Very much befitting its title, “Twilight” is an autumnal murder mystery awash in rueful intimations of mortality. As a suspenser, Robert Benton’s return to the L.A. detective genre more than two decades after “The Late Show” reps a sometimes clunky and unconvincing recycling of standard private detective conventions dating back to Raymond Chandler. But the truly stellar cast, led by the Oscared top-billed trio of Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and Gene Hackman, ensures that whatever is happening onscreen will be worth watching. Younger audiences are unlikely to connect with the old-fashioned format and aging thesps, but enough traditionally minded fans should turn out for this beautifully crafted effort to deliver OK short-term B.O.
Benton, co-writer Richard Russo and Newman, who scored last time out with “Nobody’s Fool,” have teamed this time on an original piece that plays like a riff on Philip Marlowe in old age, complete with jaundiced observations on L.A. lifestyles, lower-class probing into upper-class corruption, and moneyed privilege removing celebrities from moral and legal accountability.
Coloring everything is the pronounced feeling on the part of the three main male characters, played by Newman, Hackman and James Garner, that they are nearing the end of the road.
Newman plays longtime cop and, more recently, private dick Harry Ross, who, in the Puerto Vallarta-set prologue, is accidentally shot in the groin by 17-year-old Mel Ames (Reese Witherspoon) when he tries to remove her from the clutches of b.f. Jeff (Liev Schreiber) and return her home.
Two years later, the divorced, broke and formerly alcoholic Harry is reduced to living above the garage on the estate of his movie star friends Jack and Catherine Ames (Hackman and Sarandon). Pouty blond Mel, it turns out, is their daughter, and Harry does odd jobs for the family in exchange for lodging. Harry’s close friendship with the glamorous Catherine contains an ill-disguised element of frustrated lust on his part, while Jack has more pressing matters to consider: His cancer has returned, and he has, at most, a year to live.
Plot jerks into motion when Harry, while attempting to deliver a package to a woman at Jack’s behest, instead encounters a gun-shot old man (M. Emmet Walsh) who empties his pistol at him before expiring. This brings Harry some unwanted attention from the police, but the detective in him is reawakened by his discovery that the dead man was investigating the disappearance 20 years before of Catherine’s first husband, a case presumed to have been suicide but one never officially solved.
In a development more than a bit difficult to accept, Harry suddenly manages to seduce Catherine the very next time they’re alone together. Their post-coital chat is rudely interrupted when Jack has a nocturnal seizure, although the crafty fellow is not so disabled that he can’t suss out what has just taken place under his nose.
Yarn becomes even more far-fetched when, on a second attempt to deliver Jack’s package, this time under the Santa Monica Pier, Harry is attacked by a vengeful Jeff, Mel’s former lover, only to be bailed out by Reuben (Giancarlo Esposito), an eager-beaver limo driver who, utterly implausibly, aspires to be Harry’s partner and seems willing to do all manner of flunky work to that end; role is strictly a structural convenience, with no human credibility.
As the tightly packaged but leisurely paced yarn begins coming into focus, by way of a few more killings and some lucky sleuthing on Harry’s part, attention centers upon the true fate of Catherine’s first husband, the nature of and rationales for long-ago covers-ups, reckonings of what crimes can be committed in the name of love, friendship and loyalty, and coming to terms with the way life works out.
These are perfectly reasonable themes for pulp material, but, unfortunately, they are ill supported by the wobbly legs of Benton and Russo’s plotting and characters. Writers conscientiously connect the dots by directly explaining almost everyone’s motivations at one point or another, and “Twilight” is similarly explicit about its meanings. “It looks like we all run out of luck in the end,” Harry’s old colleague Raymond Hope (Garner) exclaims in between bursts of dirty-old-man horniness, and Harry later admits that “I’m getting rusty. I’m a danger to myself.” Pic’s acute awareness of the encroachment of age and death, of the diminishment of physical powers, carries its own fascination and power, especially when portrayed by actors of such appeal and longtime familiarity as those assembled here.
Despite their increasing frailty, however, their passions and sense of purpose remain at full flame, and the determination to get what they want underlines all the lead performances. In this, Hackman’s house-bound Jack is the most tenacious and underhanded, while Sarandon’s alluring Catherine has a much more charming, as well as honest, way of stating her case and achieving her ends. Garner gives a strong reading of an easygoing but fiercely territorial man.
Harry’s life has, in most respects, come unraveled long ago, and he knows the score too well to imagine that things will improve significantly for him at this late stage. Nonetheless, his bloodhound’s nose is still in working order, as is, apparently, his libido, given his success not only with Catherine but with Verna (Stockard Channing), a former flame on the police force whose interest he manages to re-ignite. Newman’s work is sly, stealthy and subtle, and his rapport with his co-stars is a pleasure to watch.
Writing for the younger characters is not so good, but the others get off some good lines now and again. Pic’s physical attributes are considerable. Polish lenser Piotr Sobocinski’s work is seductively luminous, and David Gropman’s rich production design is augmented by superbly chosen and architecturally distinct houses for three important settings: the Ames’ residence is the stunning former Cedric Gibbons-Delores Del Rio home, the couple’s ranch retreat is actually a never-finished Frank Lloyd Wright house above Malibu, and Raymond Hope’s mountaintop aerie is a glassy John Lautner creation.
Elmer Bernstein’s score provides effectively moody emotional support.