How's this for a set up? A young man named Hiroshi (Kiichi Sonobe) is driving aimlessly through the highways and backroads of rural Japan seemingly without a destination. His hair falls over his face and he compulsively chain smokes. Night falls, he pulls into a roadside restaurant and orders a meal. "Where am I?" he asks the owner. It turns out he's out in the middle of Tochigi Prefecture. How did he end up here? Hiroshi asks the owner of the restaurant for water and he gets a tepid glassful slammed down on the table in front of him. Hiroshi glares up at the owner and suddenly is transformed into a pale-faced, blacked-suited demonic version of himself who proceeds to beat the owner of the restaurant into a bloody pulp. Then just as suddenly we cut back to Hiroshi at the table as if nothing's happened. It's a great, shocking moment and one that perfectly lays the groundwork for the rest of Yasunobu Takahashi's debut feature film "Locked Out".
Obviouly this Hiroshi character is a bad, bad man, and when we hear a radio broadcast about a missing child in the area he becomes the audience's number one suspect, especially after we see that Hiroshi is packing a bloody pick axe in the car. What happens next, though, is a potential stroke of genius. The film cuts to Shoko (Miho Ogata), a harried mother on a shopping trip with her six-year-old son, Keita (Takeru Shimada). Shoko breaks the first rule of good parenting by leaving the boy alone in the car as she goes back to get one last item, which gives the energetic Keita his chance to have a little adventure. In two seconds he's out and exploring the parking lot, but when he returns to what looks like mommy's car he in fact get's into Hiroshi's car, the young guy with the split personality and the bloody pick axe. Now, I say this is a potential stroke of genius because the audience immediately jumps to the edge of their seats, but the way Takahashi chooses to play with our expectations isn't always entirely successful and jeopardize the rest of the film.
To follow along with more plot details at this point would be a huge disservice to anyone who hasn't seen "Locked Out", but suffice to say that everything is not what it seems to be and Hiroshi and young Keita's road trip takes them into new territory, both literally and figuratively. As things progressed I couldn't help thinking of Clint Eastwood's criminally underrated 1993 drama "A Perfect World" in which Kevin Costner plays an escaped convict who kidnaps a young boy and takes him across country. In that film no matter how friendly Eastwood allowed Costner and the boy to get he never let us forget that Costner was a dangerous, volatile man. Takahashi on the other hand seems to have trouble keeping this fine balance, which doesn't mean that Hiroshi has to be a sociopath, but that we in the audience should be meant to believe he is for as long as possible.
That being said I wouldn't categorize "Locked Out" as a failure, far from it. While the plotting might have fallen a bit flat for me the performances kept my eyes glued to the screen right until the end credits rolled. Kiichi Sonobe shows a very impressive range in his portrayal of Hiroshi. While Takahashi calls into question just how dangerous this young man actually is the character remains deeply divided throughout the film and Sonobe skillfully captures Hiroshi's dilemma. What was also very refreshing was the performance by young Takeru Shimada as the wayward Keita. North American audiences are so used to seeing precocious child stars playing to the camera, so to see a real timid, playful, and honestly child-like Shimada onscreen is a real breath of fresh air.
"Locked Out" is far from being a perfect film, but it's performances and Takahashi's obvious passion for filmmaking that keeps it lingering in the viewers mind long after it is finished. That's always a good sign, especially when you're dealing with actors and directors who are just starting out. I eagerly await more from Takahashi and Sonobe.