In the hands of filmmaker Michael Oblowitz, novelist Jim Thompson’s story “This World, Then the Fireworks” gets an elegantly stylish, highly erotic, intentionally over-the-top rendition. Centering on a perversely bizarre romantic triangle — and overtly dealing with incest — this pulpish yarn should satisfy fans of the cult writer as well as aficionados of film noir, though pic might not have a broader appeal due to its dark humor and uncompromising handling of tough material.
Thompson wrote the controversial story in 1955, but he couldn’t get it into print in his lifetime; it was published in 1983, six years after his death. As usual, Thompson takes classic elements of the noir genre — a love-triangle murder, a fugitive hero, immoral characters on both sides of the law, deadly con games — and then twists and transcends them in unpredictable but totally satisfying ways.
As children, Marty and Carol Lakewood saw their father commit a love-triangle killing with a violent shotgun blast that left their mother with physical as well as emotional scars. Following this attention-grabbing flashback, tale jumps ahead 30 years, to 1956, and finds Marty (Billy Zane) and Carol (Gina Gershon) living in a small California coastal town. Over the years, the siblings have devotedly protected each other from the dangers of what Marty describes in his cool narration as “a broken world.” Not only are Marty and Carol partners in grifting, but their mutual devotion has turned incestuous.
The siblings’ behavior — in and out of the bedroom — is an embarrassment to their decrepit, Bible-thumping, constantly nagging mother (Rue McClanahan). Maintaining an apple-pie facade, Mom still hopes her children will get jobs, settle down with the right mates and live the American Dream. But the protagonists — and the audience — know better, and it’s just a matter of time until the mother “disappears,” dying in her own bed of a sedative overdose.
Meanwhile, the charmingly skillful, dangerously volatile Marty engages in lethal con games that put the police on his tail. Stunningly beautiful, Carol makes a living as a staunchly “independent” prostitute. With a ruthless ex-husband who’s tired of paying alimony, she’s desperate to get her brother’s support. Indeed, when Marty realizes that Carol is followed by a private eye, in a state of rage he “takes him off the case,” to use his lingo.
As if the duo are not in enough trouble, a repressed police officer named Lois Archer (Sheryl Lee) becomes enamored of Marty. With a steady income and a nice beach house, Lois seems to be the Lakewoods’ ticket out of their money-scrounging life. But, as always with Thompson’s yarns, nothing is as simple as it appears to be.
For connoisseurs of the genre, “This World” offers the requisite thrills and frills of a traditional crime thriller. But there’s something new in this adaptation that distinguishes it from other screen versions of Thompson’s work. Scripter Larry Gross audaciously brings the incest element to the surface — reportedly, in the 1970s, even Playboy refused to publish the story — and he treats the material in a detached, nonchalant, humorous way that underlines its amoral tone.
In what is probably his most impressive and demanding role to date — one that brings to mind the psychotic killer he played in “Dead Calm” rather than the old-fashioned hero in “The Phantom” — Zane projects the image of a con man who’s aware of his sex appeal but is not as smart as he thinks he is. His sexual and emotional interactions with the two women in his life highlight the disturbing duality of his personality, which in turn reflects the duality of the conservative and hypocritical 1950s. Almost every character in the story is two-faced, ambiguous and full of contradictions.
Gershon and Lee are also well cast as the femme fatales, made to look like the era’s movie icons, Ava Gardner and Kim Novak, respectively. Gershon embodies a problematic woman who makes a living as a hooker and grifter yet deep down still believes in the validity of family values. Coming off a string of disappointing roles, Lee has some excellent moments as a femme who on the surface is controlled and repressed, yet under Marty’s encouragement reveals herself as a passionate, lust-driven creature with more than a slight penchant for masochism. McClanahan also excels as the pitifully deluded widow, bringing pathos to her role as a mom who knows all too well that her kids are no good.
Director Oblowitz, whose background is in art and musicvideos, shows a good understanding of the inherently fragmented and twisted narrative. Helmer has made a moody, often surreal, exquisite-looking film noir, a product of his able artistic team, most notably lenser Tom Priestley Jr. and production designer Maia Javan. Though transitions from past to present are made smooth through Emma E. Hickox’s seamless editing, some viewers might still object to the excessive use of voiceover narration and the quirky tone in depicting the film’s obsessive characters and grotesque events