes in which Laroche intimidates, threatens and assaults Charles, including implications that he might attack Charles’ wife and daughter if he doesn’t get paid. Charles is seen with his face bloodied after one beating; in another Laroche appears to painfully grab his crotch for several long moments while threatening him.
Lucinda tells Charles she had an abortion after the attack. A man is unexpectedly and fatally shot in the head at close range, forcing a character to dispose of the bloodied corpse. Several people are killed in a rapid and bloody exchange of gunfire. A man is fatally stabbed in the heart, and the camera lingers as the knife is turned and blood pours from the wound.
Crude or Profane Language
Around 50 uses of the f-word are heard, half of which are either preceded by “mother” or used sexually. The s-word is uttered close to 20 times, along with multiple uses of Jesus’ and God’s names for swearing. In addition, crude references are made to masculine and feminine genitalia several times, along with other profanities.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several characters smoke, including Charles and Laroche, and people are seen drinking in bars and restaurants.
In interviews about their film, the director and actors have repeatedly referred to Derailed as an Alfred Hitchcock-style thriller in which an ordinary man is put in extraordinary circumstances. I have no idea what kind of movies the master of suspense would be making in today’s permissive, violence-hungry entertainment culture. But it’s hard to imagine him forcing so much explicit content on audiences. His brilliance, after all, was found in part in revealing the depth of our human depravity by bringing it to life in the viewer’s imagination, not in detail on the screen.
So I find myself wondering if this film could have been more powerful had the director shown more restraint. Who cannot identify with the fear and horror of finding oneself trapped by the consequences of wrong decisions or a moral failure? Charles’ plight may have had more resonance and earned deeper empathy if I hadn’t been forced to emotionally retreat from the brutal images on the screen.
Instead, the movie’s lasting impact is reduced to a lingering repulsion to the rape scene and the ultimately ineffective twists and turns of the plot. Charles may (or may not) find success in getting his life back and protecting his family. But despite a convincingly desperate turn from actor Clive Owen, few of Charles’ choices seem based on any moral foundation. He did wrong. He got burned. He fought back. So what? Did he learn anything? Do the concepts of right and wrong play any larger role in his life now than before? His actions throughout the film seem guided only by expediency—by what he feels forced to do to protect his family from his own failure—never by real conscience.
To top it off, the much talked-about surprises in the film just aren’t all that surprising. In fact, in retrospect, several events felt extremely convenient in moving the story where it needed to go. But even if they had shocked me, twists and double-twists are never enough to make enduring sexual violence and a barrage of bad language worthwhile.