Saturday 9 April 2016

Movie Review: Basic Instinct (1992)

A sex-drenched film noir, Basic Instinct spins a wild yarn of psychologically twisted murder and manipulation. The movie is irresistible, despite careening off the rails of credibility.

In San Francisco, retired rock star Johnny Boz is violently stabbed to death with an ice pick by a mysterious assailant during a kinky sex session. Detectives Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and Gus Moran (George Dzundza) investigate, and suspicion immediately falls on wealthy socialite Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), Boz's frequent sex partner. She is stunningly beautiful, a psychology and literature major, and had previously published a novel featuring the murder of a retired rock star during sex with an ice pick. But there is no physical evidence linking Catherine to the Boz murder and she passes a polygraph test. Instead she quickly turns the tables on Nick, getting into his head, seducing him and starting a torrid affair.

Nick is emotionally vulnerable, still attending sessions with Internal Affairs psychologist Dr. Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) after having accidentally shot two tourists. Under Catherine's influence he resumes smoking and drinking, and she openly tells him that she is using him as the model for the central character of her next book, in which a detective falls under the influence of the wrong woman and ends up dead. Nick discovers that Catherine has been surrounded by death all her life. He aggressively tries to out-maneuver her at her own game, but she always appears to be several steps ahead of all her pursuers.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven at his Hollywood peak and written by Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct goes all-in on modernizing noir fundamentals with an uninhibited gloss. The femme fatale, the convoluted plot where everyone has something to hide, the hapless detective who may be more victim than hero, the lavish homes of the rich and suspicious, the incessant smoking, and sex and seduction as super weapons. Updated for the 1990s, the film is unapologetically unsubtle and throws it all on the screen, adding liberal doses of wild sex, drug use and lesbianism as items that could only be hinted at when the noir style was at its peak 45 years prior.

The film starts brightly and early on lands a devastating punch with the infamous scene featuring a cool Catherine being interrogated by a band of sweaty detective. The one woman in the room wins the seemingly asymmetrical bout by knock-out, refusing a lawyer, insisting on smoking, and uncrossing her legs. The scene propelled Stone into stardom and the character of Catherine Tramell into movie folkore as one of the most dangerous femme fatales ever conjured up for the screen.

The plot gets more outrageous from there, and into the final third detective Curran is so ensnared in Catherine's web that it's difficult to follow what the overall conspiracy is supposed to look like. Too many names, incidents and events from the past tumble into the present, key plot points are glossed over and unlikely coincidences converge. While the gory murder, energetic sex, and conspiratorial mayhem are never less than fun, the film loses its edge by piling on the contorted lunacy.

While Stone steals the show with a display of overt yet icy sexuality, Michael Douglas plays the emotionally wounded detective perfectly. Curran is barely hanging on at the start of the film, nicknamed "Shooter" and having barely rescued his career from the ignominy of accidentally killing two tourists. He is an easy target for Catherine, and Douglas creates a man who desperately wants to believe he has what it takes to tangle with a clever suspect while he is in fact being hopelessly outplayed at every turn. Jeanne Tripplehorn makes a memorable debut as Dr. Garner, both psychologist and lover to Curran, and hiding plenty of her own secrets.

Basic Instinct is a convolution of connivance, and an enjoyable romp through the excesses of a devious mind.

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