Saturday, May 6, 2023

Neo-Noir Watch: The Last Seduction (1994)

Watched:  05/06/2023
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  John Dahl

Well, at long last I got around to The Last Seduction (1994).  

I can see how well-meaning dopes would have cast Fiorentino in Jade on the heels of this movie, possibly trying to borrow some of the heat she brings to this film, but the two movies are worlds apart, and one is a 90's indie darling playing to a punchline, and the other is a shiny studio movie that feels like a hastily jotted-off airport-book thriller.  

The Last Seduction reads more like a Goodis novel or Jim Thompson book, with low-level crooks twisting and turning over each other and innocence is a commodity of dubious value.  Fiorentino plays a con who encourages her husband (Bill Pullman) to take part in a risky drug deal, earning a huge amount of cash.  After a bitter argument in which Pullman slaps Fiorentino, when he goes to shower, she takes the money and runs.  

Headed for Chicago, Fiorentino stops off in a small town in upstate New York, where her attorney advises her to lay-low while she runs a divorce through.  She picks up Peter Berg in a bar (who believes he's picking her up).  Berg has recently returned from Buffalo, where things didn't work out.  He's a bit bummed as he thought he was the guy who was going to get out of this one-horse town.  Now he's met someone from NYC who seems like his ticket out.

Fiorentino schemes.  A lot.  

This film was Fiorentino's big breakout and - looking at IMDB - her career peak as far as notices went.  She'd appear in films for another 15 years or so, before retiring from in front of the camera.  Berg would go on to be a highly successful producer and director, and I'd frankly forgotten he was a successful actor.


It's certainly an interesting film and a great piece to study regarding "where were we in the 1990's vis-a-vis women in film?".  The movie requires a certain level of belief by the audience that Fiorentino's character isn't doing the things she's obviously doing because no one (read: women) could be capable of those things, and the audience expects that movies end with the two leads falling in love.  It's all unspoken, but it's there.  Otherwise, I'm not quite sure what we're looking at.  In any case, it's largely a movie about a very dumb guy who doesn't know he's dumb being led around by his nose by a very good looking, very mean woman (which, fair enough).  In this way, it's definitely a neo-noir - with the femme fatale pushed front and center.

That said, it felt sort of clunky watching the movie in 2023.  There's no subtlety or nuance.  There's no mystery of what Fiorentino is up to, so it's just watching Berg be a dope for 2 hours.  Which, honestly, I remember being a thing in the 1990's as being pushed to audiences so movies would work, but no specific examples leap to mind.  To highlight one character, we were fine with another character just falling all over themselves.  

But at no time do you think "well, maybe she is really falling for this guy" or "I bet he flips the script on her".  Instead, it's just watching our femme fatale go about her scheming, hoping things work out, and, indeed, it does.  The "twist" at the end is that Berg realizes how thoroughly he'd been set-up, but that's also something we see at every move.  It's more a list of "oh, yeah, I guess that did happen" than "ha HA!  Wow, what a twist!" at the end of the film.

This is not Body Heat.  By design.  We know Fiorentino is a sociopath from jump.  So...  I'm not sure, exactly, what her arc is other than "she does many things people do not expect".  Which is a story of sorts, but I'm not sure what the takeaway is other than not to be a small-town loser who gets big ideas?

I mean, the movie feels like a comedy in many ways, with that last scene the punchline.  But it's a long walk to get there.  I see Ebert in reviews referring to Fiorentino's performance as dry-humor, and that's right.  But I don't see anyone referring to the film as a dark comedy, which it mostly feels like it is.  To me.  But I don't know how else to read how dopey Peter Berg is in the film.

That said, released in the mid-90's, we hadn't seen many women's roles that would have allowed for this sort of thing since the post-WWII heyday of noir.  And we wouldn't have paired it with overt sexuality during that window, just the deeply implied sexual whiles of the femme fatale (see: any of the big name noir films from Double Indemnity to Out of the Past).  But we knew those women were trouble, but we weren't sure how.  This movie has no secrets or mysteries other than what happened in Buffalo, which, when told, is...  silly?  Unbuyable?

I largely liked the film, with some significant caveats.  It feels like it lifts the "ABC" scene from Glengarry Glenn Ross for it's opening, and the twist reveal of what happened in Buffalo from The Crying Game, both of which would have been on the minds of movie-goers two years after they came out, and then made it into homes via cable and VHS.  

The challenge of noir is that:  there's a lot of it, and it does a lot of the same thing.  So you're going to draw down comparison by existing.  And you're never created or being viewed in a vaccuum.

There's no question that Fiorentino is great.  She is.  And I'd argue that Peter Berg gives it his all.  Bill Nunn as the private eye is good, and Bill Pullman is Bill Pullman.  The movie leans into the "erotic" bit of "erotic thriller" with an eye less to sexiness and more to grinding, angry sex, but there's no question about the seductiveness of the proceedings. 

I know I'm picking at the movie but (a) welcome to this site, and I have bad news for you, and (b) I actually mostly liked the film.  I'm just surprised less that it has the reputation it got in 1994, but that it seems like this movie bubbles up a lot in conversation, that this movie is still as relevant now as then.  What I think is that it helped lay the groundwork for what you could do with women in film and television, and Fiorentino just surprised the hell out of everyone.  But I'm not sure it holds up as noir, thriller, mystery, etc... all that well.  I do think it holds up as a vantablack comedy of sorts, if you expect to never really laugh.  And that's a feature, not a bug.  

Apparently there's a Last Seduction II (which, technically, makes this film The Second to Last Seduction) which has none of the original cast and has a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes and now I am deadly curious.


RHPT said...

Is it bad that I thought Linda Fiorentino and Gina Gershon were the same person until I looked it up on IMDB?

The League said...

I mean, you're clearly seeing quite a ride from a single actor if you munge the two. Fiorenshon is electric in Men in Black, Showgirls and Bound!

Steven said...

I was really excited to read your review on this. On the pod, after "Jade," it seemed that you and Jamie were in a cattle chute to seeing this.

The release history of this movie was kinda weird, I think it was actually made for HBO and then it got a bunch of buzz and then got a theatrical release. As I recall, I saw it on TV and then was like, "Huh?" when I saw it on a marquee by the side of the road ('memba those?)

In any case, I saw it with a woman who was tired of seeing women portrayed so flatly (BA Econ, Mathematics '97) and she loved it. So I think in the gestalt of the Longworthian "Erottticc Ninetties," a movie that squarely let the female (!) lead (!!) be as nasty as she wanted to be was a bigger breath of fresh air than we can appreciate today.

One thing has stuck with me though, the "case" was broken open by reverse reading a wall poster in a mirror? Yagottabekiddingme. "Wendy Kroy," eh? It's as preposterous as crash landing by chance into Dr. Zarkov's lab.

The League said...

Yeah, I had to actually rewind the movie to be sure that was what had happened with the Wendy Kroy business because (a) it happens really fast, and (b) it was... weirdly out of joint with the rest of the film. Felt like something someone had been running around with as an idea for a while and worked it backward into a movie.

It really is hard to remember/ believe how poor roles were for women around this time. It felt like the oddest part of the New Hollywood movement was that it often did make female characters deeply secondary, and I hate to say that maybe Joe Eszterhas of all people helped out by putting capable women front and center, and the mainstream cultural watchdogs lost their minds. This one manages to sail under the radar a bit more, and really did help push the envelope.

Adam Gordon said...

Thank you for this review. I can assure you, despite the positive buzz, it was clunky in 1994 too. Black comedy doesn't quite describe it for me. The film is more like a strange form of horror, an undertone you see in a lot of those 90's "erotic thrillers". The Kroy character has a super-human intelligence, more like a monstrous robot that just pushes buttons. Fiorentino always seemed to be mugging at the camera too, exaggerating every sly smile..."Hey audience, get it? I'm evil!!!" Yeah, we get it.

Then there's the frustratingly stupid men in this picture, except when one of them needs to do something to push this slow grind forward. The Deus ex Machina/New York in the mirror scene is the best example of this. While some may appreciate the gender role reversal here, there's absolutely no surprise at the end. Everything plays out exactly as you'd expect it, based on what had been presented to that point. Berg chickens out, Fiorentino gets her revenge directly (though it's not symmetrical with "The Slap"), while Pullman is helpless, and Berg hangs around to be framed. (There was a distributor deleted scene involving sexual role playing which might have helped explain the stupid ending, though.) Even the scene with Berg & his lawyer in the prison was idiotic: there is a whole town of people and a major company who knew Fiorentino's character and who saw the couple together. Even the lawyers are morons in this movie.

What's weird about the reaction in '94 was that the 90's weren't that bad for women in film. Holly Hunter & Emma Thompson did well for themselves. It was just this genre that polarized female characters into monsters & sex objects. This entry just placed itself in column A. If this film were made today, cinema YouTube would burst into flames about another "woke" movie that makes all men look stupid...and those commentators would be correct. If anything, The Last Seduction, while certainly not great, was definitely ahead of its time.

The League said...

Apologies for the late reply.

I confess, I have little patience for what you rightly call out as the frustratingly stupid men. It's a weight on the film that drags it down and makes it seem like no one asked for a second pair of eyes on the script before it went into production to find more plausible character reactions. It lacks the nuance and buyability of few hundred movies with femme fatales which came before and didn't rely on "well, he's dumb" to explain things away.

What's curious about this from a noir formula is that it has the femme fatale, but in classic noir they'd counterbalance with a madonna/ devil dichotomy, and this movie never really includes enough other women for a conflicting character or POV to take hold. You don't need it, necessarily, but it does provide a counterweight.