Movie Review: “Fatal Attraction” (Adrian Lyne, USA 1987)

This film is a great example of what I mean when I talk about films needing to have a unifying point rather than being about narrative. It’s a film whose point, to the extent that it does have one, is the power and strength of a loving family. However, it is so busy following the twists and turns of its narrative that it just doesn’t make its point. And, of course, because it’s a film, its story comes across as an over-simplistic horror movie plot with thin characters and no real depth of any kind.

The plot is simple and seemingly interesting enough: A guy, Dan Gallagher, has an affair, but when he tries to break it off, the mistress, Alex Forrest, turns out to be a raving lunatic whose obsession with him will not allow the relationship to end.

Finding a point in this film is difficult, but the ultimate resolution of the plot, with Dan and his wife coming together to slay the monster that has stalked them for so long; the fact that it really is a horror movie about a danger to a marriage; and the final shot of the film being a photograph of Dan’s family suggests that Adrian Lyne made this film about family. The problem is that one could make a case for a number of other ideas being the “point” of the film, which means it didn’t really make one. One could say, for example, that the film is a “Men’s Rights Activist” screed against feminist advances, telling us the danger of women being sexually active and aggressive and how they can use their evil wiles to tempt otherwise good men and then control them with their obsessive behavior and pregnancies. I think Lyne may even have given us what little time that he does with Beth Gallagher, Dan’s wife, in order to rebut this point, since Beth’s purpose in the narrative is really just to exist as a part of Dan’s life and possible target for Alex, not to take part in any of the action and Beth is definitely the opposite of Alex in just about every conceivable way. That’s why I think the family angle is a better explanation of the point of the film.* However, the fact that one can make a credible case for a number of possible points tells you how poorly-focused this film is.

So, if the film is just telling a story without a point, surely a good enough story could still make it work, right? Well, movies aren’t long enough. I know I make this point a lot, but this film is a good example of what I’m saying. It runs one minute shy of two hours and is essentially a two-person film, and yet what we actually know about the characters is that Dan is a horny attorney and Alex is an obsessive monster. We get no hints about why Dan was so willing so easily to jump into bed with Alex, whether it was out of character for him to do so, whether he just enjoys the feeling of power he can get from such a relationship, etc. We get no deeper knowledge on Alex, someone who clearly suffers from some extreme psychological problems, than that she is inexplicably and dangerously obsessed with Dan after one night. We get no sense at all of the personality of any of the other characters and very little of Dan’s. All of the aspects of the plot that could be interesting if fully explored are left empty, leaving behind a shell in the shape of a horror film. And it’s not because Lyne and screenwriter James Dearden are incompetent—it’s just the nature of the medium.

Instead of trying to tell a fully-developed, well-rounded story, Lyne fits the story into a traditional horror movie narrative. Instead of a psychologically-damaged person, Alex is a monster whose evil is slowly being revealed throughout the film. She even has a typical horror movie monster “Is he dead?” jump scare moment at the end. In between, she tempts Dan into transgressing by having an affair with her, because, as Sitterson and Hadley tell us in The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2012), “They don’t transgress, they can’t be punished” and he does nothing but run from her, no different from a babysitter in a slasher film.

Visually, Lyne and cinematographer Howard Atherton simply don’t do much to bring any attention. It’s competent and there’s nothing that visually detracts from the film but there’s little that’s interesting, either. The use some low-key lighting to emphasize some of the more depressed parts of the narrative but mostly keep things pretty bright and simple. If anything, they seem to be intentionally going for a rather muted color palette, perhaps to make the film appear more “real” and “everyday” than the monster movie narrative might otherwise make it seem. It’s not terribly interesting, but it’s not bad.

The acting is rather odd in that it includes one amazing performance in the only role with any depth while a couple of other actors manage to be annoyingly unbelievable in flat roles that required almost nothing of them. Glenn Close is every bit as good as the reputation of her performance says, imbuing her monster with a depth and realism that actually makes the film’s narrative seem sillier than it otherwise would be through its sheer power. Meanwhile, Michael Douglas is his usual self: flat and dull but also filled with scenes where he seems to be saying, “I’m acting now” by talking more slowly. Dan Gallagher is not an interesting part and we have little clue about his personality, but Douglas’s unbelievability makes it even worse. And then there’s Anne Archer as Dan’s wife, Beth. She doesn’t have a ton of screen time and has no personality, and yet Archer still manages to be awful. She is so wooden and unbelievable that Douglas seems natural by comparison, which is really pretty amazing.

Maurice Jarre’s scores almost always deserve some attention, but this one really wasn’t very good. It was sometimes totally obtrusive and it felt like a score dated from about 1970. It’s a rare miss for one of the great film composers in history.

All told, it’s a rather enjoyable film but one that lacks any real depth. It’s a horror movie with a slightly unusual villain but otherwise nothing to give it any real attraction. Close’s performance is incredible and harrowing, but it’s also not enough to turn a rather lifeless film into anything special.

*Beth is admittedly an ineffectual character with no strength at all who even just seems to accept Dan’s infidelity pretty easily. If, as I suspect, Lyne was including more screen time with her just to rebut the argument that his film is an anti-feminist screed, it doesn’t work very well, and the film is still undoubtedly susceptible to that argument.

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