Murder in the Worst Degree
It’s all Joe Eszterhas’s fault. In 1985, the notorious screenwriter crafted Jagged Edge, a crackerjack who-done-it about a feisty female lawyer taking the case of an enigmatic man accused of murder and—viola!—the erotic thriller was reborn. While previous films noirs, from The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) to Body Heat (1981), also mixed sex with slaughter, Eszterhas maximized the sleaze while minimizing the tease. He delivered the exclamation point with 1992’s Basic Instinct (directed by Paul Verhoeven), a tacky tale of pathetic detective work, false leads, and sexcapades (as well as Sharon Stone’s frequently naked body). Soon everyone wanted to suck the teat of this new cash cow.
Past Midnight emerges from the same craptacular mold. Also released in 1992, it plays by a familiar set of rules. Like every other noir, it features crime and punishment: Ben (Rutger Hauer) is convicted of stabbing his pregnant wife 36 times. Released from prison after serving 15 years, he meets social worker Laura (Natasha Richardson), assigned to find him viable employment. Much to the chagrin of her buddy Steve (Clancy Brown), Laura takes an interest in Ben’s case. Convinced of his innocence, she drives around the scenic vistas of Oregon looking for proof.
Once she finds clues that seem to clear Ben’s name, she decides now is as good a time as any to have sex with him. Afterwards, no surprise, the evidence unravels. Then someone else dies and the “real killer” is revealed in one of those dopey, over-explained endings. Indeed, the basis for all this mayhem is… wait for it… child abuse.
A carnival of clichés, the film offers a bleak Pacific Northwest location, where it pours atmospheric buckets of foreboding (which looks great, by the way, in the DVD’s 1.85:1 widescreen image). Our heroine is a hardworking professional with no time for love, who nonetheless beds her client; though it’s completely outside her jurisdiction as a therapist, she just has to investigate the crime. And, wouldn’t you know it, everyone associated with this long-ago event is still around to offer their own ominous takes on circumstantial facts.
The film includes the usual suspects: the platonic boyfriend is jealous of Laura’s new beau; the dead girl’s father keeps a shrine to her (including several scandalous snapshots of them together) in a workshop that resembles Freddy Krueger’s rumpus room. A slow-witted witness (a very convincing Paul Giamatti) lives with his scary brother, the kind of movie psycho who threatens strangers, then apologizes.
Then there is Ben. At one time, Rutger Hauer looked like he’d be a star. After his performances as a suave terrorist in Nighthawks (1981) and the replicant with a conscience in Blade Runner (1982), he seemed destined to have his choice of leads, romantic and action-packed. But somewhere around 1986’s The Hitcher, this beefy method ham dropped over into the straight-to-video domain and never saw a Tinseltown greenlight again. Past Midnight has Hauer playing simultaneously likable, evil, and bizarrely removed from the rest of the goings-on. Consistently lost in his own universe of facial tics and faraway stares, he’s neither a bona fide villain nor an earnest lover. He does have a trait that marks him as a suspect, however: fat fleshy hands.
When a movie bases its twist ending on an oversized set of man mitts, you know you’re in for serious stupidity. Laura, so scatterbrained and unethical that you wonder how she ever passed her licensing exam, bears the brunt of this illogic. Nonplused at facing off against antagonistic witnesses, but driven to tears when someone scrawls “Killer’s Whore” across her jeep’s windshield, she’s perilously unsympathetic. We don’t care if she lives or dies. All we want is for this maddening movie to end as soon as possible.
Even worse is Jan Eliasberg’s lackluster direction. A tv veteran, with such credits as 21 Jump Street, Party of Five, and Dawson’s Creek, Eliasberg has made a Lifetime movie. She doesn’t understand the first thing about building tension or steaming up the screen. Indeed, Ben and Laura’s mattress mambo is reduced to a montage of disconnected shots that mock mise-en-scène and lovemaking at the same time. Since the DVD contains no bonus features, we’re left with no idea what Eliasberg thought she was trying to accomplish. And her faux film isn’t telling, either.