(1990) director James Foley
After watching Michael Winterbottom’s recent adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (2010), decided to go on a mini-venture of other Jim Thompson films, which led me to a little double feature of two films from 1990 which are arguably the best of the adaptations of his work, director James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet and Stephen Frears’ The Grifters. I’d seen both of these films before, and I’ve read both of the novels, now quite some time ago, and I’d remembered them both as being good, solid adaptations each, though I remembered The Grifters as a the better of the two films and remembered it better in general. I have to say, these films make a good double feature.
After Dark, My Sweet is one of Thompson’s slimmest novels, but one of his great novels. It’s features one of his most sympathetic protagonists, a mentally-challenge and potentially psychotic ex-boxer, Kevin “Kid” Collins, played in the film with a shambling gait and near stutter by Jason Patric. He’s essentially a homeless person, wandering from place to place, until he meets up with Fay Anderson (played by Rachel Ward in the film), a beautiful, alcoholic widow, who semi-seduces him into her life and a scheme to kidnap the child of a wealthy family, to raise a ransom, and make it big. She is partnered with “Uncle Bud”, a shifty character, who is played by the terrific Bruce Dern in the film, the mastermind behind the plan.
As in many of Thompson’s stories, told in the first person, the narrator is unreliable, or unreliable enough to himself. Is he paranoid? Or is her really being set up to be murdered, used as a chump by these people? Does the flawed and fluctuating Fay love him or is she just playing him? He doesn’t know. And we only know what he tells us, though the beauty of Thompson’s stories are how the reader has to see the story as failing to be certain.
As I recall, the novel is moderately straight-forward for Thompson, written in the first person. The film mimics that sensibility with voice-over narration by Patric.
The film is not flashy or overly stylized, but uses its southern California semi-desert setting to great effect. Fay’s house is on the desert reaches of the town, and has rows of overgrown palm trees that had been imported to be farmed and sold, but are over-grown and somewhat derelict. Her house is an open bungalow, with a pool blackened with algae. Her life, though we know little of it before her husband passed away, is one of disrepair and slowly moldering in the dry California sun. And while the locations and setting are contemporary to the film, not made “retro” to the setting of the novel’s 1955 present, as in The Killer Inside Me, the transposition in time works well and feels quite right.
Dern and Patric are both quite good. It’s funny about a movie that you haven’t seen in close to 20 years as to what you remember about it, but Patric’s near-Parkinson’s-like shifting gives that effect to his character, who has perhaps taken too many punches to the head or elsewhere, and that kind of stuck with me. Dern’s performance is more straight-forward: he’s a middle-aged dude with dodgy written all over him, but dodgy, still trying to make the score, and not necessarily evil. Much like Collins’ inability to make a read on “Uncle Bud” and Fay, we’re never sure how willing Uncle Bud is to kill to get what he wants.
The film doesn’t quite excel to a level of greatness, but it’s a rock-solid effort. It’s one of those kinds of films that you can see people glomming onto, savoring and liking, because there is a lot there to like, despite never quite achieving a level of power. For me, this is how I feel about Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), though a lot of people think that it was better than Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1990) (though I think I disagree).
It’s anomalous in that having a tragic hero whose goodness wins out over evil, this is one of Thompson’s rare stories where human goodness eclipses badness in the end, though still with a sublimating and nihilistic tonality. There is great bleakness in the characters, in their world. Even the little abducted boy, who nearly dies due to his diabetes while in their care, receives greater care and kindness from the broken people that are his kidnappers than he did in his well-to-do home. It’s a story with great sadness, but also of redemption. And frankly, a pretty darn good flick.