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Noir detective tale with shades of gray

June 13, 2008|Carina Chocano | Times Movie Critic

Given its pitch-black subject matter, you'd expect "Quid Pro Quo" to take a quick nose dive into something dank and lurid, never to emerge. Instead, writer-director Carlos Brooks and stars Nick Stahl and Vera Farmiga do something unexpectedly moving with this modern noir detective story, in which a wheelchair-bound NPR reporter descends into the world of "wannabe" amputees and paraplegics.

Isaac's (Stahl) strange trip begins when an anonymous caller contacts the editor of the popular public radio show for which Isaac works with a tip about a man who walked into Bayside Hospital the night before and requested that a perfectly good leg be amputated. The caller asks that Isaac be put on the story, probably because Isaac is confined to a wheelchair himself -- he lost the use of his legs as a child in a car accident that killed his parents. Soon Isaac is contacted by someone calling herself "Ancient Chinese Girl," who leads him to a secret meeting of wannabes and then to the mysterious Fiona (Farmiga), a beautiful art restorer with several dark secrets.

Gorgeously shot by Michael McDonough, "Quid Pro Quo" belies its modest budget with a glossy, burnished look that lifts the material into another realm. There's something liquid and haunting about the look of the film that adds to the feeling that what we're watching isn't real, and yet it easily avoids the cliches of the "dreamlike" aesthetic.

The insertion into the story of talismanic objects, such as a pair of vintage shoes with apparent magic powers and a potion for paralysis, also add a surreal, fairy-tale element to the story. But the questions it asks, questions about identity and its complex formation, keep it humanistic and rooted in reality.

Stahl and Farmiga give layered, restrained performances that keep what might have been a schlock fest with an improbable twist ending from devolving into trashiness.

Instead, Brooks and his actors manage to render an involving and thoughtful story from some pretty dubious material.


"Quid Pro Quo." MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality and language. Running time: 1 hour and 22 minutes. In limited release.

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