The crime remains the same, only the suspects change.
— John Mills (Samuel L. Jackson), Twisted
The title alone excites me.
— Philip Kaufman, “Creating a Web of Twisted Intrigue”
The camera passes over fog, the San Francisco Bridge, seagulls and ships. “I’d been wanting to make a film noir in San Francisco for many years,” says director Philip Kaufman on the commentary track for the DVD of Twisted. “And the closest I’d come was Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Ah, now that’s a pity. The man who made The Right Stuff (1983), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Henry and June (1990), and that most excellent remake of Don Siegel’s classic has selected this meager script for its admittedly terrific setting
While it’s true, as Kaufman says, that the film is about a woman in a situation that typically, in movies, is assigned to men — she’s a homicide detective who catches a serial case where the dead men are all former lovers, and starts to wonder whether she’s implicated, as she drinks herself into oblivion nightly. “The very theme that attracted me to the film,” says Kaufman, “is that she comes to believe that she could have committed the murders.” But it’s also a film propped up by clichés, which are only vaguely obfuscated by the film’s terrific look (thanks to cinematographer Peter Deming) and that grand bayside urban setting.
Along with this commentary track, and some deleted scenes, the DVD includes several, somewhat repetitive making-of documentaries, “Creating a Web of Twisted Intrigue” (where cast and crew explain how much they wanted to make the film); “The Inspectors: Clues to the Crime,” where director Philip Kaufman says much the same, even as the documentary includes a female detective to testify to the difficulty of entering this masculine world; and “San Francisco: Scene of the Crime,” essentially a tour of locations, as Kaufman (and Jackson, among others) describe the city as “a character.”
Twisted begins with an assault. It’s not the one you expect, but the “twist” sets up the movie’s pattern of logical leaps. A series of evocative moments — the San Francisco Bay Bridge shrouded in mist, birds flying in formation, seals barking — give way to an extreme close-up of a woman’s eye, fearful but also strangely calm. Jessica Shepard (Ashley Judd) has a knife to her throat, and the villain (Leland Orser) takes predictably breathy delight in tormenting her: “I can hear your heart beating,” he hisses in her ear. “It sounds like a little animal in your chest trying to get out. It sounds like blood. It sounds like flesh.”
Poor perp-boy is so intent on feeling at her crotch and conjuring unwieldy metaphors that he doesn’t notice his prey is armed. She’s a cop, and yes, she kicks his ass. The camera cuts from close-ups to overhead shots to underline her deft brutality, then cuts again, to perp-boy’s point of view, as she kicks his nose in: whomp. As Kaufman notes here, she is revealed here, to be a “powerful woman who’s been stalking the stalker.”
The following scene takes place in a dark, close bar — the cliché hangout from every cop movie — where Jess is dancing, downing shots, and showing off her new detective’s shield. Her promotion thrills her ever-loyal friend Wilson (Richard T. Jones), but her ex, perpetually wound-up Jimmy (Mark Pellegrino), resents that she’s been mentored by someone with unmatched clout. And here he comes, on cue: SFPD Commissioner John Mills (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives at the party with lackeys and attitude: “Back up boys,” he announces, “You’re breathing my air!” (Kaufman notes that Jackson pursued the part, though doesn’t tell why.)
John does fill up the room – as is Jackson’s tendency in any of his recent films — and he hauls the suddenly miserable Jess into the back room where he points out all the mistakes she made in the fabulous takedown that brought her acclaim. “You’re right,” she clenches her teeth. “I fucked up.” she doesn’t even know how badly. John is the daddy figure to beat all daddy figures: for one thing, he trained her to be a heck of a cop, able to read a room in seconds. For another, he raised her from age eight, when her father, a former cop and John’s partner, went on a killing spree that “began with [her] mother and ended with his suicide.”
This helpful exposition is relayed via Dr. Frank (David Straithairn), smoking lots of cigarettes while trying to decipher just why this girl is so darn mad. This even as she announces, too brightly, that she’s the very picture of mental health. In case you haven’t yet deduced the utter untruth of her declaration, Kaufman explains it if you listen to the DVD commentary (this box of photos is “her idée fixe,” he elucidates), as he spends most of this time telling the plot, which is too bad, because he has, presumably, so much else to say about how he conceived this film. While the plot does twist a little, it hardly bears up under too much description or discussion: here her partner is testing her; here’s another cop; here she’s looking for clues (digging into her own past, via photos and hallucinatory memories), here she sees flashes and begins to remember, etc., all as these images are appearing on screen.
“A lot of elements are coming together here. And things are being laid for the future.” Got it. Night after night, Jess goes to bars in search of men in tight jeans, heads back to her apartment to pore over crime scene pictures of her dad’s corpse (bullet hole in head), and at last drinks herself into blackouts with single glasses of wine. Typically, she’s awakened by a phone call from her new partner, Mike (Andy Garcia), who seems nice but slightly seedy too.
Because, by the way, Jess apparently sleeps with any man she meets who’s not black (she does not sleep with her buddy Wilson or, thank god, John), Mike seems a likely candidate for the next Mr. Loved-and-Abandoned. This proclivity feeds into the other corny plot that Sarah Thorp’s script piles on: Jess and Mike are tracking as serial killer whose victims are men Jess has bedded (see also: Clint Eastwood’s grim-faced exasperation in Tightrope). While the case provides a framework for Jess’ elaborate emotional traumas, it also allows her to look smart: she understands, apparently instinctively and not a little eerily, exactly what’s at stake in each crime scene, in the clunky “signatures” left by the killer, and in her own attraction to violence, specific and general.
This is the film’s most intriguing idea, its half-step contention that violence is not merely a means of asserting dominance, in the conventional macho poser sense, but also a way of proclaiming guilt. Jess identifies with her dead mother but also takes up her father’s professional aggression, not so much to right wrongs as discover them. She sees herself everywhere (the film is full of windows and reflections, flashbacks and dreams), especially in her seeming opposites: brutal criminals and cops. Indeed, when she (quite inexplicably) goes to visit that first perverse killer in prison, he tells her, “I know you. You’re me.”
The case causes increasing tension between Jess and just about every man in her vicinity, including Mike, Dr. Frank, John, swaggery detective Dale (Titus Welliver), unscrupulous lawyer Ray (D.W. Moffett), and her new lieutenant, the noble Tong (Russell Wong). The only girl she knows — aside from the elderly Asian neighbor lady who watches her drink at night and shakes her head in disgust — is the CSI-talking doctor at the SFPD forensics lab, Lisa (Camryn Manheim), who seems almost sympathetic toward her when the guys — most all of them — begin to suspect that Jess is killing off her one-night-stands.
It’s hardly original to punish a woman for sexual desire and ostensibly excessive activity, but this movie, for all its maybe-gonna-be-good idea about the complexities of Jess’ violence, can’t help itself. The plot turns are increasingly preposterous, as are the metaphors (former marine division cop Mike has a special affinity for the seals who bark along the bay, and their input is seriously silly by the time Twisted is drifting toward its finale). When Jess wants to trust a man, she’s punished. When she wants to hurt a man or leave a man, she’s also punished. Worse, she never gets a clue.