Basic Instinct

Paul Verhoven
Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, Jeannie Tripplehorn
The Setup: 
Detective becomes involved with novelist who may be killer.

Oh dear. Well you know that I do love a good erotic thriller, and this one has ultimately emerged as the king of the genre. There I was at home one night, thinking “I have to find something to watch on Netflix” and decided this would be the best one to have a good smoke, sit down and let it wash over me. I have not seen this since it was released in the theaters, and was interested to see how it would or would not hold up, as well as how it would appeal as a cultural artifact of the 90s.

It gives good 90s fun right away as we see logos for the Carolco group and soon a credit for producer Mario Kassar. The writing is by Joe Eszterhas, and is perhaps as his most notorious script aside from Showgirls, and will feature all of his strong feminist themes and well-known support for strong-willed independent women who do not let themselves be the pawns of men. Or be defined by their sexuality. We open with a couple having sex on a bed, with an unidentified blonde woman on top. Her hair is carefully arranged so that we cannot see her face. Just as it looks like they’re about to orgasm, she grabs an ice pick and viciously, orgasmically stabs the guy multiple times. Soon the cops are called in, including Michael Douglas as detective Nick Curran. At one point they use an infrared or whatever light to see all the semen on the bedspread and WOW, that’s whole lot of semen! Like literally a pitcher full. I want to meet that guy. It’s starts the rather prurient, overblown nature of the film and its overheated interest in a kind of impossible sex early on in the game. This movie is so strange it ultimately makes you have to speculate on what is going on in Joe Eszterhas’ mind, which we will come back to later.

Nick’s investigation quickly leads him to the seaside home of the mystery novelist Catherine Tramell, played by Sharon Stone. This is the movie that made her a star, and she soon revealed that she really didn’t have all that much more to offer, or simply couldn’t fit in with what was going on in Hollywood, as I’ve always believed she’s maybe just a little too smart for all of this. Who knows. She had the sense to marry that hunky Bronstein guy, anyway. Can’t be that stupid. I recall from seeing this film at the time that she was “like Madonna, only she can act.” I now have to revise that, as she can’t really act (although I agree she was great in Casino). Her character is always off, always strange in a bizarre way that doesn’t really make sense in the situation, and although that might work for the movie, and her character, as she supposed to be mysterious and unusual, ultimately I just found her kind of bizarre and didn’t understand what this person was supposed to be, aside from an overheated screenwriter’s imaginary sexual plaything. What is going on in Joe Eszterhas’ mind? It’s enough to make me want to order his biography. I’m going to do that right now. Although then I would have to read it, a pursuit I’m not sure I’m willing to devote time to. But then again, there is always the bathroom. Anyway, we digress. Sharon is tough and plays hardball with the detectives, is emotionally affectless and kind of seems like she’s playing with them, and is unrepentant about liking sex and using the men only for sex. When asked if she is sorry that the guy is dead, she says “Yeah, I liked fucking him.” You will notice as we go forward a great deal of the police questioning revolves around whether Sharon had any feeling for the guys that she had sex with. These questions seem to form the center of the investigation, and would never ever be asked of a man.

Just as Radha Mitchell has come to define a certain kind of mid-budget banality in films, there once was a time when that responsibility fell to Jeannie Tripplehorn. She is kind of pretty, can’t act and has a certain vacuousness at her center that precluded her from ever going that far in movies. She’s here as Nick’s sexy police psychologist, Beth, who he used to be fucking on the side, despite all ethical considerations. Again, the kind of people that only exist in some bizarre sexual fantasy. Should we divert yet to discuss why in the world Michael Douglas became this sex symbol in so many erotic thrillers around this time? Maybe I am seriously out of touch which when it comes to erotic matters—well, I clearly am—but is there ANYTHING sexy about this guy? Why, why Michael Douglas? He was set up as the sexy guy in numerous thrillers such as this, Fatal Attraction, Disclosure, Black Rain, A Perfect Murder, etc. and… is he attractive? But maybe that’s the very point, maybe he’s just a stand-in, a generic male in a place where guys don’t want to see another man, so they can imagine themselves. I don’t know, it has always been mysterious to me because while I respect Douglas as an actor, I have never found him to be that much of a sexual object, let alone in these lizardy detective roles. See how it’s hard to talk about the movie? Because they’re so many extra-textual things to discuss. Anyway Beth still misses Nick, because every woman secretly lusts after Nick, and we learn that Nick used to have a drinking problem, and used to smoke, but has been on the wagon for a while now.

Now here comes the quote-unquote “twist.” Catherine Tramell’s last novel featured a murder that is exactly like the one just committed, which means that either she is the killer and devoted an incredible amount of planning to this murder, including constructing and publishing this novel as the perfect alibi, or there is someone else that is completely, dangerously obsessed with her and doing it either to frame her, or for some other weird sadistic purpose. This premise is kind of interesting, but the movie ultimately doesn’t make anything of it. It’s too bad, because I was into the early appearance of Paul Giamatti as a psychologist explaining how very, very dangerous and very, very psychotic this behavior is… But then ultimately all that gets dropped in the excitement of the idea of fucking women that might kill you. We also find out that Catherine is 30 years old, is an orphan (she may have killed her own parents) and is astoundingly rich with—wait for it—$110 million! It’s a sad statement that we’ve gotten to where we are today in just a short 25 or so years since this film was released, that $110 million no longer seems to be ridiculously rich, and in fact, one wonders how she can live on it.

Now, in here some pretty good stuff is going to happen, so let’s pay attention, because it won’t be for long. First there are indications that some people on Nick’s team think he is also a little bit crazy. He watches Catherine as she gets dressed to go downtown, and sees her naked. In the car she says that he himself is the subject she is researching for her new book, which is about a detective who falls for the wrong woman and gets killed. There begins to be a subtle ticking sound on the soundtrack during the scenes where Nick is finding her sexy for wanting to kill him, and I’m kind of getting into this idea that he’s being drawn into this dangerous sexual obsession. This all leads up to the infamous pussy flashing scene, which is actually quite good. It is expertly directed, and one wonders if it is the only reason this film is remembered at all. As she is being peppered with inappropriate questions about whether or not she felt anything for all the men she had sex with, she says she enjoys taking cocaine and suddenly asked Nick specifically if he likes fucking on cocaine, which makes all the detectives in the room look at him. She then uncrosses and recrosses her legs, in which we get a quick glimpse of her snatch, also accompanied by the ticking clock sound on this soundtrack. It’s good, because it’s one of the only scenes in which Catherine seems actually quite smart and not just a little crazy and off.

She then says she needs a ride home, and Nick offers to give it to her. After that he joins the police at a bar, and has his first drink in three months, publicly, with all the guys who knows he stopped drinking… and he doesn’t think that should appear to be a big deal. In here we introduce this asshole investigating attorney guy who goes throughout the entire film and apparently means something, but I can’t even get into it. Nick then goes over to Beth’s house, where he has rough sex with her that in my mind qualifies as full-out rape. Once again we are able to see how something from an earlier era which what we might call rape now—because it is clearly nonconsensual and she is not making any expression of enjoying it as he throws her down and thrusts in—once was depicted as simply exciting, "rough sex."

So Nick keeps following Catherine around. She manipulates him into a dangerous car chase on US1, she manipulates him into drinking and smoking by consistently offering him a cigarette, and making him a drink and pressing it on him even after he has said he doesn’t want one. Then her supposed girlfriend Roxy comes home, and she kisses and squeezes her breasts right in front of Nick, because it is part of the fevered straight male imagination that all women love lesbian sex with hot, glamorous lipstick lesbians. Then Nick goes and physically attacks the investigating attorney guy, and next thing we know that man is shot in the head. Nick is now the focus of our investigation and he smokes in the investigating room, using Catherine’s line about how they’re not going to arrest him for smoking. So far there have been kind of interesting things about this whole premise, and I could really get into a movie that takes seriously this weird dance between a femme fatale that may or may not be manipulating this detective, and this detective who is ripe and ready to be manipulated by a femme fatale. Of course, is exactly the same story from Double Indemnity, but here all that interesting stuff gets lost in a weird fever dream of murderous sexual women and guys with overdeveloped death drives. Anyway all the interesting stuff is pretty much over from now on.

Nick gets suspended from the force. He invites Catherine into his apartment for a drink, even though he is suspended and she is the reason why. They go to one nightclub, a famous scene from the movie, in which she dances seductively with Roxy, then dances seductively with Nick, before they go home to fuck. The nightclub is a little funny as it is so bright, filled with so many nerds and losers, and is basically all wrong. While they are fucking on her bed, she pulls out a white scarf and ties him up exactly like the killing at the beginning. Just as they are achieving mutual satisfaction, she falls forward on him, exactly like the moment when the woman at the beginning killed the guy, and this is seen as the most exciting thing because while he’s cumming he could in fact be killed, and this is apparently… exciting in some way? It’s a premise as old as Invasion of the Bee Girls.

Blah blah blah Catherine’s car tries to run him down, he gets in a chase, runs her off the road, and it turns out it was Roxy in there. Roxy is revealed as a psychopath who killed her two young brothers, causing us to see pictures of two young boys with their throats slit. Catherine is upset over Roxy's death, and does that thing that only exists in scripts like this, in which, while crying, she whispers “make love to me.” She tells Nick that this girl at school, whose soon revealed to be Beth, used to be blond and she had sex with her once, used to be kind of a weird psycho wanabee who dressed and acted like her. Nick gets to the point where he asks Catherine to run away with him, just as she is finished with her book, and she dumps him coldly, saying she only wanted him for his character.

Then the rather strange climax. Nick’s friend is going to meet someone that will give them information, when he is killed. Beth is there, and Nick shoots her. They later find a file on Catherine at Beth’s house, and it is afterward confirmed by circumstantial evidence that Beth was indeed the killer this whole time. So it’s a weird thing, Nick shoots her in a way that may or may not be a mistake, meaning the climax doesn’t have any motivation of achieving justice or finishing off the killer, and then we afterward find out that she actually was the killer, in a not entirely convincing way. So the main mystery of the film just kind of goes away with this unsatisfactory explanation. But I guess that is in part to sustain the idea that Catherine may still be the killer… which the movie takes up in the final scene, in which Catherine suddenly comes out of the woodwork and says she doesn’t want to lose Nick, and they fuck once again with her on top, this film’s vision of the most exciting and most dangerous sex possible, that the film keeps presenting to us. Then them film ends in a way that I kind of like, although it brings up a lot of questions. They’re having sex, Catherine reaches back down off the bed for something, then falls foreword in the murderous motion we know, but does not kill Nick. She later has her hand out of frame and suddenly brings it to Nick… but only touches his head. Then the film fades out. The end! Moments later, it fades back in again and we tilt down off the bed to see an ice pick laying on the floor. I kind of interpret this as the film having two endings, sort of a “choose your own adventure,” one of which she is not the killer, and one in which she is, and you can simply decide what you want to go with. It’s not a satisfying ending, but it is kind of an interesting one.

So, what is this all about? Much as I don’t ever want to see it again, I don’t think it is a stupid movie. I think it has a kind of interesting sort of postmodern idea, which is that it’s just a fevered imagination about dangerous female sexuality and icy beautiful women that have control, dangerous hard-drinking detectives who fall for them, and this steamy hothouse atmosphere of lust and danger. The movie makes explicit that the plot and the resolution of the murder and any thing that might make sense in a plot level kind of way takes far distant second place to the overall atmosphere and sense of sex and danger. Does it work? Well, not really for me, although I can get into something like Stranger by the Lake, which casts a similar idea of sex and danger in a gay context, with a hot guy that may or may not be a murderer. Maybe straight guys really like this? Maybe straight guys really get into the danger of beautiful, emotionally chilly women who might kill them while fucking to death. Nevertheless, you have to respect it for clearly putting plot and sense-making in second place in order to just go for this overheated imagination of sexuality. It is really just a sexual fantasy on film, and it presents itself explicitly as nothing more than that. Even going so far as to tell you that there is no real ending to this story, because these events have not really happened, which makes a break with the typical promise most films try to make with us.

And, in retrospect it really is kind of just a bizarre relic of a time past. Sharon Stone’s character doesn’t make a lick of sense from beginning to end, and there is not one moment with her in which she seems like a real person. Maybe this is the point? As I said, there is a kernel of an idea in here that is very interesting and would make a very intriguing movie, but while this is sort of fascinating in that postmodern way of being just a fantasy, for that very reason it is not a very satisfying movie. It doesn’t have real characters and we can’t get involved in their story, because it is so ludicrous. The conclusion is purposely and openly unsatisfying, and it has no real ending. So while it’s an admirable experiment in atmosphere over narrative, it’s just not that satisfying as a movie.

Still, it is what it is, and it is one of the most indelible cultural landmarks of the 90s. You sort of have to respect it. It may raise a lot of questions about what was going on in Eszterhas’ mind, and what was going on in Hollywood at the time that these kind of movies enjoyed such a fevered run for a while… and then you might turn over and go to sleep, or switch channels to something more interesting, or get a burrito or jerk off or pursue something else that might be a little more satisfying and nourishing for the soul. I’ve already talked myself out of buying that Eszterhas biography.

Should you watch it: 

You definitely must see it once.


Paul Verhoeven has this remarkable ability to make movies that simultaneously offer up pinnacle examples of stupid Hollywood movies while also commenting on how stupid these movies are, usually without changing a word in the screenplay. I think he used the Trammell character to communicate that commentary to the audience. He, along with Stone, barely tether Trammell into the film "proper," where everyone is essentially an idiot blinded by sex. I almost think the thesis of the character (for Stone and Verhoeven,) is "can you believe this shit?"

Full disclosure: I love this movie and the Sharon Stone Moment within. When I'm feeling bloated and old, I remember er this movie and her performance, and go out into the world with renewed dazzle, eager to manipulate some basic instincts out there.

That's what I meant that there's something postmodern about it... it barely even tries to be a real movie with real characters and is just a crazy sex fantasy [while calling out the audience for wanting to see this fantasy]. I'm glad you have some solace awaiting you in old age with this film, haha! I'm not sure I have that...

This movie really is just pure Verhoeven, isn't it? Both a takedown and a celebration of the type of movie it both is, and wants to be seen as. Very post-modern meta before that was even a thing. I wandered over to imdb after reading your review and read some of the trivia, have you seen the list of potential casting choices for Catherine? Crazy!

Julia Roberts, Rosanna Arquette, Courtney Love, Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Grey, Ally Sheedy, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Helena Bonham Carter, Winona Ryder, etc. Basically every woman in Hollywood under 40 was mentioned at some point!

Sometimes IMDB trivia really comes through with a bunch of wild stuff... Note that all of those actresses were "considered" for the role, it doesn;t say whether they ACTRESSES considered it! Still, amazing.

Yeah that's a really good point, I do remember reading that they ended up casting Sharon Stone (and only paying her like $100k, which is also what Elizabeth Berkeley was paid for "Showgirls") because she was the only one "brave enough - or shameless enough - to take on the role." Which is ridiculously sexist: Here's a character in a major Hollywood movie written to be a walking scoff at people's hypocritical Puritanical modesty, but only a whore would agree to play her.

You're more generous to this trashy film than I ever could be. Referring to the "strong feminist themes" of Joe Eszterhas needs a respectful challenge.

As I recall, every woman in the film, except the Latina maid, is a killer. Of course, they all killed men. The film underscores that these are dangerous, threatening women and implies that men are in grave danger if they fall into the clutches of a woman. Conversely, Michael Douglas plays a rogue cop who has killed and killed again under troubling circumstances. But he is not depicted as threatening. He is the film's hero. Men are good. Women are dangerous. So much for feminism.

This is not a film with even a drop feminism running though its cold veins. It's a misogynistic sex fantasy from two vastly unappealing straight men and their arrogant star. Basically, it stinks.

The line about the "strong feminist themes" of Joe Eszterhas is a joke, I'm being sarcastic, for all the reasons you detail in the rest of your comment.

Yeah this exactly. Mark my words, film fans. Verhoeven will be regarded as a major filmmaker one day, and this is one of the jewels in his crown. You can probably pass on the Estherhas biography but Basic Instinct is genius. I don't really have any comments for Michael Douglas's desirability but Sharon Stone wins her lifetime achievement award here. I've seen a couple Hitchcock films where people chuckle at the suspense scenes... Same thing here, kids. Major movie, major cast. Wish it could have been a legacy for decades of future films but that's ok.