Friday, May 11, 2012

To the Victor, the Spoilers: Malice

WARNING: the post that follows may contain SPOILERS for Malice, as well as Psycho, The Social Network, The Empire Strikes BackCitizen KanePredator, and the original Saw. If you haven't seen those movies (well, Malice and Psycho, at least) or if you're the kind of person who whines when you learn about the endings of movies before you've seen them (even if they're decades old), then stop reading, come back once you've had the chance to give them a rental. Don't worry, this post will still be here.

Everyone else seen these movies or don't care about spoilers? Great, welcome to To the Victor, the Spoilers. Today, I'm bringing the spoiler-filled counterpart to a review Thaddeus started a few weeks back, on the Alec Baldwin/Nicole Kidman/Bill Pullman vehicle, Malice.

When I think of spoilers, I always think of Psycho. Watching it on TV a few months ago, what struck me was that the original experience of Psycho is something that can never be recaptured for a modern audience. When Psycho was released, Hitchcock took then-unprecedented steps to decoy the audience as to the story's twists and turns. The script was a secret, and the ending withheld from the cast until it was time to shoot it. Promotional materials for the film worked hard to make it look like Janet Leigh was the star of the movie, so her death halfway through would be a shock. Hitchcock contractually forbade theater operators from allowing people into the film after it had started, to make sure everyone watched the movie from beginning to end. (For you youngsters, back in the day a ticket for the movie's next showing usually would get you into whatever was left of the current showing, so long as the theater wasn't sold out, so it wasn't that rare for people to walk into a movie, catch the end, then see what they'd missed in the next showing.)

According to IMDB, Hitchcock started rumors about casting Mrs. Bates--Norman's mother--going so far as telling the press that he really wanted Helen Hayes for the part. According to Stephen Rebello's book on the making of Psycho, he even bought up copies of the Robert Bloch novel the film was based on, to keep its secrets under wraps.

All of that effort was to make sure that the audience entered the film in the right state of blessed ignorance, and that they watched the movie from beginning to end without any preconceived notions. And the effort paid off: Psycho, made on a budget of less than $1 million, was Hitchcock's greatest hit.

But by the time I first saw Psycho, almost two decades after it was released, the movie was "spoiled." Leigh's early exit, the true identity of the killer, who it was Norman had those arguments with, all of it had seeped into the public consciousness like mercury into groundwater, much like the fact that Rosebud was a sled, and later the identity of Luke Skywalker's father.

It's a testament to Hitchcock's mastery of the camera, the amazing score, and strong performances all around that it is still a great film, an immensely enjoyable experience even when you anticipate its surprises. It's just a different experience than you would have had in 1960, when a movie about an impulsive woman on the run from the law suddenly took a turn and became the story of a dangerously unstable young man with the ultimate in mommy issues, and you probably didn't have a single clue where the story was going.

With Malice, I have the reverse issue. I saw the film under ideal circumstances: in the theater, after having been hooked by one of the best trailers of the last 30 years.

That trailer's a great head fake. The trick is, it's extremely convincing as a trailer for an existing genre, one that was tremendously popular in the late '80s and early '90s: the ______ from Hell genre. Over the course of a few years you had the Roommate from Hell movie (Single White Female); the Cop from Hell movie (Unlawful Entry); the Bro from Hell movie (Bad Influence); the Hookup from Hell movie (Fatal Attraction); the Tenant from Hell movie (Pacific Heights); the Stepfather from Hell movie (um, The Stepfather)--all films where bourgeois protagonists are threatened by an initially friendly-seeming psychotic.

That Malice trailer is a trailer for the Surgeon from Hell movie. Bill Pullman and Nicole Kidman seem perfectly cast as the yuppie couple with a fixer-upper dream home: he's the nebbish academic, right down to the elbow patches on his jacket, while she's the somewhat uptight, completely out-of-his-league spouse. They're pure psycho bait, something straight out of Straw Dogs.

The first half of Malice plays out almost exactly as in the trailer. We meet Andy Safian (Pullman) and his wife, Tracy (Kidman). They own an old Victorian house they can't quite afford to fix up, and the college where Andy works has recently been plagued by a serial rapist, but other than that, their life is pretty idyllic--deeply in love, trying to start a family...

Then Andy meets Jed (Alec Baldwin) a high school classmate turned hotshot surgeon who recently moved to their Massachusetts college town. Andy's immediately taken with Jed, and offers to rent him a room in their house. While Andy strives to win Jed's alpha male approval, Tracy is thoroughly repulsed by the womanizing surgeon.

Things continue in a vaguely menacing way until Tracy falls ill with a hemorrhaging ovarian cyst. Jed, who's been slamming scotch at the campus bar, is the surgeon on call. Jed saves her life, but he also terminates Tracy's pregnancy and removes her remaining healthy ovary, making her sterile.

Tracy leaves Andy, sickened that he gave Jed carte blanche to do whatever he felt was necessary to save her life. Then she sues Jed and the hospital, leading to movie's centerpiece, the deposition scene that's featured in the trailer. I know Thaddeus posted the video in his review, but let's look at it again, since it's that good:

Between this and Glengarry Glen Ross, Baldwin had the badass monologue crown sewn up in the early '90s. While Thaddeus rightly praised the acting in his review, let me lavish some love on Aaron Sorkin's script.

In just his second produced screenplay, Sorkin is confident enough here that he drops what I'm pretty sure is an HMS Pinafore reference into Baldwin's big moment ("never sick at sea"). Although a second writer is credited on Malice's screenplay, there can be no question that this scene, at least, is Aaron's. Just look at what Sorkin did with a similar deposition scene, in The Social Network:

The message to the defense lawyers in both movies is the same: better settle now, 'cause you don't want a verdict depending on whether or not the jury likes that guy. So Tracy walks away with a giant settlement...and then the movie takes a turn. A turn isn't quite the same as a plot twist: it's more than just a bit of withheld information, it's a change in the essential nature of the story. Take the original Predator: you start out with an 80's action flick about an elite military unit on a rescue mission in South America, you end up in a science fiction movie about trying to escape an alien who's on safari. Same thing with Psycho, which has both a turn (the story goes from being about Janet Leigh and the stolen money to being about Norman and his mother trying to cover up her murder) and a twist (Norman is his mother). Similarly, we start Malice thinking it's a Doctor from Hell thriller, spend half the running time in a drama about medical ethics and the folly of developing a mancrush on amoral surgeons, and finally wind up in a con man film. You see, Andy is briefly a suspect in the serial rapist case after one of his students (Gwyneth Paltrow in a tiny part) becomes a victim. He gives a sperm sample to the police that both rules him out as the rapist and teaches him that he's sterile.
Since the baby Tracy lost to Jed's scalpel couldn't possibly be his, Andy starts asking questions and eventually learns that Tracy's a con artist, born into a family of grifters (including the excellent Anne Bancroft). Everything we saw in the first half of the movie--including his wife's illness and the God Complex speech--was a setup orchestrated by Tracy and Jed in order to get a fat settlement from the hospital's insurance company. In the film's final act, Andy turns the tables, blackmailing them as part of a complicated trap set up with the local police. Jed, who's been presented as the true villain throughout the movie, makes a surprising early exit:
Tracy then takes aim at a young neighbor who Andy convinced her is a witness to the plot with Jed. This is, in effect, a second turn for the movie, since we're now on the familiar thriller footing of our mild-mannered protagonist facing down the Wife/New England Grifter from Hell in one final confrontation. As is the tradition of the _____ from Hell movie, by the time that final confrontation arrives, Andy's been transformed into a different guy from the born victim we met in the first reel. He fought and captured the rapist (Tobin Bell, before he became the Jigsaw Killer), held his own in a battle of wits against Bancroft, and got Jed to blink first with his high-stakes blackmail bluff. By the time the end comes, he can even shrug off considerable pain to dash off pithy one-liners.
In the film's final twist, the neighbor kid who Tracy wanted to kill because he might've spied her conspiring with Jed didn't see anything--he's blind. Now, Malice isn't perfect. The plot has holes. Kidman's plan is an absurdly long con--she was Andy's star pupil at the college before she became his wife, so that's a lot of time and effort spent on what's essentially just set dressing for a malpractice scam. It also isn't clear why the police needed Andy's sperm to do a DNA match (maybe DNA testing was too expensive back in '93?), or why they took the care to do a sperm count and motility study as part of ruling him out as the rapist. Some critics were bothered by the fact that the whole serial rapist plot is really just an excuse to give Andy a sperm test (and to earn him some needed confidence). Others seemed to doubt that Jed would throw an extremely lucrative career as a surgeon away for a one-time score. As is often the case with Sorkin's work, the plot works better on an emotional level than a logical one. The joys of Malice are all about the dread you feel, seeing Kidman's glorious mane of hair while knowing that the rapist has a hair fetish; it's the way that Jed goes through the movie, convinced he's the absolute top of the human food chain, right up until Tracy pumps a couple of bullets into him; it's in the scene at Bancroft's apartment, and how her eyes light up when she sees Andy's brought her a bottle of single malt scotch. However, the biggest pleasure in Malice came from the surprise it represented. I was so well-primed for that surprise that I've never been able to step back from it as I would one of M. Night Shyamalan's movies. Every time I see it on TV, I get the same thrill I felt back in 1993, impressed by how the trailer pulled the wool over my eyes. I wonder what the reaction to this movie is of someone who came to it differently. I positively cringe thinking of the reaction of anyone who came to the movie after seeing this version of the trailer, which seems to have been made for the VHS release:
Like blended scotch (and the vast majority of trailers these days) that trailer is crap. It takes you farther away from the intended experience of this movie. Unlike Psycho (or Empire Strikes Back, or Predator), Malice's twists and turns haven't become part of the common social consciousness--mainly because it's nowhere near as popular as those movies. The movie can be spoiled. The question is, is it worth watching, post-spoilers?


  1. Great post! I like so many of your points, it's hard to pick where to start. Your rundown of the ____ from Hell pix is excellent.

    I forgot that Sorkin wrote this! No wonder the dialogue is so tight. I also forgot that Paltrow was in the pic, even briefly.; when else has she been so threatened? Contagion? Kalifornia?

    It's absolutely true that Psycho used Leigh as a fantastic misdirect. The death of what looks to be film's lead is a total shock, and it can't be replicated if you know who Norman is. I was very lucky to go into it with no knowledge.

    The same goes for the sudden change in Predator. You nailed it, and I LOVE that you refer to it as a "turn." To be honest, I probably would've struggled for a while before I hit on the right phrase.

    I take a twist versus a turn as being like tactics versus strategy. The twist alters an element of the film - maybe a huge one - whereas a turn changes the whole nature of the film. It's not "the killer is his mother," it's "this was a horror film for 45 minutes, now it's a musical comedy."

    And, finally, I'd like to add that Malice is definitely worth watching when you know what's coming. It just won't be quite so impressive - and its flaws may weigh more heavily on the viewer.

  2. SPOILERS for Se7en, Contagion, the Executive Decision, the Matrix, and real life:

    Thanks for all the praise! I'm blushing :)

    As for Paltrow, she's the answer to Brad Pitt's "What's in the box?!?" at the end of Fincher's film, so I think that takes first place on the "threatened" scale, with this movie and Contagion tying for second. Also, she apparently made a Sylvia Plath biopic, so I guess that would have to go on the list.

    Yeah, the twist/turn dichotomy isn't something I've completely fleshed out--one could argue that I'm just distinguishing between end of movie twists and those that come in previous acts. There are some movies where I'm not quite sure if I'd classify them as twists or turns. For example, I think Executive Decision's big surprise might be a turn--like Psycho, you have the presumptive lead character biting the bullet, even though the basic nature of the film doesn't really change (it's still "Elite commando unit tries to free hijacked airplane" just Jack Ryan is leading the commandoes instead of John Clark, so to speak). Does the Matrix have a turn? Sure, you get a big surprise about 20-30 minutes in, but the story isn't much of anything until you get to that point of learning what the Matrix is.

    1. WOW. I saw it in the theater, yet I keep forgeting 7even even exists! I never saw it again...

      The Matrix is special. I think that may have a turn, but given how central it is to the plot, and how early it occurs, I think of The Matrix as having an extra-long Act 1.

      It's difficult to separate a movie's storyline from a turn in same. Also, few movies even try to include one.

      Exotica might be one example, às the characters collide together, but that's an offhand blind-guess based on skimming my dvds. Cemetery Man, possibly, but that whole movie is delightfully confusing. Requiem for a Dream is too... whatever from the get-go for it to contain a twist. Something in me says Pi might've had a turn, tho.


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