Monday, August 9, 2010

Film Review: PAST MIDNIGHT (1991, Jan Eliasberg)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Tag-line: "Past Passion. Past Terror. Past Murder. Past Midnight."
Notable Cast or Crew: Rutger Hauer, Natasha Richardson, Clancy Brown (HIGHLANDER, BLUE STEEL, EXTREME PREJUDICE), Paul Giamatti, Tom Wright (EXTERMINATOR 2, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET), Guy Boyd (FLASHPOINT, THE EWOK ADVENTURE: CARAVAN OF COURAGE). Written by Frank Norwood (DRIVEN TO KILL, THE SURVIVAL OF DANA). Script doctoring by Quentin Tarantino. Music by Steve Bartek (CABIN BOY, SNOW DAY, former member of Strawberry Alarm Clock and Oingo Boingo).
Best exchange: "146 I.Q...." –"Ted Bundy had 150."

Before I even begin, three things: PAST MIDNIGHT is far better than it has any right to be. Second, I'd heard this described as a wanna-be Eszterhas, when, in fact- it's wanna-be De Palma. There's a big difference. Third, Quentin Tarantino did do a rewrite of the script, which gained him that nebulous "associate producer" credit, and yes, you can tell. More on that in a bit.

The main thrust is that Rutger Hauer has been released from prison after fifteen years for the murder of his wife and unborn child- a crime which he claims not to have committed. (And he's Rutger Hauer, so he's pretty persuasive.)

Natasha Richardson becomes his social worker and then a little bit more than his social worker, and breaks the fragile heart of Clancy Brown in the process.

But the thought continues to gnaw at the back of her mind...what if he did do it?

Now, to me, this sounds a lot like De Palma did a TV movie remake of IN A LONELY PLACE, and it was indeed the only theatrical foray by television director-for-hire Jan Eliasberg (CAGNEY & LACEY, L.A. LAW, SISTERS, EARLY EDITION, PARTY OF FIVE, et al.). The surprising thing is that it works. Well, at least until the third act. Some of you might be attributing this to the Tarantino rewrite, but I've gotta say most of the commendations belong to the actors and composer Steve Bartek. Tarantino does bring a certain degree of idiosyncratic dialogue to the table, and while it's immediately identifiable as Tarantino's, it doesn't quite qualify as razor-edged or quotable, per sé.

For example:
"Maybe Jordan isn't a natural born killer."
"I'm not a sex maniac! I'm not some Son-of-Sam asshole!"
"It makes Nightmare on Elm Street look like Charlotte's Web."
"What's the difference between a whore and a bitch? A whore'll sleep with anybody, and a bitch'll sleep with anybody but me."
"If we were to have this kind of an exchange in the joint, one of us would end up with a shank between the ribs."
"You can say 'maybe' all goddamn day, and I don't think you believe that."

Composer Steve Bartek's music is great- it's melodramatic, over-the-top, and punctuated with enough frightening strings to be worthy of Bernard Herrmann (or at least Pino Donaggio). One of the more bombastic, overdramatic scores of the 1990's for sure, and I've always said that anything which nearly approximates Max Steiner, even bad Max Steiner, maybe especially bad Max Steiner, is worth a few points in my book.

The acting is top-notch. Rutger Hauer is, as always, phenomenal. The entire movie hinges upon his ability to appear as 'the killer' and 'not the killer' at the same time- and by gum, does he pull it off.

There's a terrifying ambiguity to everything that he does, and in more than one scene, he tugs on the heart-strings while simultaneously creeping you the fuck out. He even gets to do a ridiculous (intentional? unintentional?) replay of the "tears in rain" scene from BLADE RUNNER, which makes this feel almost like a Rutger Hauer's Greatest Hits compilation, with bits and pieces taken from the Ridley Scott, the psycho in THE HITCHER, and the love triangle from A BREED APART.

Tears in rain

At one point, he's referred to as "white trash," which is, of course, a bit of a stretch, but he wears enough turtlenecks throughout to maintain his intellectual integrity.

Then we've got Clancy Brown, camping outside Richardson's house and watching the new lovers from his fishing boat with a mixture of jealousy and disdain.

He gets to wear some hideous early 90's cravats as well,

but that doesn't prevent us from liking him just the same.

Stuck in the middle is Natasha Richardson, who besides being caught in a love triangle with two of the best action hero/villains of the 1980's, has the difficult task of holding her own against a flashily-written and acted Hauer role. Naturally, she succeeds, and, in the end, does it with shotgun-blastin' panache.

But who are we supposed to be rooting for here? Clancy Brown or Rutger Hauer? This is like SOPHIE's choice. This is asking me to choose between children.

The Kurgan or Roy Batty? EXTREME PREJUDICE or WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE? This is sadistic, the way that you're toying with my emotions, PAST MIDNIGHT.

The lush, fog-enshrouded, overcast, and isolated Pacific Northwestern locations fit the material well, and on more than one occasion, there's palpable suspense.

There are some nice bits that are reminiscent of the best giallos, and a recurring device which involves a killer using a 16mm camera

which recalls Dario Argento's "black-gloved murderer POV" as well as the camera-spike killer from PEEPING TOM. We've got a solid enough early 90's thriller with enough faux-De Palma (never thought I'd say that) street cred and solid performances to make it enjoyable, but it severely bungles the ending, going for some boneheaded, 'Gotcha!,' clichéd action. Ordinarily, I'd be okay with that, but I think that it actually earned some complexity points along the way. It could have ended as a slowly racheted, chilling character study, and, given the caliber of actor, I would've been more than satisfied. Regardless: three and a half stars.

-Sean Gill


J.D. said...

Wow, this sounds pretty cool... Rutger Hauer AND Clancy Brown? I'm there!

Sean Gill said...

This flick isn't exactly in the uppermost tier for either of their oeuvres, but they're both great in it. I love these unexpected combos- I was equally, if not more taken aback by the Hauer/Powers Boothe/Donald Pleasence/Brion James collaboration A BREED APART (I gotta do a review of that one of these days) and the Walken/Ironside/Luis Guzman/Steve James/Victor Argo insanity that is MCBAIN (my review backlog is getting to be ridiculous).