Palm trees, muggy air, house boats. In Out of Time, fictional Banyan Key, off Florida’s Gulf Coast, is the sort of place where a sultry saxophone sounds about right. It’s quite “out of time,” as the title suggests, set apart from the usual urban hubbub, languid, a little offbeat. It’s also the sort of place where the police chief, Matt Lee Whitlock (Denzel Washington), spends his evenings checking that shop doors are locked.
When he gets a call from Ann (Sanaa Lathan), he doesn’t sound surprised. Seems someone’s broken into her house, and okay, maybe Matt ought to head over and check it out. He does, in no visible hurry, walks up her steps, knocks on her door. The bad guy seems to be gone, but still, Matt wonders, “Did you get a good look at this fella?” Yeah, she did: “He kinda looked like you.” Right, so he was good-looking? Matt presses with additional questions, and, a few more minutes of role-playing later make clear that this ruse — the call, the supposed break-in — is something of a routine for Ann and Matt, and they’re climbing all over each other, going so far as to mention his “deadly weapon.”
As unclever as this lovers’ exchange may be, it sets up the film’s essential concern, namely, the many ways that a black man “looks” guilty — whether or not anyone gets a “good look” at him. Still, today, in 2003. Director Carl Franklin has explored this idea before, in One False Move (1991) and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), and this time, a stereotypically oppressive Southern context is only the beginning. (The original script by Dave Collard featured no characters of color; once Washington signed on, the whole picture changed.) Out of Time is as much about ignorance (as in, willful blindness and cultural prerogative) as it about misjudgments and noir-ish deceptions.
Matt, for one, thinks he’s on top of his situation. This even though the painfully beautiful Ann is his high school sweetheart and currently married to ex-NFL quarterback Chris Harrison (Dean Cain), and his wife, Detective Alex Diaz (Eva Mendes), has recently left him. The fact that Chris abuses his wife and tends to bully everyone else he knows establishes an extra layer of threat, even if Matt does posses that deadly weapon. Though Ann stays with Chris because, she insists, “He needs me, I guess I feel sorry for him,” this story is a little too old and shabby. (And you’ve seen this movie before.) But it makes a weird sense for the complications embodied by Matt; perhaps neither of the lovers is looking for commitment, and the risk makes their occasional liaisons seem vaguely more thrilling.
Matt’s investment — emotional certainly, but also politically, legally, and financially — becomes more intense (and costly) when he learns that Ann has cancer, some terrible, fast-advancing type that demands immediate, experimental treatment at a facility in Switzerland. When other ostensible means of funding fall through, Matt makes a sacrifice (one he thinks he can manage), stealing $485,000 in drug money from the evidence safe at his office. Such extravagant silliness might make you wonder about Matt’s capacity for rational thinking. The plot turns curiouser and curiouser, however. Almost as soon as he delivers the money to Ann, her house burns down, and among the smoking embers, the cops find two charred bodies.
At this point, the movie turns gloomier, faster, and also more predictable, as Matt finds himself framed for the murders. David Collard’s script draws plainly from previous versions of itself, including The Big Clock (1948) and Body Heat (1981), in its focus on the smart but careless cop scurrying to stay a step of the official law types who would love to jam him up. The rest of the action occupies only a few hours in Matt’s life, as he is running “out of time,” now, in another way, so he’s simultaneously living outside of it and living way too tightly inside, pursued by various parties as he pursues sources he thinks might lead him to actual killer.
The fact that he’s a black man only makes these several lines of pursuit more complicated and more resonant. The most overt example comes when Ann’s neighbor comes down to the police station to tell a sketch artist about the man she saw outside Ann’s house the night the house burned down. She spots the chief across the room, and suggests he’s the man she saw, at which point the staff and other cops at the police station have a good laugh over this point, that all black guys look alike to white neighbor ladies (that is, they look guilty). But the film is also subtler than that, never forgetting that Matt is never out from under suspicion, from frame one. As handsome and charming and as Denzel as he is, Matt is always on the edge of trouble, whether because of his own bad decisions, or, more often, because of the expectation that he’ll be on that edge.
And as he spends most of his time worrying over, tracking, and trying to understand Ann, Matt tends to push away Alex. Independent-minded and professional, she’s not about to stay home (or even pretend to, like Ann does), and the briefly noted “history” with Matt suggests that they tussled over her career, especially as her ambition and rewards began to outstrip his. Alex appears to have a good sense of how things work, and isn’t easily duped. That she’s willing to be duped by her ex, or go along, even for a minute, suggests that she knows something about him that he hasn’t quite grasped. She’s prone to wearing tight A-line skirts and heels on the job, but her visible determination and killer stare (as well as Mendes’ most convincing onscreen performance to date) make Alex engaging and complex. That the plot only calls her in to make Matt’s lack of time more apparent is frustrating, but she serves her purpose and then some.
This purpose, to expose Matt’s increasing anxieties and sporadic insights, does underline Out of Time‘s own investigation of the race and class dynamics of noir, always more intricate than they seemed on the genre’s generally white surface. Guilt, suspicion, betrayal, and desire: Matt embodies and reflects the underpinnings of a culture that remains resiliently preoccupied with that surface.