One of my regular pen pals wrote to tell me I might be interested in this movie, based on my love for all things Toni Collette. And of course, mystery and murder. With a sideline bonus in Piper Laurie, Rose Byrne, Josh Brolin, Giovanni Ribisi and Brittany Murphy. It’s a star-studded cast of several! And while it is a well-written examination of women’s lives centered around one common event, eventually it starts to seem like the grittiest Lifetime original movie ever, specially constructed to educate us all on how men are all evil and women are all saints. And if a woman ever does anything less than saintly, it’s because of a man. So let’s go!
The film is divided into the chapters, the first of which is The Stranger. Toni Collette as Arden lays in bed clutched around someone, but awake. She goes out early for a walk, and finds the mutilated body of a young woman. The woman has a necklace that appears to say “Taken,” which Arden steals. She goes home and calls the police, for which she is brutally berated by her invalid mother, played by Piper Laurie. She goes to the store, where she is now followed by the media. Giovanni Ribisi as hot bad boy grocery stockboy Rudy seems fascinated by her and asks her out that night—in quite a threatening way. She puts on makeup that night, but her mother calls her in and tells her “You look like a two dollar hooker! Ha! You’d have to pay THEM!” She then goes on to lament how God took the wrong child. Things proceed from here, with Arden ultimately making her date with Rudy, who is unduly fascinated by the murder and is curious to know all sorts of grisly details.
The second story is The Sister, and stars Rose Byrne as Leah, a medical examiner who ends up examining the corpse of the murdered woman. Leah’s sister disappeared several years ago as a young girl, and Leah comes to believe that this corpse is the lost sister, which is not entirely welcome new to her mother, played by Mary Steenburgen, who has created an entire new life around the search for her lost daughter.
The third story is The Wife, which begins with a man going out for a drive late at night. His wife throws an angry fit at him for leaving her, and asks “Why don’t you want to be with me,” which caused me to yell at the screen: “’Cause you’re horrible!” This utterance was repeated after she asked the follow-up question “Why do you hate me?” She uses the name “Mike” in place of “God” in order to avoid taking the Lord’s name in vain. He is still gone the next day, forcing her to work at the self storage facility they own. She ends up finding a dresser full of Ziploc bags, each with a girl’s pair of panties inside. It doesn’t take long for her to put together that her husband is the serial killer who has claimed eight lives in town. Now the question is—what will she do?
SPOILERS > > >
The last two segments are where things really start going wrong, and this I’m going to go into them in a little more detail, and there will be spoilers. The fourth segment is called The Mother and stars Marcia Gay Harden as Melora, mother of Krista, the dead woman in question. She shows up at a motel where Krista kept a room, and is soon directed to Kerry Washington as Rosetta. She pays to see the room and ask Rosetta a few questions, and soon finds out that Krista was working as a prostitute and on drugs. Why did she run away? Because her father was screwing her and her mother knew about it but didn’t do anything. This all comes as a huge shock to Melora, who had no idea. Now, Rosetta has this totally square, suburban middle-aged woman show up and suddenly start asking a bunch of questions about Krista, and it never occurs to her until after Melora starts crying that she might be her mother? She REALLY thinks this woman is a reporter and the idea she might be her mother—with her specific interest in Krista—NEVER, EVER crossed her mind? Well, I guess she must be pretty darn stupid. It was also in here that I started to think; isn’t the bitter, sarcastic prostitute a bit of a cliché? I’m not saying it’s great to be a prostitute or that many aren’t really bitter, but do they all have to be exactly the same?
Then Melora pays Rosetta to come to lunch with her, and spills that Krista had a child. They go to a sort of informal daycare center run by an obese Latina, overrun with Hispanic kids, and out comes Krista’s kid: a beautiful WHITE blonde girl that looks like she stepped out of the pages of a Laura Ashley catalog! There she is below. Now, Krista’s roommate and lover is black, she’s a prostitute [Rosetta says it could be anyone’s child], and we’ve seen that a lot of people around here are Hispanic. And yet the child is a gleaming Aryan white. It could happen—it just seems unlikely. Well, see soon see that Melora buys the kid from the Hispanic woman for $200, and is soon planning on taking her home and adopting her. And I guess that’ll be a lot more convenient with a nice blonde white child, huh? Or what is it? Something’s fishy here. Before we leave, Rosetta gives an impassioned plea for Melora to take care of the girl, proving that she’s not the hardened soul she seems like, and really just wants someone to care for her, too!
The final vignette is The Dead Girl, during which we meet Krista during her last day, and find out what happened to her. She is played by Brittany Murphy, and we see her buy a big white stuffed animal. She meets Josh Brolin as a biker that she apparently has some history with, and makes a big speech begging him to take her to the town where her daughter lives, saying that sometimes “You should just get the exact thing you want on your fucking birthday.” So Brolin agrees to take her. They have sex, then after he gets a call, something has come up and he has to go, meaning that he can’t drive her to deliver the present. Krista throws a fit about what an awful person and liar he is, which it sort of felt like we, the audience, were supposed to sympathize with, although the question of why Krista is buying this all-important present at 2am the night before her daughter’s birthday is not mentioned.
Then she calls home to Rosetta, who refuses to tell her she loves her, and soon finds out that Rosetta has been beaten. Krista goes over to the guy’s house, spray-paints his car, and handily beats him up, despite his being much larger than her. She’s a right-on sister, I think you can see that. Then her scooter breaks down, and she hitchhikes, and gets picked up by the killer. She talks abut how very much she loves her daughter and how delighted she’ll be to take her special present to her. The killer agrees to take her to the daughter’s town, and Krista continues talking excitedly about how happy she’ll be and how she adores her daughter. The sound fades out as she’s talking, and finally the screen fades, the end.
< < < SPOILERS END
It starts off very good, with unusual characters and situations, examining the lives of the types of women that aren’t explored very often in films, and the first two segments have the intriguing situations and little ironic twists of good short stories. It was during the third segment that I started to feel that although these are unusual characters, they are a little cliché-unusual. They are unusual in the manner of a great many “unusual” characters. The way that Rosetta, the bitter black prostitute, is bitter in exactly the same way as almost every bitter prostitute we see on screen. So even if they’re slightly more indie, NPR-ready clichés, they’re still clichés.
It was during the fourth segment that I started to realize that nearly every woman here is a saint [and is she’s not, it is largely because of or related to a man], and EVERY SINGLE MAN here is an evil bastard [or completely ineffectual, in one case]. I believe we can list every single man in the movie and have him stay within this framework:
> Rudy: Doesn’t want to rape Arden, but is very threatening on an interpersonal level and disturbingly fascinated with the dead, possibly raped, mutilated girl.
> Leah’s Dad: Ineffectual.
> The Killer: Doesn’t pay enough attention to his wife, doesn’t communicate with her, and expects her to literally wait on him hand and foot. Oh yeah, and he’s a serial killer of young women, and steals their panties.
> Two Probably Gay Guys Needing Storage: Ok, not evil, but then again, gay. And not characters involved in the drama here.
> Unnamed Black Fellow: Beat up Rosetta.
> Tarlow [Josh Brolin:] Boyfriend of Krista who is rude and disrespectful to her, makes promises he can’t keep.
And that’s it! There are no other men in the film. So after awhile this movie diminishes its own accomplishments by positioning itself as installment #85,892 of Why a Cucumber is Better Than a Man. It’s too bad, because it’s a decent collection of pretty good short stories with certain threads running through, such as the way a girl can be crushed by her mother’s warped obsessions, which is refracted into the mother’s obsessing over their younger daughters in the final segments, and how in some cases that causes them to open themselves to abuse by men. But by the end one has started to turn against the writer-director, question everything she tries to sell to you and actively resist the movie.
It’s certainly not that there aren’t movies where women are portrayed very poorly or treated like shit by men, but it’s very rare that women are presented as THE problem, and something men would be far better off without, the way that men are here. One curious exception to this is From Here To Eternity, in which the guys really need to have those pesky women leave them alone so they can be alone to have their pure, admirable guy time together. But in most male-oriented movies the men are just doing their thing, and the women are just there on the sidelines—which I can see, may be entirely the problem. But in this movie, the men ARE the problem, to which I can only say that, well, it’s too bad that for some people, support of one sex HAS to mean denigration of the other sex.
Anyway, so how is it as a movie? It starts out good, but grows less compelling as it continues. I think most of this has to do with the short story format, which inherently keeps audiences from getting involved in an overall story and forces them to begin again with a new environment and new characters every few minutes. So it’s not like a normal movie where all your introductory work is over within a half hour, leaving the rest of that time to get involved in the story. The other problem is that these stories don’t really have much of anything to do with each other, so it’s not like paying attention to one reveals information that reveals new facets of the others… in fact, you kind of start to think “Oh, I could have skipped that one.” For this reason, the first half, when one’s hopes are higher for the film, succeeds much better than the last half. And finally, when you’re done, what are you left with? A bunch of pretty good short stories. So the whole thing lacks that feeling one has been through something and followed one large arc from beginning to end that most movies intrinsically have. But the very good performances and interesting milieu, especially in the first stories, helps carry it through for a while. Ultimately, something to watch if it’s on cable and you like one or more of the actors.
If you like. It won’t kill you. It’s “Good” without really being all that good.