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Never Talk to Strangers
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by Jack Sommersby

"Sometimes-Superb 'Strangers'"
3 stars

Came and went at the theatre, but it's worth taking a chance on.

For a psychological thriller that's not exactly earth-shattering, Never Talk to Strangers is reasonably taut, character-oriented, and manages to pull out from under us a not-bad twist ending we're not likely to have seen coming. Best of all, it gives that criminally underrated actress Rebecca De Mornay, whose career should've hit the stratosphere twelve years ago after her star-making performance as Tom Cruise's high-acumen girlfriend in Risky Business, a full-bodied role more than deserving of her immense talent. She plays New York psychiatrist Dr. Sarah Taylor, whose career is currently a lot more tantalizing than her lonely social life: she hasn't had a relationship in almost a year after her boyfriend walked out on her without saying a word; and she's in the middle of a court-ordered evaluation of one Max Cheski (Harry Dean Stanton), who's on trial for a grisly series of murders. Cheski's lawyer is trying to get him off on an insanity plea, arguing that he's suffering from either schizophrenia or multiple-personality disorder (which, as Sarah, calmly explains to him, are two totally different things); in her sessions with Cheski, she can see he's both knowing and evasive, and she isn't sure enough yet to make a diagnosis. Then two men come into her life, one entering and one re-entering it: the latter, her neglectful, alcoholic traveling-salesman father Henry (Len Cariou) who she hasn't seen in several years and doesn't really want anything to do with; the former, charming home-security expert Tony Ramirez (Antonio Banderas), who hits on her at a local grocery store, slowly works away at her defenses, and soon ingratiates himself into her life. For a while, Sarah is a lot looser and happier but still hesitant about totally opening herself up to another person; her affair with Tony is complicated, alternating between no-holds-barred sex and uncomfortable times when Tony senses she's pushing him away. Understandably, she finds it hard to trust men, and when details of Tony's previous history start coming out, like his former policeman days in Puerto Rico, she finds herself erring on the side of caution before committing to him. It's also around this time that Sarah finds herself being stalked and harassed: she receives a gift box at her doorstep containing dead flowers and trash; a letter at her office referring to a newspaper obituary that she looks up and has her name in it; and another box at her apartment containing her mutilated cat. Who's behind this menace? Tony, her father, Cheski, or perhaps jealous upstairs neighbor Cliff Radisson (Dennis Miller) whose playful advances Sarah has rebuffed?

The movie obviously has its fair share of red herrings, and director Peter Hall, who did work in the The Royal Shakespeare Company, deftly weaves through them so we're pleasurably kept off-balance -- right when we think we're getting a lock on things, he knowingly cuts way before our suspicions can completely formulate. He's not especially good at sustained suspense per se, and the proceedings lack the scariness that graced that other shrink-being-terrorized tale Whispers in the Dark from three years prior, but there's something refreshing about the low-key approach and good attention to detail that a lot of thrillers can't be bothered with nowadays. Never Talk to Strangers has more than a passing resemblance to De Palma's Dressed to Kill, and Hall has even gone so far as employing that movie's same composer, Pino Donaggio, and it's a good fit -- his luscious music manages to make the possibility of violence strangely poetic, as if it were tragically inevitable, and it also cannily conveys a woman's confused psyche when she doesn't know if she can trust a man with hidden sides who she's sleeping with (a private detective she employs discovers some things about Tony). I can't say the screenplay by Lewis Green and Jordan Rush has some of the ingenuity of De Palma's, but, for my money, it's more focused and devoid of the numerous plot holes that hampered Kill, and it respects its audience by playing fair. After the closing credits are rolling, you can look back and see exactly where the pieces fit in the puzzle, and because it's all been done with tactful manipulation, you needn't feel the fool if you hadn't figured it out. Oh, there are some things you can quibble with. De Mornay co-produced the thing, and there are a bit too many sex scenes just so she can show off her ethereally perfect body (though this is far from a gruff complaint, I might add), the police sending her on her way after the dead-cat incident is iffy at best (just so she can employ that PI), and the story could've used one more scene with the father to make the psychological nexus lucidly come full circle (there's a very small piece missing). But the adequate writing and directing get us on by, and the performances are superb. Banderas is uninhabited and fearless, Stanton forceful and commanding in just a couple of scenes, Miller chock-full of variety and wit, Cariou touchingly conveys quiet regret, and De Mornay communicates intelligence and vulnerability with her usual effortless mastery.

The DVD sports a handsome anamorphic transfer and a very fine audio mix. If you want special features, you'll have to look elsewhere, alas.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23532&reviewer=327
originally posted: 02/29/12 17:15:25
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User Comments

3/02/12 Rena DiFiore De Mornay is the actress who can pull off the creepiest characters w/o b-ing unlikable 4 stars
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  20-Oct-1995 (R)
  DVD: 27-Jul-1999



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