Woman Trouble

You might not have noticed it, but in the last six months, the leading ranks of American film directors has grown by one. John Dahl is the most exciting, stylish, entertainingly smart director to come along in years. Working within film noir -- but making it totally new -- he had sly fun with a nice but dumb cowboy mistaken for a hit man in the deliriously plotted Red Rock West. If you didn't see that movie this past summer at a theater, you might have caught it two years ago on cable, where, for absurd economic reasons that could only have come from Hollywood executives, it was originally relegated. Thankfully, it was too good, and too popular, to stay there.

Dahl's delicious new noir, The Last Seduction, went through a similar process, first appearing on HBO in 1993, and then taking the film circuit route (including the Houston Worldfest) in hopes of finding a producer who'd back it for theatrical release. However it got here, Seduction is now on the silver screen in all its brassy glory. And Dahl will never have to peddle again.

Like West and Dahl's first feature, the 1989 cult favorite Kill Me Again, Seduction includes a hit man, a patsy and a husband and wife out to kill each other. But what makes Seduction distinctive is its femme fatale. Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) is cool, sexy, ruthless, hard-boiled, heartless and, most of all, psychotic. In all the ways you could imagine and -- more enjoyably -- in many you couldn't, she's a killer. A role of a lifetime smolderingly performed by the previously little-known Fiorentino, Bridget is drop-dead like you've never seen before. And as directed by Dahl, she's also a hell of a lot of suspenseful fun.

When we first meet Bridget, she's robbing her medical-student husband Clay (Bill Pullman) of $700,000 he scored from a drug deal selling "pharmaceutical cocaine." How she outwits him involves a condom and backward handwriting. Going on the lam with the intent of fleeing Manhattan for Chicago, she stops for gas in Beston in upstate New York and, at the advice of her slick lawyer (J.T. Walsh), holes up there to file for divorce. This doesn't please Clay, who's almost as tough. (Pullman is in fine form here as a brute full of menace, sarcasm and a strange smarminess). Interviewing sociopaths to find someone who'll track Bridget down, Clay settles on Harlan (Bill Nunn), a private detective who works on a grandiose contingency fee and turns out not to be the "dick" he thinks he is.

Meanwhile, big-city Bridget is finding she has no patience for Mayberry-esque Beston, a town where she can't read her newspaper in public because everybody keeps saying hello. Upon her arrival, she goes to a bar -- her entrance: "Who's a girl gotta suck around here to get a drink?"; answer: no one, just say please with your order -- and spies Mike Swale (Peter Berg), a local insurance adjuster who wants to be bigger than the small town he lives in. One look at Bridget and Mike thinks he's found his inspiration; one look at Mike and Bridget knows she's found her patsy. Flaunting long legs, a short skirt, high heels and black stockings, she seduces him by unzipping his pants, feeling around inside, sniffing her fingers and asking if he has indoor plumbing. She calls him her "designated fuck."

When, after a few days, he says he feels like a sex object, she replies, "Live it up." Now going by the name Wendy, Bridget manipulates Mike as she wishes. When she gets a job as "director of lead generation" at the insurance company where Mike works, one of her first moves is to slap him in full view of everyone at the office. "A woman loses 50 percent of her authority when people find out who she's sleeping with," she snaps in explanation, though feminism is the last thing on her warped mind. Mike, so much a fall guy that he's already played a bit straight out of The Crying Game, is left reeling, and even more smitten.

So are we by a dame so perverse that she tries to convince her patsy that murder's a sign of commitment -- especially when she's done it and he hasn't. Bridget gets her kicks by suggesting to women who have philandering husbands blessed with large life insurance policies that they hire hitmen to off the unfaithful. And she's resourceful enough to make a weapon of a driver's side airbag when Mace fails her.

First-time screenwriter Steve Barancik never fails Dahl, basing the action on Bridget's unique character instead of a noir formula. His ending is cleverly audacious and slyly apt. And his dialogue is priceless: "Why do I have to turn off the lights?" Mike asks Bridget about her instructions on how to commit a murder. "Pop psychology," she replies, lying in her most alluring way. "Let yourself know you've finished an unpleasant chore."

Directed by Dahl with gripping precision, the film has nothing superfluous; everything is riveting. He exploits such noirish elements as ceiling fans and thunderstorms, cigarettes and traffic signals, yet he also turns them inside out by setting much of the movie during the day. Somehow he finds shadows in the morning, prison bars in vertical blinds and dark humor in deadly machinations. He makes comedy out of telephone tracing in the cellular age and high-stakes scamming in rural America.

"Anybody check you for a heartbeat lately?" Bridget's lawyer asks her. You won't have to wonder about yours; it'll be racing.

The Last Seduction.
Directed by John Dahl. Starring Linda Fiorentino, Peter Berg, Bill Pullman, Bill Nunn and J. T. Walsh.

Rated R.

110 minutes.


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