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by Jack Sommersby

"Gets Deep Under Your Skin"
4 stars

Neither a failure nor smash at the box office, it stood out in what was one of the very best years in the '80s.

The powerful, disturbing Betrayed is burdened by some logic loopholes and a tendency to occasionally overstate, but it’s still a superb piece of work and anchored by an extraordinary lead performance by Debra Winger. The movie opens with the murder of a controversial liberal-Jewish talk-show host in a parking garage (no doubt modeled on the real-life Denver murder of Alan Berg); he’s shot execution-style by some masked assailants, with the letters ZOG spray-painted on his car afterwards. We then forward to a farming community in an unnamed Midwest town, where we see Winger’s Katie Phillips driving a wheat combine, where she crosses paths with the town’s most-respected citizen, farmer Gary Simmons (Tom Berenger); in the local bar that night the two flirt and share a dance, and over the next few days they see more of each other, with Katie being invited to Gary’s house, where she sits down to dinner with Gary’s mother and his two preteen kids. Gary’s a recent widower, and Katie makes known she’s available, and their relationship really starts to deepen -- we can tell there’s really something going on between them. But Katie has to leave town all of a sudden, to go to Dallas to see her ailing mother, she says; only this is a subterfuge -- she actually arrives at the FBI building in Chicago, where we learn she’s not really farm girl Katie, but Cathy Weaver, a novice agent with the Bureau whose first undercover assignment this is. It seems Gary’s a suspect in the talk-show host’s killing, but Cathy is doubtful, arguing that a half-drunk witness merely identified two digits on a license plate on a vehicle similar to Gary’s. But Cathy’s coldly-manipulative superior (and former lover) Michael Carnes (John Heard) argues that her judgment’s been compromised due to her close contact with Gary and his family, that she’s “acting like a sixteen-year-old on her first date.” But Cathy is kept on the case, and when she returns she crosses the line by becoming sexually intimate with Gary. Thus far the screenplay, by Joe Eszterhas, who gave us the contrivance-laden box-office successes Flashdance and Jagged Edge, is involving and contains pungent dialogue and characterizations that make sense. And it helps that Winger and Berenger generate some genuine chemistry -- she has a lot more going on with him than she did with Robert Redford in Ivan Reitman’s Legal Eagles from two years prior, where Winger, classically miscast, proved she had absolutely zero in the way of comic timing. But Gary turns out to have a secret side, too. In the movie’s most shocking scene, Gary takes Cathy out with his buddies at night to go “hunting,” only it’s not deer being targeted, but a shirtless, blindfolded black man delivered by the corrupt sheriff who’s given a gun and a thirty-second head-start before being set upon. The ensuing violence is hard to stomach, sure, but artistically necessary. Cathy is repulsed and wants to be pulled off the case, but Michael, knowing Cathy is his ace in the hole, convinces her to stick with it. Eventually, she discovers Gary is a mere cog in a widespread, well-connected white-supremacy operation. Where do Cathy’s loyalties lie? To a human monster who loves her or her slippery superior who uses her?

The director, Costa-Gavras, a Greek, impressed many with his 1969 political thriller Z, which I found to be abrasive and a classic example of style over substance, and his first American feature, 1981’s Missing, was an insultingly simpleminded piece of U.S.-bashing claptrap (I didn’t disagree with the points it made but the shameless techniques it used in rendering them). Yet Costa-Gavras and Eszterhas refuse to stereotype, instead lending dimensions to their racist antagonists. Gary, ashamed of his military service for a country he no longer believes in, is too myopic to realize it was the right-wing rather than liberals as the reason for the prolonged maintaining of U.S. troops in Vietnam, along with the capitalist model responsible for the decline in crop prices. And this extends to Gary’s buddies, particularly the appealing older-man Shorty (the excellent John Mahoney), who justifies himself with, “All I ever wanted was to just raise my crops and raise my boy; the bank took my house, and Vietnam took my son.” We hear derogatory remarks about “niggers” and “faggots” and “Jews“ -- these hopeless, easily-manipulative bigots are oblivious to just how pathetic they’re being exploited by the wealthy powers-that-be. Gary takes Cathy along to a “school” out in the wilderness with burning crosses where his children are instructed in racist propaganda and given lessons on firing assault rifles by militants, yet it’s Gary’s adorable daughter, Rachel, who rattles Katie’s world with the word “nigger” coming out of her mouth -- it’s like a blow to the solar plexus with a two-by-four; we see how poisonous bigotry can be easily be passed from generation to generation to even the most innocent of souls. And yet how can Cathy stay with a man such as Gary, we not quite sure. Is she truly in love or willing to stick things out to harness a cold-blooded killer? I think a little of both. And the reason we don’t really question this is because of Winger’s towering work as Cathy. Winger made an electrifying debut as John Travolta’s headstrong, blue-collar wife in James Bridges’s 1980 Urban Cowboy, but she was wasted in her follow-up as the heart-of-gold hooker in the bland John Steinbeck adaptation Cannery Row (which also managed to emasculate her co-star Nick Nolte); then she had two back-to-back successes with the Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment and Bridges’s undervalued Mike’s Murder. (Obviously, she thought appearing in something like Legal Eagles would gain her some bankability, which was misguided, for the popcorn-munching masses don’t go to a movie because Winger is in it -- she’s too multi-faceted, too truthful an actress to appeal to the mainstream. She’s the female equivalent of James Woods.) Winger has the rare gift of transparency -- you feel there’s nothing in the way of artifice keeping you at a distance from her characters, so when he’s unwisely slowed down in a bummer of a role, as was the case with Cannery Row and Legal Eagles, she can’t access her alert reserve, and has to rely on a surface-only personality for strictly mainstream appeal, which she’s never been particularly good at. As Cathy, who has to walk an emotional tightrope between Betrayed’s two central male characters, Winger’s given the opportunity for dramatic confliction, which she excels at.

I can’t think of another American actress of her generation who could have brought off the tricky emotional transitions Winger does here. But she’s not the whole show, for both Berenger and Heard are also first-rate, particularly Berenger, who’s taken on a role most actors wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole and miraculously manages to suggest a flawed-but-not-entirely-repugnant human being (the contrast between Gary sitting down to dinner with his family in a Norman Rockwell-type of setting and his subsequent malicious actions is bone-chilling in their contradictory fallacies). Eszterhas has painted in some broad strokes -- a few times, the movie isn’t quite as detailed as we’d like -- but he has a penchant for canny story construction, and with someone like Costa-Gavras at the helm, whose eye for interesting detail gives the proceedings plenty of texture, we’re held by the movie even though the midsection sags a bit. When Cathy is forced to participate in a bank robbery (this is one of the ways ZOG gets its financing), we’re put right there in her point-of-view as she covers the area with an Uzi knowing she might have to fire upon a security guard to ensure her survival; and later, when Cathy has Gary dead-bang when he’s prepared to assassinate a senatorial candidate indifferent to his cause, the tension is almost unbearable. Betrayed attempts to function as a psychological study and a thriller, and if it succeeds more as the former than the latter, that’s okay -- we’re willing to forsake wall-to-wall thrills for complexity, and in light of the weighty subject the movie takes on, it’s to its considerable credit that it refuses to sensationalize. And it all culminates in an unforgettable final image of Rachel, saying goodbye to Cathy in a churchyard after Sunday mass, punctuated with the Waylon Jennings’s song “The Devil’s Right Hand.” It’s something of a miracle that a major studio, United Artists, chose to release something controversial like Betrayed, because it couldn’t have been any studio executive’s idea of a surefire box-office hit. I was fascinated by the dailiness in Gary’s tight-knit community, how those who rank below him in the hierarchy are brazen yet are ultimately subservient to him; and how Cathy’s get-the-job-done superior, still resentful of Cathy having ended their personal relationship, is all too willing to send her into danger much like the government sent Gary into danger in Vietnam. There’s little denying based on practically all of Costa-Gavras’s works (excepting his 1965 genre piece The Sleeping Car Murders) that he’s got a quite the cynical streak in him, that he’s definitely trying to “tell us something” with his leftist political-polemic pictures. And while, after eleven movies in twenty-three years, he still hasn’t developed anything indicative of a distinctive style, he knows where to locate the dramatic impetus in a scene and give his actors enough room to feel out their characters, and all the while lending snap and precision so a scene never overstays its welcome. Eszterhas’s script is probably the best one Costa-Gavras has taken on, and Costa-Gavras is probably the best director who’s taken on an Eszterhas script. Which makes it not just a win-win for the both of them, but for the audience as well. I wouldn't call the movie "enjoyable," but it gets deep under your skin like gangrene and stays with you long after the closing credits.

The bare-bones DVD, which doesn't even offer up an anamorphic transfer, is no great shakes.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=28784&reviewer=327
originally posted: 03/29/15 14:37:46
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  26-Aug-1988 (R)
  DVD: 29-Feb-2000

  28-Apr-1989 (18)

  20-Apr-1989 (M)

Directed by

Written by
  Joe Eszterhas

  Debra Winger
  Tom Berenger
  John Heard
  John Mahoney
  Ted Levine

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