Thursday 13 August 2015

Movie Review: Malice (1993)

A spicy twisty thriller, Malice offers deceit, greed, hubris, murder and revenge in a potent mix.

In New England, Andy and Tracy Safian (Bill Pullman and Nicole Kidman) are newlyweds, struggling financially as they renovate their old Victorian home. Andy is Associate Dean at a local college while Tracy volunteers at a hospital daycare. Dr. Jed Hill (Alec Baldwin) is a hotshot surgeon, a renowned womanizer, and a new addition to the hospital staff. Jed and Andy were classmates in grade school, and after they reconnect, Jed rents the upstairs floor from the Safians, despite Tracy's reservations.

Meanwhile, a serial rapist and murderer is terrorizing the campus community, and the victims include Paula (Gwyneth Paltrow), one of Andy's troubled students. Detective Dana Harris (Bebe Neuwirth) does not seem to be making much progress in identifying the perpetrator. Andy and Tracy are desperate to have children, but Jed's disruptive behaviour as a tenant does not help their romantic life, and Tracy starts to suffer from regular bouts of severe stomach cramps. With Harris beginning to realize that several of the rape victims were connected to Andy, a medical crisis severely disrupts the the lives of the newlyweds.

Not much else can be given away about the Malice plot. Co-written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Harold Becker, Malice sets out to deceive and succeeds admirably. Suffice to say that in its final act, the film reveals its hand, and it's a clever, edgy twist, not entirely unpredictable but quite astute nonetheless. The final climax features another surprise, which is perhaps easier to foresee, given the established character motivations. And Malice is a character-driven thriller, where glances, demeanour, individual dynamics and the differences between genuine and socially convenient interactions are carefully constructed and prove to be relevant.

The first hour of the film consists of patient build-up. Becker introduces Andy, Tracy, Jed and Dana, creates individual contexts and conflicts for each, and sets them all up against the backdrop of a serial rapist preying on young college women. The film creates plenty of potential avenues for progress, and leaves all options open as to which one will be pursued. It's a relatively original stance, a story that doesn't telegraph it's real intentions until well into the second half, while maintaining plenty of interest through the lives of interesting and flawed characters.

Many points of friction provide rich territory for the imagination. Tracy used to be Andy's student, and their age difference may be catching up with them. There is a creepy kid next door who always seems to be staring into their bedroom. Tracy and Andy are under financial pressure and dealing with a money pit of a house. Andy and Jed are diametrically opposite personalities, the meek college associate dean and the philandering surgeon, former classmates but never friends. Dana begins to consider Andy as a potential suspect. Jed as a tenant proves to be quite the noisy nuisance. And Tracy's stomach ailment seems to only get worse. Once Malice reveals its central premise, a few of these potential take-off points are revealed to be successful diversionary tactics.

The three lead actors deliver dedicated performances, Baldwin, Kidman and Pullman not setting any new standards but respecting the tone and intent of the script. Veterans Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott get one scene each, Bancroft as a relative of a central character and Scott as a respected doctor. Bancroft in particular is unforgettable, creating in less than ten minutes of screen time an indelible picture of a crusty old woman thriving in her understanding of the conniving mind, while happily wallowing in her alcoholic addiction.

On close examination there are plot holes for sure, and as the film hurtles towards a resolution, the proclivity for violence, skulkiness and episodes of emotions trumping rationality increase. But Malice remains first and foremost an intelligent, enjoyable and sharply crafted psychological thriller.

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