The lurid love story of infamous 1940s Lonely Hearts Killers Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez previously spawned two fringe movie masterpieces: Leonard Kastle’s black-and-white cult fave “Honeymoon Killers” and Arturo Ripstein’s operatically Mexican “Dark Crimson.” The odds of a notable Hollywood remake, however — especially one casting svelte Salma Hayek as the notoriously overweight Beck — would seem unlikely; yet, in “Lonely Hearts,” helmer/scribe Todd Robinson constructs a riveting thriller that contrasts the sleazy elegance of Hayek and Jared Leto’s lethal duo with the lumbering, beefy persistence of cops John Travolta and James Gandolfini. Accomplished period piece could conceivably make a killing at the box office.
In their incarnations as Beck in the earlier films, both Shirley Stoler and Regina Orozco used obesity (the real Beck was so fat that her execution was delayed when she couldn’t fit into the electric chair) to add to the grotesquerie and pathos of the character’s obsessive romantic attachment to her slight, balding Romeo.
Hayek’s gorgeous, shapely murderess is a very different proposition, exuding such possessive malevolence and force of will that the viewer can almost identify with Leto’s lightweight lothario, helpless to resist his lover’s increasingly homicidal demands.
Director Robinson’s new take on the oft-filmed saga not only slims down the villainess but ushers in the hitherto undramatized role of the New York policeman who collared the pair. This detective, Elmer Robinson (Travolta), is the helmer’s real-life paternal grandfather.
The unexplained suicide of the Travolta character’s wife under the opening credits provides the psychological link between the cops and robbers as Robinson is called to investigate the suicide of a victim of Beck and Fernandez.
With Gandolfini’s fellow cop Charles Hildebrandt playing protective Watson to Robinson’s neurotic Holmes. Gandolfini’s character, like Leto’s Fernandez, is swept up in a scenario he only half understands.
Pic’s weird symmetry is such that the killers sink further and further into their romantic dementia, while Robinson slowly recovers from his morose guilt over his wife’s death and begins a relationship with squad room squeeze Rene (Laura Dern).
As in Kastle’s breakthrough postmodern exercise, pic’s deadpan, matter-of-fact depiction of violence renders it as shocking as it is unglamorous. In a startling scene, the killers’ first victim (a nervously enamored Alice Krige) is bludgeoned from behind as she is riding fiance Fernandez; she falls out of the frame to be replaced by Beck, the couple proceeding to make passionate love while the bloody Krige convulses on the ground. This unblinking, straight-ahead approach to violence climaxes in the back-to-back scenes of the couple’s state-mandated electrocutions, each shown in excruciating detail.
In Kastle and Ripstein’s films, Fernandez and Beck were seen as almost tragic. Not so in Robinson’s treatment, where they register as outright sociopathic monsters. Indeed, in many ways, Robinson’s script reads as a nuanced endorsement of an eye-for-eye death penalty.
Performers are splendidly cast. Gandolfini, in classic character actor mode, lends an effective 1940s presence to the film (as he did to the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”), and Travolta’s weary corpulence speaks of countless years on a thankless beat.
But it is Beck’s evil that dominates the film: Like some beautiful snake, Hayek embodies the ultimate femme fatale redeemed by no discernible tragic flaw.
Totally organic, never seeming jerrybuilt or artificially decorated, Jon Gary Steele’s ’40s-flavored production design comes alive as cops shamble around their precinct, Peter Levy’s camera stressing the flatfoots’ physicality in classic bygone cinema style. Rural locations likewise achieve a convincingly old-timey quality, the lines of laundry in the sun and the mold on disused bathtubs feeling unquestionably authentic.