Both absorbing and exasperating, “A Dangerous Woman” is such a small-scale character piece that it might have been more at home on the small screen. Film’s main attraction is totally change-of-pace lead performance by Debra Winger that some will find heartbreaking and others will consider amusing, but this will probably not be enough to make this Gramercy release a B.O. contender.
Winger has transformed herself considerably to play Martha, a pudgy, goggle-eyed nerd who dresses like a high school wallflower and has probably never had a date, much less a boyfriend. Martha works at a small town cleaners, and lives with her aunt Frances (Barbara Hershey), a wealthy California widow rancher.
Aside from her lack of social graces, Martha’s distinguishing trait is that she cannot lie. This lands her in hot water on the job, for when she rightly accuses white trash employee Getso (David Strathairn) of stealing money, the “screwball” cannot stand up for herself when no one believes her, and she’s canned.
Back on the ranch, itinerant handyman Mackey (Gabriel Byrne) has begun hanging around in hopes of some work. With time on her hands, Martha befriends him and, in the first of several off-putting scenes, the two make love.
Naturally, Martha decides that she’s in love with the scoundrel. But when Mackey gets it on with her sexy aunt, Martha violently takes out her rejection on Getso.
This lands the picture right in TV-movie land, as a pregnant Martha winds up in jail and is forced to decide between telling a lie that will enable her to escape a murder rap and sticking to the truth and its more serious consequences.
Adapted by Naomi Foner from Mary McGarry Morris’ well-received 1991 novel, the film carries some fundamental contradictions. The mostly leisurely pace established by director Stephen Gyllenhaal is the tradeoff for the accumulation of character detail, but the lurches into outright melodrama feel jarring in this context, particularly in the final reel.
The three notable men — Byrne’s amoral wanderer, Strathairn’s sleazy thief and John Terry’s pragmatic politico — are thoroughgoing SOBs. Hershey similarly remains one-dimensional.
This leaves Winger’s performance as the central point of interest. After any number of sexy outings in her career, it is fascinating to see her take on this awkward, sexually innocent character. Her graceless, insecure movements are right on target. But there is an element of the stunt to the performance that can also prompt a detached, if admiring, amusement.
Strathairn adds further proof that he’s one of the great contemporary character actors. His slow and underplayed expiration after Winger attacks him stands out as the most striking sequence in the film and one of the most distinctive death scenes in memory.
An unusual entry from Amblin Entertainment, pic will register deeply with some viewers, especially women, but it’s the kind of odd and muted tale for which it is difficult to drum up theatrical interest these days.
Tech credits are strong.