Brad Silberling had directed two previous films — 1995’s Casper and 1998’s Wings of Desire remake City of Angels. His third is far, far better, possibly because he wrote it himself and it comes out of something real. Silberling was dating actress Rebecca Schaeffer at the time of her murder at the hands of a stalker in 1989. He uses the experience to tell the story of Joe (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose fiancée has recently been killed. Joe stays with her parents (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon), each dealing with grief in his or her own way — Hoffman is always thinking of other people’s feelings, Sarandon couldn’t care less and is acerbic and withering towards attempts to console her. This very small movie quiets its cast down and guides them into subtle, human-scaled performances. Holly Hunter turns up as the D.A. representing the parents in the murder trial, but Silberling seems to agree with us that the outcome of the trial doesn’t really matter. A fine drama with a nicely judged selection of morose oldies (the film is set in 1973). Also with Ellen Pompeo as a postal worker with whom Joe pursues a tentative connection.
Archive for September 2002
Trapped has been gathering dust for a while; like Hearts in Atlantis, it bears a dedication to its co-cinematographer, Piotr Sobocinski, who died early last year. One could forgive its leads, Charlize Theron and Kevin Bacon, if they were to forget they’re even in the movie; one could excuse the nation’s moviegoers for forgetting it has been released, since Trapped wasn’t screened for critics and thus has no advance reviews in its favor. This all screams “turkey,” yet Trapped is fairly decent for what it is — a high-strung contraption, or, as Bacon’s character describes the situation, “a machine that runs on fear.”
I assume one of the reasons for the film’s delay was to distance it as much as possible from Panic Room, another claustrophobic thriller whose tension depends on an asthmatic child under duress (Signs also cashed in on this sparkly new cliché; can we now retire it, please?). The wheezing toddler here is Abby Jennings (Dakota Fanning), who could hardly be cuter; she takes after her mom Karen (Theron), though she may have inherited some of her pixieish fragility from her dad Will, played by Stuart Townsend in another performance (after Queen of the Damned) that makes you thank God, or whoever’s responsible, that Townsend didn’t end up playing Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings as planned. Townsend looks like Hugh Jackman after several years of liquid dieting, yet here he’s supposed to be convincing as a brilliant doctor, a pilot, and a challenging foe for Courtney Love.
Ah. Yes. Courtney Love is in this, and I had my doubts about her gracing such a conventional thriller; such qualms were banished the first moment I saw her running her femme fatale number on the blinking Dr. Will, who simply wants to get back to his hotel room and isn’t prepared to confront Courtney Love, but then who is? Courtney, we soon learn, is in cahoots with Joe (Bacon) and Marvin (Pruitt Taylor Vince, he of the jiggly eyeballs); they have kidnapped four previous children with success and without harm done, and they plan to make Abby number five. The movie becomes a series of pair-offs: Joe holding Karen at her home, using every ounce of the patented Kevin Bacon oily menace to keep her on the agenda; Marvin watching cartoons at a cabin with Abby; and good old Courtney waving a big suppressed gun around or taking a bath, both of which seem to hold equal terror for the waifish Dr. Will.
I don’t mind admitting that the movie, for me, became about Courtney Love. That’s the effect she has; on screen as onstage or on disc, she insists on your attention whether you love her or loathe her (and you get the impression she doesn’t care which). Her finest moment here is absolutely immobile: Dr. Will gets the drop on her and injects her with some paralyzing (non-fatal) agent, and can you imagine Courtney Love required to stay completely still? I couldn’t either, and it’s not a pretty sight. We’re encouraged to see the kidnappers as a dark mirror image of Karen and Dr. Will, but for Stuart Townsend to compete with Kevin Bacon would mean bundling Bacon up in a laundry bag; and Charlize Theron can cringe and sob with the best of them, which would be impressive if she hadn’t done it to a fare-thee-well in Devil’s Advocate and The Astronaut’s Wife. Again, for what it is, Trapped is acceptably entertaining, but I very likely wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much without its wild card: For those who always wanted to see Courtney Love involved in a highway car chase featuring a plane and a lumber truck, this is your movie.
Can a movie succeed if the director has nothing but contempt for his subject? Matthew Bright’s Ted Bundy attempts to answer that question. Bright, who made the twisted gems Freeway and Trickbaby, is drawn to the tangled nightside of the psyche, so you’d figure he’d be the perfect go-to guy for a serial-killer biopic. Instead, Bright (who can blame him, really?) stands outside his misogynistic, sadistic rapist-murderer and finds him pathetic. It doesn’t make for terribly enlightening viewing, but maybe that’s the point.
I hope Michael Reilly Burke is in a very solid longtime relationship, because I have a hard time imagining anyone wanting to be with him after catching his act as Bundy. Following Bright’s merciless lead, Burke paints Bundy as a glowering, loathsome maggot who can only occasionally get it together to act “normal” around his clueless girlfriend and her little daughter. The movie has no fancy structure; it’s just Bundy isolating and killing one brainless woman after another, again and again, until he’s thrown in jail. Then he escapes and starts killing again. Then he’s thrown in jail again. Then he escapes again and starts killing again…
It’s numbing, albeit not sensationalized. You certainly don’t identify with Bundy on the prowl, but the movie also has an unmistakable bewildered contempt for the many women — including his girlfriend — who fell for his act. Admittedly, we are seeing Bundy’s victims through modern-day eyes; his peak days as a serial killer were the mid-’70s, when young women were simply less cautious about whose car they got into (decades of media reportage on serial killers have made everyone more aware of the risks). But Bright, who has a deep love and respect for strong women (see his Freeway movies), seems to throw up his hands in exasperation at the fatal naivete of those doomed girls; at times he seems to infantilize them, as when two sorority girls are seen bouncing on their beds in their panties, moments before Bundy sneaks in with a log and caves their heads in. The only time the movie really comes alive is when one of Bundy’s would-be victims fights back viciously and gets away; you can feel Bright perking up and enjoying Bundy getting bashed around.
Ted Bundy ends on a rather sadistic note. It devotes a full ten or fifteen minutes to Bundy’s execution, and we get it all — the fear, the shaved head, the policemen wearing latex gloves (suddenly we’re in a BDSM cop-fetish porn movie), the Vaseline-coated cotton balls stuffed up the rectum so that Bundy won’t soil himself. Bright lingers over Bundy’s agony, and you may think, Well, good, he had it coming. Ted Bundy is one of the rare movies that spend 100 minutes with someone only to glory in his protracted death.
Bright has admitted that the movie shouldn’t be taken as literal fact. It’s an impression of the events, if you like. Did Bundy really carry a bagged corpse (with feet sticking out) to his car past a group of dog-walkers who didn’t even notice? Did his girlfriend really stay with him even after he forced her to play dead during sex while screaming obscenities at her? Was Bundy’s hooded executioner really a woman? Who knows?
It’s best to read Ted Bundy as Bright’s two-pronged assault on homicidal women-haters and those who glorify them; a hardline lesbian feminist filmmaker could not have made a more withering expression of disgust at misogynist pathology. At the very end, Bright gives us a Tiger Woods-like montage of little kids — including a little girl holding a dead cat! — reciting “I am Ted Bundy.” Well, what does that mean? That, however much we enjoyed seeing Bundy die, his evil didn’t die with him? That our culture is creating more Bundys every year? Again, who knows? Ted Bundy is certainly the least resolved — and for that reason, the most disturbing — true-life serial-killer movie since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (still the genre’s high-water mark). It’s also the least engaging.