Normal Life (1996) review

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Film noir, and especially the old hook of the bad, mad, dangerous to know girl, drives this contemporary melodrama from the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – it’s as overheated, wildly intense and as hair-trigger as its lead characters. It was based on a true story, that of husband-and-wife bankrobbers Jeffrey and Jill Erickson, and was unfairly shoved to the sidelines by its studio, Fine Line Pictures. Admittedly, it does feel like something closer to an HBO movie than anything blatantly cinematic– still, even though it has mildly televisual trappings, it’s loaded with sex, violence and swearing to give it that extra edge or two. In the end, it’s a great B-movie, stopped short of exploitation thanks to two seriously good lead performances that help it rise above the norm and into the realm of admittedly ripe but effective drama.

Seemingly straight-laced Chris Anderson (a pent-up, simmering and bloody good turn from Beverly Hills 90210‘s Luke Perry, complete with immaculately neat ‘n tidy moustache) is the only cop in his unit not prepared to bend the rules, refusing to cover for a brutish fellow officer who got a bit over enthusiastic with a perp, for example. Yet even he can’t resist the gorgeous, unpredictable Pam (Ashley Judd, absolutely magnetic) from the moment he sees her in a bar. Right from the off his warning signs should be flashing, given that she smashes a beer glass with her hand in a moment of fury after being berated in public for being ‘crazy’ by two already-burned patrons, but he’s already lost in love, helping her to bandage her wound and asking for a dance. For Chris, whose only release seems to be in his preference for firing one of his many guns (he’s a good shot too), the unshackled, dreamy but damaged Pam is too much to resist, and he wants to spend his life with her. They could have a normal life together, you know? Marriage, a house, bills paid, dinners cooked, the whole business.

It doesn’t really work out that way – Pam’s too prone to boredom, recklessness and downright selfishness, Chris is too down-the-line, too straight-and-narrow. It’s not long before it all starts to fall apart. Yet while some of Pam’s behaviour is genuinely shocking, manipulative and disturbing, some of it is also bleakly funny – when she shows up to a funeral in rollerblades, I got the sense that McNaughton was occasionally treating this extremely fragile, desperate marriage as a bit of a sick comedy. Nevertheless, there is a real charge to the couple’s explosive arguments, their ecstatic highs and horrible lows, and despite Chris being the seeming protagonist and lead character, the film is more fascinated and sympathetic with Pam. From the viewer’s point-of-view, I guess a lot of is down to how much you can tolerate her, and yes, how much you fall for her, and this is where Judd delivers the goods. This is definitely the best performance I have ever seen her give – excitingly unpredictable, wildly sexy, desperately sad and extremely emotional, she gives it everything. You can totally see why Chris can’t stay away from her, how much he’s addicted to her (and it’s not just a sexual thing, it’s definitely an everything thing), and while she can be manipulative, this is no mere good guy/bad girl set-up. Culpability is definitely toing-and-froing in this relationship, no one person is entirely to blame for what happens and, indeed, you can say that the most reckless decision in this film is definitely made by Chris when the film shifts gears (and then some) around two-thirds in.

Special mention must also be given to Perry, who never made it as a leading star (the 90210 curse, I suppose), but he’s surprisingly excellent here – he has the less showy opportunity of the two leads, but his quieter performance is a perfect counterpoint to Judd’s full-on turn. The final ten minutes are a bit rushed and at times pretty ridiculous (the scene in the lift, in particular – really??) and the film is so bound for tragedy that there’s not even much suspense in the whole ‘will it work out for them?’ scheme of things – indeed, the film does not end on a happy note. In fact, it even ends on a mildly dismissive touch, if that dropped ice cream is anything to read into. Still, this is a gripping, effective and powerful drama, worth seeking out. Additionally, fans of The Wire will be pleased to see Prez himself, Jim True-Frost (here billed as simply Jim True), as Chris’ best friend who unsurprisingly gets neglected once Pam enters the scene. There’s also a role for Tom Towles, who played Henry’s horrendous friend Otis in McNaughton’s earlier Portrait of a Serial Killer.

PS: When Pam marries Chris, her surname becomes Anderson. Just saying.

 

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