The Mundane Abyss: Premonition

Sandra Bullock’s lack of vanity suits a film about normalcy’s violent end.

The Mundane Abyss: Premonition
Photo: MGM

Despite trailers that make it look like every other thriller starring an over-30 American actress, Premonition, starring Sandra Bullock as a suburban mom who prophecies and then tries to prevent her husband’s death, is a surprisingly strong movie—raw and lived-in, and just intelligent and honest enough that I wish it were great, or barring that, European.

As it unreeled, I found myself imagining what it would look like if it had been made in Denmark or France. No doubt it would have struggled with a different set of flaws, but it also might have been less concerned with outsmarting the audience and delivering X number of shocks (the last of which is laughably overscaled, like an outtake from Speed); it could have been, and should have been, like Olivier, Olivier or the original The Vanishing—an existential middle-class horror film. For a surprisingly large part of its running time, though, Premonition grounds heightened thriller emotions in observed reality—the cranky bustle of weekday morning routines in a household with two parents and two young children; adult phone conversations backed by the muffled squeal of kids playing in the backyard; the intimate evasions built into a long, essentially happy marriage in which both spouses work such long hours that they rarely find time to relate to each other as anything but parents; the hard silence that settles on a house after a death; the forced soothing tones of bereavement, which are the only proper reaction to catastrophic loss, but which can seem, to people at the epicenter of grief, inadvertently condescending, even maddening. Like other Hollywood thrillers with a domestic focus—a genre that includes Fatal Attraction, Intersection, and UnfaithfulPremonition is about the abyss that we walk around each day of our lives, the shock of falling into it, and the difficulty of climbing out.

Bullock communicates these ideas more eloquently and cleanly than the film does; she remains on-point even when director Mennon Yapo and screenwriter Bill Kelly thwart their own best instincts. From the moment Linda learns that her husband, hard-driving yuppie Jim Hanson (Nip/Tuck star Julian McMahon), has died in a fiery auto accident, spirals through the longest day of her life, then wakes up to find that Jim is alive and deduces that she’s seen the future and can change it, Premonition hits a note of metaphysical panic rarely seen in American studio movies and sustains it for longer than you expect, jumping beween the near past and the near future to the point where the film starts to seem like Sliding Doors as rewritten by Anne Tyler. The sense that the universe is out of whack, that time, rationality and memory cannot be trusted, is more frightening than the movie’s shocks, which are upsetting, sometimes overwhelmingly painful, but ultimately explicable, graspable—Jim’s death; his burial; Linda’s daughter’s mysterious disfigurement in the post-Jim future; Linda’s spiral into depression and the beginnings of mental illness.

But in due time, Kelly’s script reveals itself as a puzzle-box film along the lines of Memento (a fun film, but vastly less serious than Premonition initially threatened to be). You realize, perhaps with some disappointment, that this is a Hollywood movie, and Hollywood movies almost never let protagonists lose control of their lives for very long; because Linda is a heroine played by Sandra Bullock, she has to play detective, piece together the information she’s got and try to find, if not The Answer, than at least an answer, reshuffling remembered days like cards in a deck until she figures out where she is and what might happen next. The script supplies her with various foils and creeps, the most laughable of which is a psychiatrist played by Peter Stormare, a vivid but wildly imprecise actor; between his cheesy “I’ve got a secret” grin and his all-black outfit, he’s like a full-of-himself graduate theater student who just found out he’s been cast as Hamlet and can’t stop lording it over his peers. (On top of that, I just can’t listen to him talk without hearing the woodchipper in Fargo and the giant snipping scissors in The Big Lebowski. That’s not his fault, but still.)

Worse, by the two-thirds mark, Premonition starts sidestepping toward Oprah country, drawing up a pop-psych moral to the story—something like, “Death forces us toward a deeper understanding of life,” which is valid enough in the abstract, but reductive and inappropriate in a story set in the early days of grief. You can’t call the movie’s ending happy, but although it’s ballsy, it’s too schematically set up, too huge and too neat, and it’s certainly not sufficient to undo the damage done in the preceding 60 minutes, which are larded with Screenwriting 101 gimmickry (Nia Long’s best pal character, a sounding board with a pulse, being an especially egregious example).

Bullock tethers the movie to everyday fact. The lack of glamour that made her an uncomfortable ingenue in the ’90s (when she was in her early ’30s, too old to be playing affable babe roles) has become an asset. Even though too many of her movies felt like factory products made from scripts with other, bigger stars’ coffee stains on them, there was something Bullock’s demeanor that suggested an aversion to bullshit; in The Net, where she played a doubly improbable character—a young female computer hacker with a svelte, tanned, bikini-ready body—there were times she seemed to be stifling a yawn. Films like Hope Floats and the Speed and Miss Congeniality movies cast her as slightly goofy, slightly sexy gal who was pleasant but not terribly exciting, and camouflaged Bullock’s clear-as-day melancholy streak (an uncommercial quality in an American leading lady) as self-doubt that would be overcome by You-Go-Girl resilence (cue trumphant music). Now, at 45—the tail-end of youth for male leads and the twilight of stardom for most women—she’s got no sheen to shed; she knows it, and the knowledge appears to have liberated her. Bullock’s lack of vanity suits a film about normalcy’s violent end; when life has assaulted you, as it assaults Linda Hanson in Premonition, you’re too busy clawing through the wreckage of the day to worry what others think. As in last year’s Infamous, where she played Truman Capote’s pal and fellow amateur gumshoe Harper Lee—besting Catherine Keener’s performance in the same role in Capote, no small feat—Bullock doesn’t seem like a movie star scrubbing off her makeup to prove she can play “normal.” From the opening minutes of Premonition, she’s remarkably unremarkable. You read every eddy of feeling not because she’s playing big—this is an exquisitely small performance—but because of her transparency. She’s not self-consciously micromanaging our reactions to her character’s plight; she’s just existing and letting us watch.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder and original editor of The House Next Door, now a part of Slant Magazine. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, he is the Editor at Large of and TV critic for New York Magazine and

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