FATALE ATTRACTION

Red Rock West, the splendid, tight-as-a-drum feature debut of the young writer/director John Dahl, was a comic thriller about a guy trying to get out of a small town. The hero was a decent, honorable young man who tells a tiny lie to get a job, then realizes with horror that he's been hired to commit a murder. He keeps trying to make a discreet exit from the Wyoming village he's wandered into, but various factors keep carrying him back within city limits.

In The Last Seduction, Dahl's sophomore effort, the "heroine," Bridget (Linda Fiorentino), is, conversely, a cruel, calculating villainess. But she's still trying to get out of a small town, this time in western New York state. She's fled there after stealing a fortune in cash from her doctor husband (Bill Pullman), who got it, at Bridget's urging, through a drug deal. She wants to go home to Manhattan, or move on to Chicago, but her husband and a detective (Bill Nunn) are hot on her trail, so, on the advice of her sleazy lawyer (J.T. Walsh, of course), she cools her heels in the nowhere burg named Beston.

All this is setup. The main plot involves how, while working in Beston, Bridget concocts a murderous intrigue to rid herself of hubby and the gumshoe. A young townie (Peter Berg), whom she has allowed to pick her up for a night of recreational sex, becomes absurdly smitten with her, and she, with the assurance of an animal trainer, turns him into her unwitting tool and patsy.

If The Last Seduction isn't half the movie that Red Rock West was, that's still above average. It's shaped as a star vehicle for Fiorentino, a cool, flippant stunner who teetered on the verge of major stardom for a while in the mid-'80s, but hadn't been heard from much since. As Dahl, cinematographer Jeffrey Jur and costumer Terry Dresbach present her here, she seems less lovely than in the past, but more startling--inhumanly thin and long-limbed; a spider woman physically as well as figuratively.

Pretty much everything about Bridget's character rings right. Her job as an ace telemarketing administrator tells all we need to know about her background, and spares us any facile explanations for her hardness of heart. Fiorentino's withering smirk suggests that she truly likes sex, but not as much as she likes what it can get her. The brusque impatience of her speech and movements creates a shallow but amusing sketch of a femme fatale for the '90s, a power-suited monster with no compunction about destroying men's lives. This is a stereotype, of course, but Fiorentino's performance is so droll and glossy, so refreshingly lacking in attempted depth, that it's entertaining. Though she isn't nearly as scary, or as sexy, as Lena Olin's hit woman in the otherwise atrocious Romeo Is Bleeding, Fiorentino has the mark of a great bitch: She makes it hard not to admire her a little, for her single-mindedness and psychological acuity, even as she's driving you nuts.

Sadly, pretty much everything else about the film rings all wrong. The script, lamentably, was not written by Dahl but by Steve Barancik, and while some of the dialogue is snappy (Walsh's, especially), the plot hinges on abjectly lame twists. Poor Bill Nunn (Radio Raheem in Do the Right Thing), as the private dick, is clobbered by the worst of these; both actor and character are made the butt of a dumb racial gag. That it's probably meant to be recognized as dumb doesn't really help. At least Nunn's humiliation only lasts for one scene. Peter Berg has no choice, as the role is written, but to play the yokel as a pathetic, charmless fool. When Fred MacMurray was had by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, he was sassy and fatalistically self-amused by it. He knew he'd been had, and he made us understand that at some level, it was worth it to him. Berg is such a stupid, whining clod that it robs Bridget of stature as a villain--it's like watching her pull the other wing off a fly that was already missing one.

Along with Fiorentino's performance, The Last Seduction has two other elements that qualify as saving graces. One is Joseph Vitarelli's terrific, Dave Brubeckish music. The other is Bill Pullman, who does his funniest and most imaginative acting ever as the gulled husband, smiling with the bitter, sickened humor of the knowingly predefeated.

Watching this film, you can almost feel Dahl sheepishly cringe as he tries to pass off the script's creaky ineptitudes. He doesn't succeed, yet the film's best moments are good enough to make one hope that it belies its title--that Dahl will have other, better seductions for us in the future.

DAVE'S NOT HERE REPUBLIC REPORTER LOSES ... v1-19-95

 
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