Yet another fact-based meller splats the tube, this time with the inestimable Ann-Margret playing a chilling Wisconsin dame who sweet talks a youth into arranging her husband’s murder. It’s a slickly produced gripper, with director John Patterson spooning the tension: the two-parter should easily catch on.
Carmen Culver’s probing script cunningly sorts out the complications of the lives of Diane Borchardt, her husband Ruben and the children (two teens by his late first wife, one between themselves).
Culver creates first-class scenes, particularly duologues, and establishes characters via telling details; she also handily manages the complex plot form (after opening in Easter 1994, the narrative folds back to tell the story). Culver arranges another flashback inside that one, in which Ruben’s first wife dies in a car accident before his eyes.
But the ugliest seg depicts Ruben’s murder in Part II as he’s shot down, then , terribly wounded, tries coming after his assailant, who blasts away again. Fallen to the floor, still alive, he’s seen trying to gasp into the telephone while his son watches.
In this version, Ruben, played with folksy charm by Peter Coyote, realizes right after marrying Diane that it was a mistake: Diane, jealous and disturbed, treats the older children as contemptuously as she does her husband. But he doesn’t believe in divorce.
After meeting the beguiling, married Claire (Leslie Hope), Ruben reconsiders marriage breakups, while Diane (who wants the house, the cars, the moon) digs in her heels. The all-good Ruben blithely practices adultery, gives up his church membership, and hears Diane hiss, “You’re a dead man!” He begins saying his goodbyes.
As for Diane, there’s a deeper motive behind her vicious, apparently jealous behavior — Culver not too subtly drops a clue into the meller when Diane mumbles something about being raped at 13, and that she is apparently set against men.
Running an undershirt-lettering shop cozily called “Mrs. B’s,” Diane also runs a high school study hall. Eyeing 16-year-old Doug Vest (Christian Campbell) as someone she can manipulate, she offers him bribes.
Diane urges him to action so she won’t lose everything in a divorce. Doug gets two other young men to work with him.
It’s Ann-Margret’s show, but Coyote’s likable Ruben, Hope’s sparkling Claire, Campbell’s worried Doug, Freddy Rodriguez’s formidable killer Mike, and Tobey Maguire as Chuck, Ruben’s son, also give the drama solid texture.
Director Patterson sustains the tension; Thomas Burstyn’s sharp lensing and the meticulous editing of Michael Kewley and Terry Stokes contribute to the intensity and pace of the work.
Production designer John T. Walker’s re-creation of sites for small-town Jefferson, Wis., in such diverse California towns as Newhall and South Pasadena give the unbelievable tale credibility; everything seems just about right for a grisly Jefferson Easter outing.