by Jack Sommersby
The teaming of these two terrific actresses could've been a real knockout, but the material just isn't there.During its initial forty-five minutes the psychological crime drama Black Widow is good fun, with sharp dialogue, smooth scene transitions, and atmospheric lighting giving indications of a sophisticated production. Which is a bit of a surprise coming from a director like Bob Rafelson whose previous works were labored, strained character pieces by the dubious likes of Five Easy Pieces (which started out fine but strayed) and The King of Marvin Gardens (which started out awry and repelled); here, working with the editor Jim Bloom and the renowned cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, he's developed a semi-persuasive feel for film language, for recognizing the importance of visual design and narrative rhythm in bringing vitality to a screenplay, where before he erroneously relied on merely the camera being on and the actors saying their lines to carry the day. (Those aforementioned movies could've been confined to a stage setting with their quasi-quality not suffering in the least, though the Bakersfield oil-working milieu in the early sections of Pieces was well-etched.) It's somewhat akin to what another unimpressive '70s director-icon, Hal Ashby, brought to the party the year before in 8 Million Ways to Die, only Rafelson isn't able to keep things as entertaining all the way to the end like Ashby did, mainly because he starts falling back on his old habit of idle observation and not really getting into the scenes. For a while, Black Widow manages to grip, with Debra Winger convincingly playing Justice Department data-analyst investigator Alexandra "Alex" Barnes, who's stumbled across two suspicious deaths of two wealthy men six months apart who apparently died of natural causes attributed to a malady known as Ondine's curse; both died of heart failure while asleep, and while their much-younger wife was away at the time. As the movie opens, we see the apparently-bereaved wife of the most recent victim arrive at their home, empty and then wash out a liquor bottle in the sink, and lie down in the bedroom to weep. Interesting. We later we see that same woman (played by Theresa Russell), newly outfitted, red-hair-dyed, southern-accented, as the recent wife of a Dallas toy manufacturer going into her safety-deposit box at the bank, filling a syringe with some liquid from a vial, and injecting it into an unopened bottle of brandy she's brought along her. That night, she directs her husband to the fresh bottle in the cabinet, and the very next scene shows a funeral procession for the man. We have our "black widow."
"Oh, Death Where Is Thy Sting?"
A dateless workaholic tired of crunching data in a gloomy office setting, Alex starts interviewing relatives of the deceased (all of whom were cut out of the wills within a month of the deaths); and, in a nifty touch, we see that the villainess is something of a workaholic herself -- having her next target selected (a shy Seattle philanthropist and one of the five richest men in the state) she spends countless hours in a posh hotel room pouring over history books to impress him and, with a sizeable million-dollar donation, getting herself a seat on his foundation's board. The script by Ronald Bass lays these elements out schematically but not mechanically, and is something of a wickedly funny women's-lib tale without making too much of it -- when Alex's boss scoffs that seduction and murder are not the usual trademarks of a female killer, Alex quips, "What part do you think the woman isn't up to? The seduction or the murder?" Alex is attractive, but she dresses frumpy and makes herself colorless to avoid attracting her male co-workers; by contrast, the villainess, beautiful and seductive, is confident enough in her manipulative appeal so her targets are the ones who make that final offer of commitment -- she doesn't push things; not overtly, anyway. After playing nice, naive characters over the years, Russell is a welcome sight playing an intelligent femme fatale, and admirably understatedly, at that; she's like one of those '40s noir dames confident in her ability to reduce men to utter putty in her silky hands. After another death occurs and the wife has upped and left after converting all of the husband's estate and holdings to cash, and with still no solid evidence to go on, Alex traces her to Hawaii, quits her job and sells everything she owns to finance her private operation. With the help of a private detective Alex finds out her exact location, where she's already ingratiated herself with her next target, a European hotel owner, and under an alias befriends her. And it's about here where the movie stops -- well, not stops per se, but stops being interesting. Black Widow has obviously striven to function as something other than a standard genre exercise: neither of the main characters has used violence as a means to an end; there are no red herrings, no gratuitous sex scenes. It's obviously not a whodunit, and not much of a whydunit, either. Even though Russell's character is plenty rich, she still keeps acquiring and offing husbands; she says something about there never being enough money, and maybe she gets some pleasure from playing such a dangerous game. Some fleshing out of this would've been welcome.
It also would've been welcome if the movie had delivered on what it has steadfastly built towards: some dramatic dynamics between the two women once they're face to face. While we're glad Rafelson and Bass have steered clear of cheap exploitation, we're left adrift at scenes that don't seem to be getting anywhere -- it's not just that they lack internal tension, but that they lack any real discernible purpose. The two women hang out, have drinks and make endless small talk, and we keep waiting for some kind of fascinating psychological facet to arise that binds them, and there isn't. (Alex's boss surmises that Alex is obsessed with the killer, and that the killer is obsessed with killing, but that's sketchy because, from what we've so far been handed, the black widow gets no pleasure from killing because it's only the money she's after.) After a while you begin to feel sympathy for Winger and Russell, for they've been given characters with potential but no worked-out follow-through -- the movie lacks a crucial third act, with a cumulative emotional payoff to justify the gradual friction between heroine and villain. Due to a certain plot contrivance involving the unnecessary character of a sleazy private detective, the black widow is tipped to Alex's real identity, but rather than fleeing (surely there are other wealthy potential victims out there) she opts to stay, which may account for arrogance but just comes off as silly. And when Alex's air tank has most likely been sabotaged before the two go deep-sea diving, rather than letting her drown, the villainess saves her at the last second, and we're pulled up short. With a dire lack of common sense plaguing the proceedings, it would've helped had Rafelson kept things taut, even by superficial means, but the Hawaii scenes are vague and vapid -- as was the case in his embarrassing 1981 The Postman Always Rings Twice remake, he can't conjure up and sustain the necessary tawdriness and suspense the material cries out for; he's so myopically dedicated to making things "classy" that he hasn't replaced the familiarities with anything viable we can pleasurably respond to. The final twist may not be able to be foreseen from a couple of zip codes away, exactly, but when revealed it's still far removed from anything dazzling. The overall problem with Black Widow is you expend far more effort trying to stay involved in it than the moviemakers have in involving us: as with Rafelson's pre-'80s fare, we're left to our lonesome to draw inferences from subtext that just isn't there. Slack and pretentious, the movie, unlike its title arachnid, lacks bite and sting.The DVD boasts first-rate video and audio (the former is espcially welcome being this was Hall's first lighting gig in ten years), but no special features are included.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23883&reviewer=327
originally posted: 06/03/12 11:00:46