Foley (Samuel L. Jackson) is a former grifter who has just finished a twenty-five-year prison sentence for murdering his best friend and partner in crime. This wasn’t a case of one turning against the other. Quite simply, he was given a choice; he either had to kill his friend or resign himself to the fact that both of them would be killed. He chose survival. Serving time has given him time to think, but it has also left him with nothing. He has no family. Most of his friends, grifters like he was, are dead. The rest are either lying in a coma or wishing him dead. He doesn’t understand the ins and outs of city life. He is, in fact, quite used to having his day strictly regimented. Nevertheless, he has been faced with starting a new life for himself, and he’s willing to give it a go.
Here enters Ethan (Luke Kirby), the son of the man Foley was forced to kill twenty-five years ago. He learned of his father’s double life after years of collecting newspaper clippings and personal photographs. Now he wants to know more, specifically how the grifter game is played. He already has the perfect mark: His boss, Xavier (Tom Wilkinson), a man respected and feared in both legitimate business and the criminal underworld. If Ethan plays his cards right – which is to say, if he can convince Foley into helping him pull off a grift – he can easily walk away with $8 million. Foley wants absolutely no part of this. He’s out of the grifting business. But Ethan can be very persuasive. He knows, for example, that Foley is now in a relationship with a young prostitute and junkie named Iris (Ruth Negga), who is herself an unfortunate victim of circumstance. If Foley doesn’t play along, let’s just say that their hopes of starting over will be dashed.
Describing the plot of The Samaritan does not adequately convey how successful it is as a film. That’s because it isn’t about the plot so much as the stylistic nuances and the depth of character, both of which are superb. Here is a taut, suspenseful, intelligently structured thriller that pays homage to con movies without having to spoof them. The screenplay by Elan Mastel and director David Weaver is filled with dialogue that’s just heightened enough to be interesting but not so heightened that it comes off as phony. We hang on every word, in large part because we become hopelessly wrapped up in the story. The screenplay also features some genuinely good plot twists, and contrary to how most films such as this operate, they’re not all saved for the final act. And in a genre that easily lends itself to theatricality, we’re treated to performances that are rich and convincing.
Some of the best scenes are reserved for Jackson and Negga, whose characters are essentially two wounded animals turning to each other for healing. One scene sticks out in my mind. We’re in the bathroom of Iris’ apartment the morning after she and Foley first make love; in order to get herself back up to normal, she has to shoot up, and Foley decides to be in the room as she does it. We’ve been conditioned to expect scenes like this to be dark and gritty, but in the case of this movie, we witness a tender moment between damaged people. Foley is not enabling her. If anything, him being there brings her self-destructive behavior into perspective. He’s seeing a fragile young woman in need of help. Their relationship will quite suddenly and irrevocably become complicated, although it’s for reasons I wouldn’t dream of giving away. I won’t even do what I usually do and supply you with vague hints.
Kirby makes Ethan a surprisingly compelling villain, for he’s not motivated by money so much as revenge. He talks all the big talk about getting rich and being exactly like his father, but in reality, forcing Foley into this grift is a calculated power play stemming from anger over his father’s murder. What makes this character even more interesting is that, despite his rage, he isn’t as in control as he thinks he is. Remember, Foley was once a professional grifter. He knows the schemes inside and out. He has also picked up a few survival skills in prison. This grift will happen, but only under his rules. Of course, no one, not even a desperate man in a desperate situation, has the ability to always think two steps ahead. And of that, I will say no more.
The ending is the only aspect of The Samaritan that made me take pause. Although there is emotional closure, there is the nagging sense that, on a technical level, a piece of the puzzle was missing. Obviously, I cannot delve into this without issuing a spoiler warning. What I can say is that everything leading up to the ending was immensely satisfying. This film represents a dying breed of crime thriller in which character and plot take precedence over action and special effects. It could have drowned in a sea of car chases, shootouts, brutal fistfights, and even gore. Whatever we do see in those respects is used only when absolutely necessary. That’s good – when those moments finally happen, they will elicit authentic shock and excitement from the audience. No one will be numbed up from scene after scene of mindless violence and choreography.