Whether he's a villain, like in that awesome "Brit bad guy" car commercial, or as the enigmatic hero, Mark Strong's grim determination is often the highlight of any film he's in. And the same holds true for Anna (formerly Mindscape), a mildly thrilling, decently twisty whodunnit that as the head games of Inception and the investigative spirit of Law & Order. It's only due to some lackluster, uninspired direction that the film never quite lives up to its considerable promise.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise the film never quite measures up as it was presented by none other than Jaume Collet-Serra, who showed such great potential with Orphan, another film about a teen who may or may not be a demented killer, but has since devolved into forgettable action flicks led by Liam Neeson. Collet-Serra delegated the directing duties on Anna to debut helmer Jorge Dorado, and his style is similarly unobtrusive and lacking in panache. A gripping, chaotic murder memory introduces us to John Washington (Strong), a telepathic detective with a ton of baggage and a low bank account who is tasked by his shady boss Sebastian (Brian Cox, always shady) to investigate the case of Anna (Taissa Farmiga, excellent), who has gone on a hunger strike to spite her wealthy parents. John is still dealing with the loss of his wife, but he needs the money and takes the gig expecting it to be easy. Get the girl to eat and the job is done. But he soon finds out there is more at stake than he bargained for, and coming out of his self-imposed exile may have been a mistake.
Anna's stepfather just wants her out of the house, while her mother is caring to a fault. As for Anna herself, she's a complicated mass of teen emotions. At once flirty, dangerous, brilliant, and sad, she seems to know things about John before he even says them. With the deaths of some old friends in her history, and a few dangerous acts against her parents, Anna knows the perception is that she's a psychopath. The question the film wants us to ponder is whether any of this is true, or if there is a wider conspiracy at foot? Is Anna playing everyone for fools by manipulating her own memories? Is she being set up, and if so by who? Her father? Sebastian? Or has John finally snapped under the telepathic burden? As he digs through her memories, John develops an affection for Anna that may not be the healthiest decision he could make. To be fair, Anna is immensely charming with a disarming wit that could be her deadliest weapon.
To Dorado's credit, he keeps the suspense and the mystery tightly wound for a good stretch, relying on the experience gained working under the likes of Guillermo Del Toro. He builds up tension nicely but ultimately falls prey to repetitive and convoluted flashbacks in which we meet other people in Anna's life, all of whom are underdeveloped and unimportant. Strong carries John's world-weariness like a sack of emotional bricks, while Farmiga is quickly reaching the level of her big sister, Vera.
Great performances aside, there's little about the film that carries much weight. The mentor/student relationship that develops between John and Anna is a strength, but gets lost in a messy jumble of genre cliches that are too nonsensical to be engrossing. It's indicative of the film's lack of ambition that such an imaginative premise is spent on what turns out to be just another decent crime movie when it could have been so much more.