Some first-class talent travels coach in the low-flying suspenser "Palmetto." Adding no particular novelty or inspiration to the by-now-overtilled steamy neo-noir sweepstakes, Volker Schlondorff's film looks to do middling-fair domestic biz (possibly better abroad), with best returns likely from the usual ancillary paths.
Some first-class talent travels coach in the low-flying suspenser “Palmetto.” Adding no particular novelty or inspiration to the by-now-overtilled steamy neo-noir sweepstakes, Volker Schlondorff’s film looks to do middling-fair domestic biz (possibly better abroad), with best returns likely from the usual ancillary paths.
At the outset, Harry Barber (Woody Harrelson) gets news that he’s to be sprung from prison—somebody turned state’s-witness and informed authorities that Harry was framed. We only discover later that his “crime” was exposing a small Florida town’s vast corruption during a now-torpedoed journalism career.
Understandably bitter about his two years of incarceration, Harry wants to remake himself in Miami, or anywhere other than Palmetto, Fla. Yet when former g.f. Nina (Gina Gershon) surfaces to scoop up his hitchhiking self, Harry gives in and returns to that despised burg — the first of pic’s many rote implausibilities. He makes a few stabs at legit employment, but all doors are closed. Then he chances (or is it chance?) upon undulating blonde Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue), young wife to the area’s richest old man.
She has a “job” for Harry, with a $50,000 payoff: He’ll pretend to be the kidnapper in the fake abduction of Rhea’s teenage stepdaughter Odette (Chloe Sevigny). Latter doesn’t want to be sent to a strict Swiss boarding school, so she’s willing to bilk Dad (a wheezing, heart-troubled Rolf Hoppe) for a half-mil “ransom” instead, which will fund her until 18th birthday independence dawns. Rhea is just the well-meaning intermediary. Right.
Despite initial misgivings, Harry — after giving the very user-ready Rhea a ride — signs on. Almost immediately, things start going wrong. Odette turns up dead, requiring the heavily incriminated Harry to dispose of her corpse. To make things worse, Nina’s brother-in-law John Renick (Tom Wright) engineers Harry’s hiring as the local D.A. office spokesman to field media questions about this already-notorious “kidnapping.”
Several character identities prove false, but those surprises are reserved for the final half-hour, at which point the slow-paced “Palmetto” has long since fossilized as a routine exercise in ceiling-fan, sweaty-forehead noir-by-numbers. The narrative (taken from the novel “Just Another Sucker” by ’30s Brit hard-boiled pulpmeister Rene Raymond, aka James Hadley Chase) has an archaic feel that hasn’t been complexly nuanced enough in translation to contemporary cinema.
Though Schlondorff has been working in English-language productions since 1984’s “Swann in Love,” and this reps yet another of his “literary” adaptations (following Proust, Peter Handke, Gunter Grass, Margaret Atwood, Max Frisch, et al.), “Palmetto” seems a rather banal choice for a helmer associated with far more intellectual, challenging material.
At times, E. Max Frye’s screenplay suggests a blackly comedic flavor in the vein of “Red Rock West” and other ’90s noirs, wherein the protag’s bad luck just keeps getting worse. But that potentially useful tactic is never fully exploited by much-too-low-key direction. Even climactic spectacle of a character suspended above an acid-bath vat fails to elicit much horrific absurdity. Or suspense.
Harrelson usually excels at playing not-so-bright losers –whether scarily psychotic or oafishly comic — but neither he nor the film can get a viable fix on Harry’s motivations. One minute he’s wary, the next nose-led; the indifference demonstrated toward sexy Nina doesn’t gibe with his easy seduction by Rhea. Harry’s sloe-eyed dishevelment makes the town’s current black-sheep disdain much more credible than his crusading-journalist past, let alone the authorities’ media-spokesperson job offer.
Shue and Gershon are both customarily better than their roles require, but those roles are usually reversed — latter specializes in smart, tease-confident femme fatales, while former is often a vulnerably sympathetic heroine. The swap doesn’t show off either talent very well.
Shue (absent for much of pic’s midsection) is stuck striking a series of cartoon-vamp postures, which her schoolgirlish vocal tonalities don’t accentuate. Gershon is pretty much a bystander until the last reel, when her character gets wise; not wise enough to become interesting, though.
These women can act — it’s not their fault Rhonda Fleming and June Allyson could have filled the parts (and bullet-bras) just as well, or that the latter’s ’50s studio era might have made “Palmetto’s” strained heat seem more daring.
Support cast is solid enough. Sevigny (“Kids”) shimmies gamely as a stock Lolita figure. (For what it’s worth, pic pays inordinate, semi-jokey attention to its female players’ tightly clad rumps.) His hair died dark as a millionaire’s thuggish bodyguard, Michael Rapaport gets little to do until late-dawning plot turns reveal his true colors.
Tech package is high-gloss without evoking much atmosphere, particularly Klaus Dolinger’s routine sultry-kitsch score.