This World, Then the Fireworks

But where are the nympho cops?
★★★
Released: 
1997
Director: 
Michael Oblowitz
Starring: 
Billy Zane, Gina Gershon, Sheryl Lee, Rue McClanahan
The Setup: 
Brother and sister have a rather incendiary relationship.
Discussion: 

So when I started getting into reading Jim Thompson, I naturally looked up all the movies that have been made by his works. This one was a tiny indie release from the 90s, not even on DVD, BUT stars Billy Zane and Gina Gershon, who sounded like they could be a ton of fun in these roles, and as an special bonus, a rare role for Sheryl Lee, iconic for her role as Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. Then imagine my surprise to find out we were also going to see Rue McClanahan in a serious role! But of course no one had it, so I was forced to buy a used VHS, then quickly order Thompson’s short story collection, so I could read the story before I watched the movie. You see how I put myself out for you!

The story is a 40-page novella, and I’m afraid I just didn’t find it to be very good. Of course, I also didn’t really understand it. Thompson has a trick of merely implying the most awful things in his fiction, but the thing is he can be so subtle about it you can completely miss what really happened—or end up with a sense, but not really KNOW [i.e. the ending of The Getaway (novel)]. When this story seemed to just abruptly end, I didn’t get it, but figured the movie would make more sense of it—and besides, SOMEONE thought it was so good they wanted [and did] make a movie out of it. Now I’ve seen the movie, and I think I have a sense of what happened, but… I still don’t understand why it’s something anyone thought would make a good movie.

We open in the 20s, with our protagonists Marty and Carol as little kids. The neighbor comes home and charges right into his house across the way, opening the door and finding the woman there with Marty and Carol’s Dad. So the neighbor shoots the both with a shotgun, and in comes Mom, with the two kids, and blows the neighbor away with her own shotgun. Or something like that—it’s confusing. The kids get blood spattered all over their faces, and both kids and Mom start laughing hysterically.

Okay, so then it’s 30 years later, and Marty, who we are supposed to understand is incredibly attractive [everyone’s so attractive in movies now it’s hard to tell when someone is supposed to be highly attractive], leaves his obese wife and fat dope kid in Chicago due to some deal gone bloody, and heads to California, to visit his sister and Mom. Mom sort of tries to keep him from Carol, and begs them to try to stay out of trouble, to which Marty pretends to be offended, and Mom quickly retreats. In the story, Marty finds Carol asleep in bed and “for the next several minutes we had no time nor breath for talk.” Here they just kiss a bit and, in a good suggestive bit, he casually pulls the material back up over her exposed breast. Carol makes her living as a prostitute, plying her trade in bars, not streetcorners. We see a flashback of Marty saving her from a teenage gang-rape, and then her as an adult politely informing the local vice squad that they ought to leave her well alone by leaving them naked out in the middle of the woods, miles from anything.

I know, I know, you say, sure, but where are the nympho cops? Well, they should arrive in the form of Sheryl Lee as Lois, who Marty spots in a park. He knows she wants him [here’s the thing about we have to understand he is hyper-good-looking], and is quite rude and forward with her. He identifies her as a cop, which means [at that time and place, apparently] that she is not allowed to be married or involved. He also intuits that she is a kinky so-and-so, who likes things a little rough, and threatens to walk away, until she’s driven so crazy she says she’ll do it right there in the park. Ah yes, fiction. Anyway, Lois lets on that she and her brother co-own this beautiful house right on the beach, and before you know it, Marty is scheming with Carol to get the house and dump Lois like last Wednesday’s mashed potatoes.

SPOILERS > > >
There’s also this whole thing with Marty having various newspaper jobs, which I don’t see how is related. Then he follows a cop that is following Carol. Then he drags Lois by the hair into her house, and they have a few days’ interlude of love, until she finally comes out and accuses him of screwing his sisters. Then he gets violent, and ends up going back to Carol.

Mom finds he and Carol in bed, and calls them “Devil children,” and says she should have smothered them as kids, so… Carol kills her. Then Carol slips away, leaving a note for Marty, and he returns to Lois.

He soon gets a call that Carol died in Tijuana, having an abortion. Then Lois’ brother, aware that she wants to sell the house, shows up with a gun—but Marty guns him down first, in a repetition of the opening scene with his parents. Only, soon he realizes that he’s not her brother, it’s her husband—remember how female cops in that day are not allowed to get married? He and Lois sell the house, get in the car and drive off together, the end.

Since I started this review, I went back and read the story again, and although I feel like I understand it better, I still don’t know why anyone would be moved to make a movie out of this. I guess the idea is that Marty and his sister are lifelong lovers and they hide that from the people that they fleece. Then we find out at the end that Lois was sort of the opposite, saying someone was her brother when he was actually her husband, and having to hide that from work. That’s really the most I can get out of it, folks! But maybe I’m just particularly dense. If there’s someone out there who has a deeper reading on this story, by all means let me know.
< < < SPOILERS END

So, intriguing as these characters and this situation is, there’s a general air of pointlessness and meandering. There are also several touches, like the murders Marty commits and Lois’ total masochistic nympho-ness, that just come across better on the page, where there’s less need to make all the details realistic. The movie adopts a semi-comic, exaggerated tone to try to paper over the more outrageous aspects of the story, but it’s difficult to make characters this outrageous work. And ultimately, when you have a movie that leaves you asking “Why would anyone make that?” the question that follows that is “Why did I spend my time watching that?”

Should you watch it: 

If you’re a total Jim Thompson completist. If not, let it pass gently into obscurity.