Jennifer Eight” is an unusually intelligent and unexploitative late-season thriller, which probably won’t help its chances at the box office. Involving without being exciting, pic is notable for avoiding most of the standard suspense film contrivances, as well as for Conrad Hall’s utterly smashing cinematography. Interesting cast and sober approach will mean more to critics and sophisticated viewers than to general audiences, resulting in OK results during brief release window before Christmas heavy hitters put this out to video pasture, where it might fare better.
British writer-director Bruce Robinson’s script possesses all the elements for yet another product of the “Fatal Attraction”-“Basic Instinct” cookie cutter–a burned-out big-city cop getting involved with a mysterious blonde while investigating multiple murders, brutal attacks on women, gruff career cops who resent the probing maverick, the opportunity for female retribution and, in the bargain, a couple of unfortunate plot holes.
But Robinson proves to be almost as dogged as his hero in getting the job done, which in this instance means building a solid investigative and psychological case study around a disturbing series of crimes and an odd, muted love story.
Andy Garcia toplines as John Berlin, a wreck of a homicide detective who joins a small-town Northern California police force after crashing and burning in the L.A. fast lane.
Berlin’s sister Margie (Kathy Baker) lives there with cop hubby Freddy (Lance Henriksen), and Berlin becomes latter’s partner in the search for a woman whose hand is found, in a stunningly shot nocturnal opening sequence, in a massive garbage dump.
With little evidence to go on, and plenty of resistance from the local cops who resent his big-city airs, Berlin postulates that the killing is just the latest in a string of murders. The next target could, perhaps, be Helena Robertson (Uma Thurman), who is blind like the most recent victim and was the last person to “see” her alive.
Berlin’s impulse to protect Helena from a likely attack leads to a romance in which Helena must trustingly place herself in the hands of a volatile, not entirely stable man who’s still recovering from a broken marriage.
And when tragedy strikes more than halfway through and throws the spotlight of suspicion for the crimes upon Berlin himself, no one is left to look after Helena at a time of desperate need.
The dark visual scheme that has been fashioned as a correlative to the murky, unfathomable depths in which Berlin attempts to navigate provides the film with its most distinctive quality. Always noted for his superior night work, lenser Conrad L. Hall quite possibly surpasses himself here with a virtuoso job highlighted by numerous sequences lit only by flashlights or other single light sources. Approach draws continuous attention to the notion of what one can and cannot see, which is one of the fundamental thematic underpinnings of the story.
Robinson avoids the slick glossing-over of conventional suspense montage and the cheap thrills of shock cuts, but still manages to build up a fair degree of tension by playing scenes out to near-agonizing length. As a result, running time is a tad long, but one would be hard pressed to suggest where cuts could be made in this character-oriented piece.
Despite his dark good looks, Garcia once again displays a tendency toward character acting rather than leading-man posturing, which is fine for story plausibility but gives the film less weight than another actor might provide.
In a sympathetic part for a change, Lance Henriksen is most engaging, and Kathy Baker thoroughly invigorates the potentially stock role of his smart wife. Surprisingly popping up well past halftime, John Malkovich deliciously chews over his extended cameo as a malicious FBI man who tries to pin the murders on Berlin.
But best of all is Uma Thurman, who very touchingly conveys the vulnerability of the blind Helena without for a moment begging for audience sympathy or indulging in undue hysterics. Even with her natural beauty played way down, she’s always stunning to watch, and the tenderness she brings to her performance creates ongoing interest in a largely passive character.
At least one major plot development telegraphs itself well before it arrives, and circumstances under which Berlin cracks the case are a bit much. But climax is a corker that satisfies both dramatically and emotionally, keeping “Jennifer Eight” at least a cut or two above the usual Hollywood thriller.