True story: in elementary school, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger kept a black widow in a jar on his bedside table. Nonetheless, he was unprepared for this ambitious misfire starring Debra Winger and Theresa Russell.
She mates and she kills.
Black Widow is an intriguing thriller because it so easily could have been more. It comes off as an ambitious made-for-TV movie, though it clearly seems to be aiming higher. Black Widow's lofty ambitions are reigned in by inexplicable conservatism. Though you may enjoy this watchable thriller, the real fun is in deconstructing why it didn't become great.
Facts of the Case
Debra Winger (Urban Cowboy, An Officer and a Gentleman, Wilder Napalm) plays Alexandra "Alex" Barnes, a frumpy federal agent who analyzes data while fending off clumsy advances from her co-workers. She gets wind of a suspicious string of deaths, wherein rich old men marry, bequeath their earthly possessions to their young wives, and then die in their sleep. Alex suspects that Catherine Petersen (Theresa Russell, Wild Things, Project V.I.P.E.R.) is behind the deaths. She asks to be assigned to the case despite myriad objections.
Alex soon finds Catherine and earns her trust. Will Alex be able to persevere in the investigation when the Black Widow sets her sights on Alex?
There is a lot to like about Black Widow. The film has a distinctive look that emphasizes realism while creating a stylized aesthetic. Lush shots of Hawaiian scenery contrast with noirish interiors. A careful color scheme employs primary colors that skirt garish, but tend to unify the image. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall is responsible for the distinctive look of many great films, such as Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition. Black Widow isn't his master work, but it is obvious that care and craftsmanship went into the visual feel of the film.
Most of Black Widow's interest is generated by the central relationship. Debra Winger and Theresa Russell's characters are locked in a deadly spiral of attraction and repulsion that transcends the usual hunter/prey scenario. An undercurrent of primal lust sparks between them. Each is taken out of her usual game by the other's provocations; the women fascinate and irritate each other. Alex is determined and capable, though not precisely likeable. She has foregone fashion and polish for proficiency. We root for her and fear for her. Her adversary is the pinnacle of feminine charm, able to insinuate herself into any man's fantasy. In her own way, Catherine is as calculating and studious as Alex. The similarity between them is the basis for the mutual attraction and disdain.
Black Widow beautifully creates this dynamic, but sadly fails to capitalize on it. The film drops hints of an attraction between the women, uncontrollable and primal if not wholly sexual. Alex's erotic CPR practice on Catherine is later reciprocated in a fierce kiss. The women share clothes and men, but never a bed. Sexual tension mounts then dissipates. The lack of exploration of the themes Black Widow establishes for itself seems artificially chaste, particularly since Russell and Winger both shed clothes when the situation is appropriate. It isn't only sexual tension that fails to reach a climax. The dynamic between the two is professional and personal, but it never comes to a head. The ending is riddled with inconsistencies and artifice that does a disservice to the preceding characterizations.
Writer Ronald Bass has penned his fair share of hits. He is the screenwriter behind Rain Man, The Joy Luck Club, Dangerous Minds, My Best Friend's Wedding, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and Sleeping with the Enemy. Black Widow stands out from that crowd because it is not based on a previous novel. Bass manages to generate an interesting relationship with subtle character-driven twists. Yet the screenplay shows signs of uncertainty. Instead of taking the more daring road, Bass opts for safe territory.
Nonetheless, the pieces were still in place for a transcendent thriller. Director Bob Rafelson just doesn't pull the strings together. Rafelson has directed some fine movies, most of them starring Jack Nicholson. Rafelson doesn't coax the same commitment out of Russell (and to a lesser extent, Winger). The ladies aren't wooden; Winger especially imbues Alex with her trademark spirit. The duo simply isn't as dark and engaging as they could have been. Part of the conservative feel of the film comes from the wholly linear plot progression. Very little is left out, rearranged, or manipulated. A handful of judicious cuts and fades would have given Black Widow a moodier bent and sharper emotional focus. What we get instead connects the dots from beginning to end. The linear plot, routine direction, and watchable but not quite gripping performances give Black Widow a made-for-TV vibe. It's frustrating, because Black Widow is certainly higher caliber. With a risk or two here and a departure from the straight and narrow there, Black Widow might have really distinguished itself.
Often, the DVD presentation mirrors (or influences) expectations for the movie. Fox treats Black Widow as an average thriller. The static menu presents no extras of note. The trailer is remarkably bad. It looks and sounds awful, it runs way too long, and it gives away most of the movie. The TV spots are just like the trailer, but shorter. While the movie transfer is better than the trailer, it isn't dramatically so. Colors are somewhat dull and the contrast is poor. There is a lot of grain and dirt. Shadow detail is dicey; some scenes suffer a lack of distinction between foreground and background. The two transfers are presented on opposite sides of a flipper disc. The video quality isn't objectionably bad; it looks like an average transfer from four years ago. The primary track is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track that hovers somewhere between bright and muddy, never asserting itself. Again, nothing's distinctly wrong with the soundtrack—it sounds average.
It is unfortunate that the creators of Black Widow didn't fully play out the arc they set for themselves. The hints and whispers are more compelling than what we end up watching. This could easily have been Bound, Basic Instinct, or another more engaging erotic noir. Black Widow is fine, if uninspired, filmmaking, made more frustrating by the obvious squandered potential.
Bob Rafelson is sentenced to time already served. In light of Ronald Bass's logical decision to focus on adapting novels, the court will show leniency. Winger and Russell are free to go. James Hong and Dennis Hopper are commended for their entertaining bit parts.
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