Ian McShane honed his craft for decades on the stage and in film and television before breaking through with his role as the baddest badass in a gallery of world-class sonofabitches on Deadwood. Renée Zellweger didn’t let her innate adorability keep her from becoming an acclaimed dramatic actress. Yet both of these veterans find themselves playing roles that require them to race into a home and keep seemingly deranged parents from baking their ominously precocious daughter in the new thriller Case 39, which has been gathering mold on a shelf for several years before inexplicably being spared the direct-to-DVD burial it richly deserves.
Case 39 casts Zellweger as a social worker who fully inhabits the “compassionate” but not the “tough” part of the “tough but compassionate” equation. Zellweger simply cares too much, so when the aforementioned creepy child (Jodelle Ferland) is left without a home after her parents are taken to mental hospital, she agrees to take care of Ferland until more long-term living arrangements can be found. It isn’t long, however, until people start dying all around Zellweger and she begins to wonder if maybe Ferland’s parents had the right idea all along.
The saucer-eyed, disturbingly precocious Ferland delivers her lines with ambiguous creepiness that grows less ambiguous and more overtly menacing as the film progresses. Bradley Cooper is on hand as a caring therapist, though his part is so underwritten that it feels less like a role than a fireable offense for whatever misguided agent got him the gig, especially in light of Cooper’s subsequent ascent to stardom. (It’s not encouraging that Cooper’s only memorable moment involves challenging The Wicker Man for most unintentionally amusing insect-themed freak out.) A dogged sense of professionalism seems to be the only thing keeping Zellweger and McShane from giggling at the script’s shameless gauntlet of cheap shocks and dime-store Freudianism. Zellweger has come an awful long way since Matthew McConaughey terrorized her in Texas Chainsaw Masscare: The Next Generation, but not quite as far as she might like to imagine.