Published at: Sept. 6, 2008, 2:59 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Kim Basinger fascinates me.
I can’t, for the life of me, understand how she ended up as an actress. She’s a beautiful woman, certainly, and in her youth, she was breathtaking. But there are very few people I’ve ever seen working as actors who seem as genuinely uncomfortable in front of a camera as she always has. There are moments in her career when it looks like she was seconds away from running off the set and never returning. The best work she’s done has been when directors figured out how to tap that and make it part of what she was doing onscreen, like in her rightfully-rewarded performance in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.
I’m guessing Susan Montford is a fan of Basinger’s work, because she’s given her perhaps the most tailor-made role she’s ever played, and as a result, Basinger does truly exceptional work in this intimate thriller that marks a promising debut for Montford as a writer/director. That crazy-shaky-panicky thing that seems to be inherent to Basinger as a person is perfect for the role she plays here, and it actually adds to the tension.
Basinger plays a mousy suburban soccer mom whose husband (Craig Sheffer) is an abusive blowhard who has absolutely no problem smacking her around in front of the kids. The opening act of the film takes its time, a very slow fuse that works well at keeping you on-edge, wondering where everything is heading. It’s Christmas Eve, and Basinger is forced to run to the mall for some last-minute shopping. Montford keeps things very quiet, very low-key during this sequence, never tipping her hand. The only indication of what’s coming is some trouble finding a parking space and a note she leaves on someone’s window. That single action, seemingly innocuous, quickly spirals into a life-or-death struggle that leads Basinger into the deep woods, armed only with a toolbox and her wits, and the way it unfolds is horrible because it all makes a sick sort of sense. People escalate these random encounters from disagreement to violence all the time, and for the most ridiculous reasons. It seems like some people just look for the excuse, always ready to explode when the opportunity presents itself.
And in this case, Basinger’s the one who steps into the path of this human hurricane, played by a suitably-seedy Lukas Haas. He seems to be drawn to the margins with the characters he’s playing as an adult, and I thought his work in Rian Johnson’s BRICK was particularly strong. This reminds me of that performance. He’s never given a huge backstory. He’s never fully explained. He’s just a miserable, rotten piece of shit who sees in Basinger something that he wants to hurt. Maybe he’s drawn to the same thing Sheffer’s character is. Maybe Basinger’s character is one of those people who gives off a pheromone that draws abusive fuckheads to her. Thing is, when the film begins, she’s had years of dealing with Sheffer, and we see that she’s already very close to the breaking point with him at home. When Haas targets her, it seems to be the one extra bit of pressure, the final straw that pushes her over the edge, and she responds in a way Haas never would have predicted. He’s got a group of guys with him when the evening starts, but little by little, they fall away until the film becomes a simple battle of the wills between two people equally determined that they will walk out of the forest alive.
Montford and her cinematographer Steve Gainer (WASSUP ROCKERS, A DIRTY SHAME, MYSTERIOUS SKIN, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE, BULLY) have created a very simple visual style for the movie, largely handheld, and when it’s supposed to be dark, it is genuinely freakin’ dark. Much of this film takes place in shadow or small pools of light, and it’s harrowing. I can’t imagine this film cost very much, and the intimacy of it is a strength. There’s a big Hollywood way to have made this movie, and I have a feeling it would have bugged the living shit out of me, like a FATAL ATTRACTION, all glossy and sick and morally hollow. But Montford avoids the easy trap of making this a feminist manifesto a la Jodie Foster’s THE BRAVE ONE, and she dispenses with any excessive moral angst or worried hand-wringing, too. This is a survival story, pure and simple, and by making these characters so direct, so archetypical, it makes it easier for an audience to see themselves in what’s happening onscreen. There are a dozen ways this could have stumbled, but I think Montford shows admirable restraint here. There are a few shocking moments of violence or gore, but that’s not the point of it, and there’s one queasy moment where Kim’s sexuality becomes a weapon, but it’s played just right, and not as exploitation, and not for cheap effect.
I’m not going to oversell this one to you. Like OUTLANDER, another small film I saw recently which I liked a lot, part of what made this so enjoyable was the fact that I walked into it with no expectations at all. It’s a small film, and producers Guillermo Del Toro and Don Murphy deserve credit for throwing their weight behind a film like this which was never designed to be a giant blockbuster. To me, that’s the measure of someone’s worth in this town once they achieve a certain degree of success: will you use that box-office muscle to help kickstart careers, and will you still help small personal films get made, or do you just end up chasing the next $100 million hit your whole life? In Murphy’s case, I’m sure he believes fully in Montford as a filmmaker. She’s not only his co-producer and business partner, but she’s also his wife. But don’t make the mistake of dismissing this as a vanity project; it’s anything but. In adapting Edward Bryant’s short story, she’s proven herself with story, mood, tension, and character, and I’m now genuinely looking forward to whatever she makes next. Anchor Bay’s going to release the film theatrically this December, and then I’m sure it’ll get a big push on video next year. For Basinger’s work alone, I’d say it’s worth it, but if you’re a fan of films where a character is pushed to the breaking point, or a fan of well-crafted thrillers, then make sure you keep your eyes peeled for WHILE SHE WAS OUT.
I’ve got a bunch of reviews to put up this weekend, and at some point, I’ll have another Movie Journal to put up. I need to keep track of when certain films premiere at Toronto so I can get my reviews posted in a timely manner. It’s been a great couple of weeks as the fall movie season has gotten started, and I look forward to talking about all of them with you ASAP.