Late in 2015, there was a minor controversy over media reports that the Keanu Reeves vehicle Exposed was the product of studio whitewashing. The film began life as a movie called Daughter of God, directed by Jamaican-American filmmaker Gee Malik Linton. It was to tell the story of a young woman and her Dominican family, and would explore complicated themes of domestic abuse, police brutality and mass incarceration. However, the powers-that-be at Lionsgate got nervous when they realized that A) a large portion of the movie was in Spanish and B) the film's only prominent white character – a police detective – had only a few scenes. Eventually, the film was taken away from Linton (who had his name taken off the movie... it's now directed by “Declan Dale”), the police detective's subplot was greatly expanded and several of the film's African-American and Latino supporting characters were either cut out or had their parts significantly trimmed.
It's upsetting when a studio decides to take a movie away from an ambitious filmmaker in order to cut their work down to something more marketable. It's even more appalling when the motivation for doing so is something as blatantly racist as, “this movie needs to be more white.” However, such cases also make it a bit too easy to blame a film's problems on the studio. Don't get me wrong: Exposed is a terrible movie, but based on all of the evidence the film offers, there's no good reason to believe that Daughter of God was any good, either.
The film awkwardly cuts back and forth between two stories. The first is the story of Isabel de la Cruz (Ana de Armas, Knock Knock), a young woman who suddenly begins seeing angels from time to time (in case you're wondering: these angels don't have wings, but look like albinos wearing stylish, runway-ready clothes). Later, something even more bizarre occurs: Isabel gets pregnant, which is a real surprise to everyone since her husband has been in the Middle East for the past year. Isabel is convinced that her pregnancy is some sort of Virgin Mary-style miracle, but her family is understandably skeptical.
The second story (the one that Lionsgate beefed up considerably) is the tale of police detective Scott Galban (Reeves), who is currently trying to solve the recent death of his partner. We know that his partner was just killed because the movie has several scenes in which other people sympathetically tell Galban, “Hey, your partner was just killed.” There's a very clumsy, amateurish quality to the writing in most of the Reeves scenes, whether he's indulging in a ridiculously-staged love affair with his partner's widow (Mira Sorvino, Mimic) or pistol-whipping suspects. I don't know how much Reeves cared about this project, but his performance strongly suggests a man doing the bare minimum to fulfill his contractual obligations.
The writing is also clumsy in Isabel's scenes, but in a strikingly different sort of way. The original version of this film was clearly swinging for the fences, as all sorts of religious symbolism and dream imagery is employed in a story that attempts to grapple with some tough material. This stuff is largely bland and incoherent, with the exception of a last-minute plot twist that simultaneously serves as the film's worst idea and its most memorable one (it's also the moment that finally brings the two storylines together in a very direct way).
Whatever cutting Lionsgate did (and the film surely would have made more sense in the director's original cut), there's no getting around the fact that the actual filmmaking is just plain bad. The editing is alarmingly amateurish (hots linger a few beats longer than they ought to on a regular basis), distractingly poor sound design choices are made, and the actors often seem directionless (particularly poor De Armas, who switches back and forth between “empty smiling” and “unconvincing distress”). There's one scene of seemingly-improvised dialogue that finds one character employing the word “uh” on a regular basis, as if he's trying to think of what to say next. How did this get left in? The one technical virtue is the cinematography, which leans heavily on long, fluid takes that make the film a bit more visually engaging than your average straight-to-VOD thriller.
In most cases along these lines, I hold out hope that a director's cut will eventually be released and that we'll have the opportunity to see what the filmmaker originally had in mind. In the case of Exposed, I think I've seen enough.
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Year: 2016