Basic Instinct ***1/2
One Liner Review:
A hell of a sexual thriller, the movie that got the genre started in the early – mid nineties.
A fantastic mystery and suspense film from the time period that did this genre best… the mid-nineties, this is the movie that started the sub genre of the sexy noir thriller, that could pretty much do anything (Body Heat paved the way, but this was the movie that really did it all.) Basic Instinct is smart and sultry. It’s about a rebel detective who is very much an anti-hero out to crack the case, but also not unwilling to sleep with the main suspect. What we get is a movie with lots of twists, lots of clues, and a hell of a final scene that makes you need to replay everything in your head over and over again to get a full picture of what it all meant.
Basic Instinct is the movie that kick-started the nineties film noir, sexy-thriller craze that gave us tons of fun movies all set in a deep, dark underworld of crime, corruption, and betrayal. The film noir genre itself goes all the way back to the forties with movies like Double Indemnity, of course. It came back in the seventies with movies like The Long Goodbye and in the eighties with movies like Body Heat and 52 Pickup. But it wasn’t until the nineties that it really found the perfect combination of both storytelling and talent, including both actors and directors, that put the genre into a realm where it could reach its full potential. We’re talking about movies like The Usual Suspects and L.A. Confidential. But there’s a subset of the film noir genre that is the sexy noir thriller. And that sub genre, if you will, really got started with movies like FInal Analysis and Basic Instinct (both made in the same year.) Movies that followed in the footsteps throughout the nineties included Malice, Sliver, Jade, Heaven’s Prisoners, The Last Seduction, The Color of Night, Bound, Palmetto, Wild Things, and many more. But Basic Instinct was the one that really started it all. It was the movie that pushed the boundaries of what could be shown on screen, and did so well that it spawned a whole sub-genre of movies, itself.
Perhaps the movie was so popular and also so good because of the way that it went right at the staples of the genre, without shying away from anything, or trying to hold back. This is a movie about a detective trying to solve the case who is having an affair with the prime suspect, a situation that seems like it hits all the classic trademarks of original noir films. From Double Indemnity to Vertigo to LA Confidential (three of the best noir films of all time, and most certainly classics of the genre,) these are the trademarks. Other films in the genre tend to not make the protagonist a detective, but instead an average guy who just gets roped in. But Basic Instinct does it right, and has a protagonist who is highly flawed.
Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is a man whose past is almost more interesting than his present. He has been on the force for some time, and used to do a lot of cocaine. He also has shot four people in five years and during a shootout about a year ago, ended up shooting two tourists who got in the way. And to make matters worse, he was high on cocaine when he did it. Internal Affairs knows about this (at least the psychiatrist they have Nick speaking to.) That would be Doctor Beth Garner, (Jeanne Triplehorn,) who is having an affair with Nick. The two of them used to be an item and even now they occasionally get together. There is one sex scene between them which ends up being more date-rape than anything else. So no, this protagonist is not a very good guy. And this is all before he starts sleeping with the main suspect in then murder case he’s investigating.
That suspect is Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone,) a writer who has written books about murders and then watched as those murders came true. The suspicion is that she might be the one who is actually committing them. And Catherine is currently writing a new book about a detective, based on Nick. Stone steals the movie as the best character here, a woman who is so devious she is holding all the cards and pulling all the strings in her own investigation, which means she toys with the police who are trying to solve the case and doesn’t hide away or scare from anything. When she is called in for an interrogation, most detectives think she will bring a lawyer, but Nick knows she won’t. He’s right, of course. His reason… because she won’t want to hide behind someone.
The murder that Tramell is the prime suspect for is the murder that opens up the movie. The starting scene shows us Johnny Boz, a rock and roll producer, get murdered in his bed during a kinky sex scene. Boz is tied up by a woman with blonde hair, (which may very well be a wig.) He is then stabbed to death repeatedly. From here, we cut to the detectives walking into the room and discussing the case. We meet Nick and his partner, Gus, who are assigned to handle this one. They talk about the stains on the bed, crack a few jokes, and learn about Boz’s girlfriend, Tramell. She was the last person seen with Boz the night he was murdered. Ans so Nick and Gus take a ride out to her house to ask her a few questions.
Only meeting with Tramell isn’t so easy. The detectives end up at her main house first, coming across Tramell’s girlfriend, Roxy, who insists that Tramell didn’t do it. Then Roxy gives them directions to get to the beach house where they can find Tramell. That’s where the guys meet up with her and Tramell tells them that she and Boz left the club together, but then they each went their separate ways. They each went home to their own houses. Seems a little suspicious. Especially since nobody can confirm or validate that in any way. The questioning is cut short, however, when Tramell asks if she is being arrested and the detectives tell her no. That’s when she asks them to leave. She tells them if they want to talk to her more, or to bring her downtown for questions, they will need to arrest her. So ends their first meeting.
When the detectives find out an interesting nugget of information, however, that Johny Boz was murdered in the exact same way that is described in Tramell’s book, it’s back to questioning. This will be the formal interrogation, with lots of detectives in the room. It will also be the famous crotch scene, with Tramell showing the detectives a little more than they expected. But first, they bring in a human behavior specialist to tell them what they might be looking at here, in terms of the killer. And he breaks it down for them pretty clearly. Either Tramell is the killer and is so narcissistic and arrogant that she committed murders in the exact same ways that she wrote about, to see if she could get away with it, or there is someone out there who is intentionally setting her up. If this second one is the case, then the specialist believes the murderer has it in for Tramell, staging the murders in this exact way in order to frame her. This might seem like it is simplifying things a little, (after all, aren’t there other possibilities too, like that the killer was after Boz, and not Catherine,) but the expert gives his opinion And boiling it down to only two possibilities makes the focus seem more clear, narrow, and direct. This scene with the specialist helps the audience break down what’s happening and it also helps build up the interrogation scene that is to come… showing that the detectives need to discuss their ideas and the possibilities of what they are looking at first, to be fully prepared.
And then we get that famous interrogation scene, which isn’t just about the one famous shot. It’s also about Tramell riding Nick every chance she can get. In a sense, she’s interrogating him as much as he’s interrogating her, finding out about his smoking and how he quit, and how she’s now taunting him with it. Tramell is also constantly reading about Nick, investigating him the same we he’s investigating her. She wants to know all about him and that tourist shooting. Tramell claims she’s doing research for her book, and maybe that’s true, but she’s also doing all of this to get under Nick’s skin and rile him up. And it certainly works. We see that when Nick starts going after Nielson, the head of Internal Affairs, who may or may not have sold Nick’s file to Tramell. Nick believes Niselson did, because Tramell knows things about Nick and the cocaine that nobody else knows, except those who have seen his file. And so Nick goes after Nielson, first in a bar and then later back at the station.
Nielson ends up killed. So does Roxy. In Roxy’s case, she goes after Nick and tries to kill him and ends up driving off a bridge, crash landing in a construction site. With both Nielson and Roxy dead, that’s two suspects off our list. That’s the problem with having a limited number of characters… they are suspects until they turn up dead, and then the list gets smaller and smaller. But at the same time, as the list narrows down, you still want to keep the big reveal to be something that is a surprise for the audience. Here, the movie does give away a little too much too soon, about a connection between Tramell and somebody else, but even still, the direction that the story goes with this information is terrific. And Nick goes all out in his investigation, looking into both Tramell and also another person he suspects, digging deep into their pasts, driving out to places where they once lived and asking the right questions.
And that brings us to the big reveal. The thing that makes this ending so special is that it can be looked at in one of two ways. In a sense, there are two possible endings, kind of like Clue (which actually featured three.) There’s the ending where one person did it, and then there’s the ending where someone else did it. And that’s great, because it means that even after the movie is over, the auidience is still left wondering. And so the audience can go back over things and still try to solve it and analyze the clues and make sense of it all. To that extent, I will now break down the possibilities. This is spoiler territory, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet, read no more.
ANALYZING THE ENDING
The movie leads us to believe for most of the ending, that the killer was Beth. Certainly everything that happens in the final apartment building scene and the discussions with the detectives when they arrive, implies that. We find the weapon and disguise in the stairwell… the ice pick, a blonde wig, and a black police jacket. In Beth’s apartment, the police turn up even more. And just when you think it’s over the movie fades out and we prepare for the credits to roll. But then it fades back in and we see that under the bed, Tramell has an ice pick. So what does this all mean?
The fade out means that the movie could end there. And that one way to look at the movie is that it does. This is the ending. The fade back in means that what we are now watching in an alternative ending, of sorts. And this ice pick under the bed is meant to make us think that maybe Tramell is the killer. For that argument, here are some clues…
Tramell wrote about the detective finding his partner’s dead body in an elevator. This was in the finished pages of the book that Tramell had just completed. The pages were not yet published. Beth would have no way of knowing about them. So it is unlikely that Beth killed Gus in this same way by coincidence.
Beth would have no reason to kill Gus. For Tramell, she knows that Gus does not like her and even asks Nick about it. Throughout the movie, Gus has been saying bad things about Tramell to Nick.
If Beth was the killer, in the building at the end, why didn’t she flee the building? Why stay around and confront Nick in the hallway? Why claim that Gus called her and asked to meet there, a totally ridiculous claim?
The movie shows sex scenes with both Tramell and Beth. The sex scenes with Tramell are always exactly like the opening murder scene, with the woman on top, lunging at the man at the end, with or without an ice pick in hand. The sex scene with Beth is nothing like this at all. Why is the movie specifically going out of its way to show sex scenes with both women, if not for us to compare?
Tramell may have had reason to kill Neilson… it is suspected, but never proven, that Neilson sold Tramell Nick’s file. Tramell definitely knows things about Nick that nobody else would, other than Beth. If Beth was still in touch with Tramell (as in, if the two of them were in on the murders together,) then maybe she is the one who told Tramell these things. Otherwise, it seems like it was Nielson. Both Tramell and Beth would have motive to kill Neilson… he was blackmailining Beth with her file as well.