Timing is everything in this engrossing film that pits an only slightly corrupt cop played by Denzel Washington against the speed of FAX machines, email, telephones, paperwork and a smart estranged wife who also happens to be a homicide detective. Washington’s performance and Dave Collard’s tight-as-a-drum script make Out of Time a hard movie to leave, even for a brief popcorn or bathroom run.
The tiny community of Banyan Key is first shown in a sultry night-time shot as a tangle of wooden, light-framed buildings dominated by a sign reading "Temptation Lounge." Its police chief, Matt Lee Whitlock, patrols those empty evening streets and mans the phone in the town’s four-cop police department with the lazy confidence of someone who knows his talents could have carried him far beyond small-town life. As played by Denzel Washington, he’s intelligent, good-looking, charismatic — and just bored and arrogant enough to screw up badly when the opportunity arises.
That opportunity arises with the swiftness and seeming finality of a noose jerked tight. It would be unfair to go into too much detail about the plot, which involves adultery, a life insurance policy, arson, and drug money filched from an evidence locker. Suffice it to say that suddenly Whitlock’s easily rationalized sins become at best, career-destroying secrets on the verge of being exposed and at worst, damning circumstantial evidence that could get him wrongly nailed for a double homicide. In his race to get to the truth before anybody else does, Whitlock must keep constantly one step ahead of both a murder investigation and the DEA’s demand for confiscated drug money that is no longer in his hands.
What truly makes this a roller-coaster ride of a movie is Washington’s ability to show the audience what he’s thinking. The viewer feels every sickening drop in the stomach when it looks like yet another lie is about to be exposed, every stab of frustration when information that could save him comes too slowly, every passionate wave of relief when information that could damn him is blocked or delayed. It’s so easy to identify with Whitlock that one overlooks how suspiciously adept he is at lying and covering his tracks. Only his soon-to-be-ex-wife Alex, played with daunting intelligence by Eva Mendez, seems to have misgivings, possibly because she knows him all too well.
Theo Van de Sande’s cinematography beautifully captures the seductiveness of the coastal south, where nights are darker, days brighter, and the onset of summer evenings routinely announced with thunder and flashes of lightening. Sanaa Lathan is by turns delectable and touching as the unhappy wife of a failed pro football player, Dean Cain is a convincing menace as her husband, and John Billingsly is funny as Whitlock’s strategically incompetent best friend. Tying this all together is the sure-handed direction of Carl Franklin, who makes a complex story both lucid and believable.
There are a few logical quibbles that might occur to the audience after they leave the theater, but none of them are glaring enough to spoil the film and most can be dismissed as making the end slightly ambiguous rather than unbelievable. Out of Time is an amoral movie with a flawed hero who is so engaging that the audience roots for him in spite of it all. Like its main character, the rules this film breaks are a big part of what makes it so fascinating and so much fun.