I saw this in the theater back when it was out, when I thought it was tepid and unfocused, so I'm not really sure why I wanted to sit through it again, except that the serial killer thrillers of the 90s were kind of fun and enjoyable in a trashy way, even when they aren't all that good. Which this one was, even if, on re-examination, it once again proved tepid and unfocused.
We open with Andy Garcia as detective John Berlin, driving through what looks like a Pacific Northwest, though to be honest I've made it to the end of the movie, and I'm not sure where it was supposed to take place. Berlin was an L.A. detective, but couldn't take the evil of the streets, so he has moved up here, wherever it is. Even before an image comes on screen we have that moody strings-and-tinkly-piano music that was so endemic to serial killer films of the 90s. He drives to a nasty farmhouse with gross stained walls that he apparently owns, where he opens the first of numerous packages of cigarettes. He hears of a body found on his police radio, and goes out to investigate.
At a local dump the body of a homeless man has been found, and in short order, a hand is found. We meet Berlin's friend and superior at work, Fred Ross, played by Lance Heinriksen. Also on hand is a reporter played by the same guy who played Laura's friend in Twin Peaks Season Two, although he vanishes from the movie right quick. Berlin investigates the hand and, though his brilliant deductive skills, surmises that the victim was blind. Now it's only been 14 minutes and we've seen Berlin open at least three packs of cigarettes and smoke several. I was getting a persistent cough just from watching this. But they actually make it part of the movie and Berlin talks about his smoking a lot as a twisted method of quitting--which apparently meets with success, as we barely see him smoking at all after these first scenes. By now you'll surely have noticed that this movie is sponsored in part by Marlboro, and won't help but notice that this movie strongly endorses Diet Coke. Just for the taste of it!
So John learns of an unsolved case from a few years ago called the Jennifer murders, which took up huge resources of the police department, to no avail. John is convinced that the cases are connected, and we know he must be right because the movie is setting him up as the brilliant genius who sees things others don't. The movie is also trying to float the suspicion that John himself is the killer, which receives evidence when they go to an institute for the blind and meet Uma Thurman as Helena, who was the roommate of a previous victim, and was briefly in the room with the killer. She describes the killer as being like John in many ways. Soon they are starting to date. We also hear about John's failed previous marriage, and that Helena looks exactly like his ex wife. This is all starting to stir up trouble when--case closed! John is told to go investigate something else! And to stop seeing Helena. But he can't! He's obsessed! WHY won't he let it go? These and still more questions come to nothing.
This has been the whole first hour of the two-hour movie, which has been very slow and during which not much exciting has happened. Not that it's been boring, it's kind of intriguing, but at the same time, around now is where you start to think "Is any of this leading to anything?" Its also where I, exasperated, began some selective fast-forwarding. Then a man comes in to Helena's room and takes pictures of her while she's taking a bath (with one of those super-silent cameras, I guess). Still, the sequence is very creepy. Then--tensions at the police office, as John has made himself into an unbearably arrogant prick, subtly belittling all the other detectives who worked on the Jennifer case for years. This is an area that needed to be developed further, as it seems to come out of the blue. In fact, there are numerous little angles going on here--one could say too many--that simply need to be better developed.
Then John takes Helena to his farmhouse, which is now inexplicably all nice and charming and decorated with lace curtains and the loveliest accoutrements, although it was a nasty deserted place with stained walls earlier. There is a scene here in which they listen to classical music while we pan around and also note that John is reading Hamlet. Ooooooh, CULTURED! Then he installs Helena at Ross' house, and goes with Ross on Christmas Eve to the institute, on a hunch that the killer will try to silence Helena then.
SPOILERS > > >
Around now is when you notice that John hasn't been smoking in a while. I guess that stop-smoking plan worked! They see a flashlight looking around in Helena's room, and spring into action! Ross stays downstairs, and as soon as they split up like that it's hard not to see a target on Ross' head. John spooks around upstairs, in a way that it reasonably creepy, and eventually someone comes down the fire escape and plugs Ross, who thinks it's John, and says so repeatedly for the benefit of the police radio, which is of course recording all this. So there you go, John got his friend killed on Christmas Eve, and has to go back to Ross' wife Margie with the worst Christmas present of all; her husband's corpse. I'll take the lump of coal! John of course feels bad, why is he so obsessed with this case, at what cost will he peruse it, etc.
Just as the movie is going on too long and interest is flagging, in waltzes John Malkovich as the very smarmiest of smarmy detectives to save the movie. He thinks John killed Ross, and is just all insinuation and "Oh, really?" faces and glances that last just a second too long, and quickly and handily becomes the best thing about the movie. No one can do bald-faced annoying like Malkovich, and the fact that his character also has a cold just adds to his ostentatious annoyingness. Meanwhile, Helena calls a cab and leaves Margie's house and returns to John's farmhouse, which might lead you to say "Gee, for a blind woman who can barely fumble around most spaces, she sure is comfortable heading out into the unknown." The killer is there, and just wants to tell her that he's got his eye on her? I guess? She should be like "I'm sorry--what is the purpose of this visit?"
Anyway, she was attacked while John was in custody, which would appear to clear John, except that actually everyone assumes she's lying to save him. By now you might be really fucking annoyed with that total cliche piano-and-strings score, with the same set of notes repeated over and over. But then--more Malkovich! And he has kicked it up a few notches, so that he is now screaming and making bizarro faces right in John's grill, which is super-fun. Or, you know, relatively fun. Considering the movie. Then John gets the CRUCIAL CLUE we knew would come along, and goes and investigates and finds out the killer is Taylor, one of his fellow cops who was previously on the case! Oh, so THAT'S why we had all the tension with the co-worker cops earlier!
Then John is arrested--by Taylor--and we have cause to note that throughout the movie, and now, he has had several Pacino-esque screaming-at-the-top-of-his-lungs scenes. They get wearisome after a while. Now Taylor goes to take care of this Helena problem once and for all, but he's got a surprise in store for him! A surprise that works okay, and is set up for, but still isn't really enough of a twist to seem worth two hours of movie. Then John and Helena live happily ever after.
< < < SPOILERS END
Hmmm, it wasn't bad, just pretty mediocre. And too long. The big problem is that it's just kind of vague and unfocused. The reporter at the beginning, who seems like he's going to come in somewhere again, never shows up. John's whole smoking thing, which is made a big deal of at first, simply vanishes. The movie spends a lot of effort building up the possibility that John himself may be the killer, but we don't believe it for a second, making it just so much tediousness we have to sit through. The problem with this is that there's too much to pay attention to, making one shut down, and thus the important things, that one should be paying attention to, get lost in the shuffle. By the time one realizes their importance, it's too late, thus distancing one further from the movie as a whole. And it's simply so long that interest starts to flag. And I see on the IMDb that a lot of people despise the ending.
Once we got to the end, I realized the reason I wanted to see this again: This is written and directed by Bruce Robinson, the same person who gave us the off-kilter indie classics Withnail & I and How To Get Ahead in Advertising! And it turns out there's quite a story behind its production. Apparently the attempt was for Robinson to deliver a mainstream hit, which would get him some clout, and allow him to do other more interesting projects. I think (this is my speculation) that he fell into the common trap of the smart person, which is that he is going to slum in a genre he considers beneath him, which he'll be able to ace because, hello, he is smart. But what happens is that, because these people are smart, they start thinking that they're going to make a GOOD serial killer film, and show everyone how it's done, and be like a giant among mortals, and that's where they start to screw things up. I have seen this happen with any number of my friends who are good writers (as well as, erhm, myself), but can't get anything published in the current market, and start thinking they're going to write a silly genre thriller. This film shows the hallmarks of that kind of thinking in the amount of characterization it gives everyone, and the way it feints in all sorts of different directions, but ends up a total mush.
Because apparently what also happened is that Robinson got a lot of studio interference, and when you're a smart person slumming in a genre, your creation for the ignorant masses also usually needs to be carefully calibrated, and the slightest outside interference can totally muck it up. There is apparently a massively different alternate ending out there somewhere, and Robinson devotes a whole chapter of a book of interviews to discussing his many problems with the studio on this film. Among the other things we learn there is that this was originally written with Pacino in mind--which would explain all the Pacino-esque screaming fits! As well as several strange lines of dialogue that Helena thinks John is much older than he is. Apparently Robinson also wrote the script for the ten-times-worse In Dreams, which also bears the hallmarks of someone thinking they're going to write a "smart" serial killer movie. And ending up with just a dumb piece of junk. He recently wrote and directed The Rum Diary with Johnny Depp, his first film since this one, which is also supposed to be garbage.
There's no real need to, but it won't kill you. Although it will try.