There’s always been something a little manic about Dennis Quaid. Back in his prime, many of the films that used him best took advantage of this, tempering his manly appeal with a hint of frantic menace, a sense that this lively guy didn’t quite have things under control. He was the jock who might just snap your neck from joy, whose capacity for heroism and magnetism was seemingly matched by a potential for chaos. It’s why he made for such a good Jerry Lee Lewis in Jim McBride’s underrated biopic Great Balls of Fire and why he was so irresistibly, infuriatingly sexy as the corrupt-cop hero of that same director’s hit neo-noir, The Big Easy.
So it’s high time Quaid truly embraced the role of a real horror-movie psycho, and the key pleasure of Deon Taylor’s recently released The Intruder lies in watching the actor bounce among extremes of charm, anxiety, chumminess, and madness. This is not actually the first time Quaid has played a horror villain, of course — over the course of a prolific career that stretches across five decades, he’s dabbled in just about everything — but it does feel like a turning point of sorts. Here, Quaid plays Charlie Peck, a widower who sells his spacious Napa Valley home to Scott and Annie Howard (Michael Ealy and Meagan Good), a young city couple who are unused to all the huntin’ and buildin’ and jes-droppin’-in that happens in the countryside. (I mean, it’s Napa, and the house sells for upwards of $3 million, but still.) Charlie has an attachment to the home — it’s where his wife died, after all — so at first he finds it hard to let the place go. And then he finds it really hard to let the place go. And then we start to wonder if it’s maybe not so much the place he’s interested in but the beautiful Annie herself. You never quite know what you’re going to get at any given moment of the film, even though you know where it’s all headed.
The Intruder’s model is a little John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights, and a little Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, with maybe a nod to Cold Creek Manor, a former-resident-refuses-to-leave story in which Dennis Quaid was the good guy. The film turns on a conflict of masculinity: Scott is a model of the youngish modern professional: queasy around guns, useless at home repairs, and a little too obsessed with his job in the city. (He also has a past with the ladies, which has led to some tension in his marriage.) Meanwhile, Charlie’s quaint, macho neighborliness — he seems intent on proving just how much more capable and welcoming he is than the standoffish Scott — quickly curdles into something far more toxic. But we also get glimpses into Charlie’s psyche, particularly during a dinner party, when another guest (Joseph Sikora) callously dismisses the appearance of Charlie’s beloved former house. We’re sort of on his side as he fantasizes about cracking the guest’s head open with a wine bottle.
There’s something poignant to the way Quaid plays Charlie’s broken, out-of-control psyche. In part that comes from the experience of watching the actor effectively play a variation on himself in so many films. Years ago, in movies like The Right Stuff, he was the very picture of cocksure all-American machismo — a competitive, boisterous guy with a milewide smile and a fondness for anything fast. Now, the smile is still wide but looks awkward beneath his weary eyes — forced and cruel, a Joker’s grin. Watching Charlie, we sense that Quaid’s character is capable of anything, not because he’s mad (though he is mad) but because he is akin to a wounded animal, a man who’s lost his place in the world and his very sense of himself. (We could choose to read all of this as sociopolitical metaphor, especially since the couple Charlie is tormenting is African-American, but The Intruder just doesn’t take us there.)
For all its momentary feints at depth, The Intruder won’t really stay with you — which is to say, it’s no Straw Dogs — but it is better than it has to be, and that’s largely thanks to the cast. The handsome, easygoing Ealy makes a fine counterpoint to Quaid’s leathery, agitated charisma; they’re two very different brands of hunk. And Good does well making Annie’s uncertainty feel real; she’s both curious about and put off by Charlie, but she also finds herself a little drawn to this weirdo, especially as Scott starts to make less time for her. But the whole thing would collapse without Quaid. Charlie is so emotionally extravagant — alternately morose, cheerful, pathetic, wild-eyed — and so all over the map that I briefly entertained the notion that the movie’s big twist might be that he’d turn out to be twins. Or even triplets. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s a testament to Quaid’s talent that he sells every extreme so well. It’s the rare actor who can make playing a character this messy look so effortless.