"Rope" meets "Scream" in Dan Rosen's confident yet shallow "Dead Man's Curve." Amid all the arthouse-or-bust titles at Sundance, this slick item roused bidding-hot rumors that it would become the fest's '98 commercial breakout. But as surely as "Curve" bends too low for upscale auds, it's also problematic for mainstream ones as a near-horror thriller sans onscreen violence.

“Rope” meets “Scream,” plus a few other derivatives, in Dan Rosen’s confident yet shallow, not particularly credible “Dead Man’s Curve.” Amid all the arthouse-or-bust titles at Sundance, this slick item roused bidding-hot rumors that it would become the fest’s ’98 commercial breakout. But as surely as “Curve” bends too low for upscale auds, it’s also problematic for mainstream ones as a near-horror thriller sans onscreen violence (or genuinely surprising plot twists). It will take aggressive marketing to reap quick payoff on a film likely to get just lukewarm critical and word-of-mouth response.

Tim (Matthew Lillard), Rand (Randall Batinkoff) and Chris (Michael Vartan) are senior-class roommates at a locationally nonspecific state university. (Film was shot in and around Baltimore.) It’s not very believable from the start that sensitive nice-guy Chris would cohabit with two such creeps — Rand’s favorite pastime is treating his dewy blond girlfriend Natalie (Tamara Craig Thomas) like a doormat, particularly once she reluctantly informs him that’s she’s pregnant. Tim is just your basic all-around glint-eyed manipulator, the type one can easily imagine torturing cats at age 10. By now he’s moved up the species list.

It’s pop folklore that if your roomie commits suicide, you get released from class work with a perfect 4.0 semester report. Having discovered this is actually true at their college, Chris improbably agrees to aid Tim in making it look like noxious Rand leaped off the nearest cliff.

Mission accomplished, tweaky Tim doesn’t let it rest. Indeed, he encourages the police to suspect Chris of foul play, seduces latter’s girlfriend Emma (Keri Russell), and finds other ways to “have a little fun.” Mean-while, Natalie commits suicide — for real. Loyalties between remaining trio grow ever more uneasy, leading to inevitable cliff-side finale.

As in the “Scream” duo and other recent pics, “Dead Man’s Curve” cynically paints campus life as a place where the apparent most popular major is Advanced Sociopathy. But it doesn’t take a Film Studies MFA to guess the first twist “ending” (followed, natch, by the regulation extra ones) a long way off. Too much of pic depends on our believing that everyone — from cops to close friends to a rather shifty campus shrink (Dana Delany) — would be so easily nose-led by the rather transparent, smirking Tim. Screenplay fires off some decent lines, but as a whole isn’t clever enough to hit the mark as an intended diabolical black comedy.

Debut helmer Dan Rosen previously wrote “The Last Supper,” a more conceptually original if likewise middling blend of dark humor and suspense. His direction is pacily pro enough, though little real tension develops. Perfs are OK, tech package smooth despite confinement largely to a handful of locations.

One of pic’s major in-jokes is its soundtrack emphasis on 1980s alt-rock performers (the Cure, Suzanne Vega, Joy Division, the Smiths, etc.) said to be faves among depressed-to-suicidal youths. Like everything else here, that idea isn’t nearly as fresh as filmmakers seem to think.

Dead Man's Curve

Production

An Alain Siritzky and Hope Street Entertainment presentation in association with Pierre Kalfon, Michel Chambat and Ian Jessel of a Mount Royal Entertainment production. Produced by Michael Amato, Theodore Schipper, Jeremy Lew. Executive producers, Siritzky, Kalfon, Chambat, Jessel. Directed, written by Dan Rosen.

Crew

Camera (color), Joey Forstyte; editor, William Mercer; original music, Shark; music supervision, Pajama Party Prods.; production design, Robert Harbour; costumes, Shanna Gold; sound, Dwayne Dell; casting, Mary Margiotta, Karen Margiotta. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 24, 1998. Running time: 90 min.

With

Tim - Matthew Lillard Chris - Michael Vartan Rand - Randall Batinkoff Emma - Keri Russell Natalie - Tamara Craig Thomas Detective Shipper - Anthony Griffin Detective Amato - Bo Dietle Ernie - Kevin Huff Chancellor Alexander - Henry Strozier Dr. Ashley - Dana Delany

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