“Safe Haven” belongs to the specialty genre of romantic thriller about an abused woman often derided as fit for the Lifetime cable network. Even by that dismal standard, “Safe Haven” is a bit of a clunker.
It’s got all the ingredients of a Lifetime movie. There’s Katie (Julianne Hough), the damsel in distress who has fled from Boston with the cops on her heels. We’re meant to think that perhaps she killed her abuser and is worried about the repercussions. Or maybe something darker took place that wouldn’t be as easy to explain. She washes up in the bucolic beach town of Southport, N.C., just as the busy summer season is getting under way. Southport, the real star of the movie, is depicted as a town where attractive women in sleeveless tops and short shorts manage to peacefully co-exist with tanned, muscular men in tight fitting T-shirts. Katie fits right in.
She gets a job in a dockside restaurant, rents a tumbledown cottage in the woods that looks like it was designed to host a desperate last stand, and discovers that she is the object of the tender affections of Alex (Josh Duhamel), a hunky widower with two children and a grocery story near the water. The romance that smolders between Katie and Alex moves at a glacial pace. In part this is out of delicacy to Alex’s young and very cute children, and in part to accommodate the slow-footedness of Detective Kevin Tierney (David Lyons), who wants to find Katie, but has a hard time picking up her trail.
“Safe Haven” might have fared better by jettisoning the violent plot and trying to make a go of it as a three-handkerchief weeper about a love affair between a young widower and a woman fleeing her troubled past. But director Lasse Hallstrom, who has helmed some very good and quirky films like “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” does a poor job of integrating the intersecting stories. Katie’s growing sense of comfort in Southport is indicated with sweet music and slow lingering shots of Spanish moss hanging from the stately branches of oak trees. When it’s scary time, there’s a jangle of handheld camera and the absurdly malevolent face of Tierney taking a swig of vodka or threatening a possible witness.
A thriller can play its cards too close to the vest. While it’s good to keep the audience guessing, “Safe Haven” takes the cheap route of withholding basic information deep into the movie in order to prolong suspense and deliver adrenaline jolts to an audience that might be starting to doze under the spell of anodyne beachside romance. In addition to all this, the movie closes with a twist of the “that guy is Keyser Soze!” variety that doesn’t advance the story, but does a wonderful job of alienating viewers who have managed to stick with “Safe Haven” until the bitter end.< /p>
TITLE: “Safe Haven”
CREDITS: Directed by Lasse Hallstrom; written by Leslie Bohem and Dana Stevens, based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks.
RATING: PG-13 for violence, sexual themes and a smattering of mild profanity.
RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS