While I’m always a sucker for a good revenge film (of the classic, clichéd, generic mold even) this is a definite exception. I read nasty reviews of it, many of them, such as Roger Ebert calling it disgustingly manipulative. Well, while most of the time I comment on his reviews to call attention to his hypocrisies, arrogance, and generally stupid comments, this time, frankly, he’s right.
This film–for once I’m reviewing while it’s still occurring, though I will not actually post it until I’ve finished, just in case something changes–is not sitting well with me. Is it “disturbingly vicious” (one of the other criticisms I’ve seen leveled at it)? No. The rape scene was as “tasteful” as such a thing can be, sufficiently brutal and suggestive without at all being explicit. I’ve (unfortunately) seen far, far worse. However, this does manage to avoid confusing the issue and make it far more clear as a rape (I’ve also seen Straw Dogs, if you know what that means). This is a “good” element to be one-note, especially since the vague details prevent it from seeming consciously, ignorantly two dimensional. We don’t really see either “who,” and barely know what’s going on beyond that overarching fact.
From then on though, we have an irritatingly hysterical Sally Field, who is hearing this occur over her phone and demanding that some of the other people in traffic give her a phone to call the police. OK, I understand that she’s trying to be “there” for her daughter, but that’s just unbelievably stupid. Use your own phone, for crying out loud, I’m pretty sure your daughter would prefer to have policemen stop the guy rather than have you hysterically scream “DO YOU HAVE A PHONE?!” for the last few minutes of her life.
Then we have the bumbling cops, who are just oh-so-clearly incompetent (Joe Mantegna puts in a valiant effort toward making him an intelligent, caring and well-meaning man anyway). As you might expect from a film like this, yes, the court fails. Armin Shimerman does make a nice little appearance as the judge, though. Then the snotty and bumbling beaurocrats, and the horrible system that tries to hide the rape suspect’s address from the public at large. How evil! And she starts following him after this (what the hell?!) and finds him checking out his next possible victim. They ignore her (of course!) by casually neglecting to listen to anything she says.
Honestly, there are two problems here. One is the writing. This movie is so amateurish in writing it’s painful. Dialogue is mostly terrible, except when the actors can rise above it and breathe some kind of life into it. Even then you can see how much effort it’s taking to make this garbage seem natural. These characters are so ridiculously two-dimensional. Kiefer Sutherland (as rapist Robert Doob) is pure evil–grinning darkly at Sally Field in the courtroom and mocking their daughter’s stutter when he’s let off. It’s ridiculous. Who in their right OR wrong mind would do that? The problem here is that these crimes are committed by human beings, and that’s what’s horrifying. These stupid caricatures of villainy are not realistic or real and so they aren’t threatening in a movie attempting to manipulate our emotions and support. And I seriously doubt there are rapists who get let off then start trying to psyche out the family they just destroyed. It’s just not reasonable.
The plotting is even more awful. The way the court just drops the case over a small technicality on the very first motion, that the defense doesn’t even try and do anything when this happens, the way Sally’s character just suddenly decides to follow her daughter’s murderer, the way Doob can wander onto a children’s playground at school and no one says anything…this world is so completely contorted from reality as to be unrecognizable, thus causing it to fail miserably as relevant.
Problem two is Sally Field. Sorry, I know she’s won two Oscars and all, and it’s probably really just the writing that’s failing her, but she is unbelievably irritating. Her self-righteousness and weepiness do not fit together naturally, and both are grating. The former, the way she is so absolutely right in what she does–and of course, it should be noted, yes, they had definitive proof that was just thrown out on a pretty absurd technicality–and thinks it’s brilliant to follow around a rapist/murderer and that it’s perfectly acceptable to wander into a stranger’s house and try and tell them they will be raped or killed, it’s just ridiculous. Yeah, sorry, I’d probably listen a little better than that woman did, sure, but I’d still throw the hysterical lunatic out, because she’s not even smart enough to realize how insane it is to do that. Worst of all is in the courtroom. They explain the technicality perfectly, it’s right there and the audience understands, but there’s Sally going, “What’s going on?!” Her husband (stepfather Ed Harris) explains it to her by simplifying it, and it’s carried off as if that is actually what she needed. That is, she wasn’t asking because she was shocked, but because she is an IDIOT. And the character is selfish, vengeful, and just continues to prove her stupidity. I’m supposed to care about her because…? Maybe because she beats up an innocent man and then smiles? Wait… I really probably shouldn’t blame Field, though I would think her instincts SHOULD have kicked in and said, “You know, these actions make no real sense.”
Alas, there are some good things hiding in here. John Schlesinger directed this (see also: Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, The Falcon and the Snowman) and the direction itself is not terribly flawed. Perhaps he can be faulted for not doing something about this script, but maybe he’s not much on writing. The other good parts are the performances around Sally. Ed Harris is one I refer to rising above–his character of loving stepfather is just as two-dimensional as always, but he breathes some kind of life into it anyway. Philip Baker Hall and Keith David appear as two who have also lost their family and who work to achieve justice outside the system (oh, right, there’s an underground killer killing movement). They haven’t got an awful lot to work with either, but they are themselves and that’s enough. A strangely young Donal Logue also appears as a fellow victim’s relative.
It’s so odd that a film can have this many good actors, a solid director and yet be so crippled by awful writing. A real shame. And to think, people chuckle at something like Death Wish–but it, at least, showed that this approach to “justice” is not the smartest route. As death penalty propaganda it fails miserably, because this world shown is not the real world. This kind of thing is unlikely to happen–definitive evidence and a drop on a technicality? I’m sure that happens on occasion, but I doubt it then follows that the perpetrator was pure, 100% evil. And of course, yes, let’s promote a system that says “Hey, go ahead! Take your revenge, the government is worthless, so everyone just decide for yourself what’s right!” Yes, that would be really effective. Blech.