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Fatal Attraction

Though 1987’s biggest domestic box-office hit was Three Men and a Baby, the year’s biggest worldwide hit (and #2 domestic grosser) was Fatal Attraction. It intrigues me that the two most financially successful films of that year would turn out to be so completely different.

One’s a comedy, the other’s a suspense thriller. One went out of its way to be harmless and family-friendly, the other addressed some very mature subject matter in a way that would shock most adults. One of them picked up awards from People’s Choice and ASCAP. The other received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Direction, and both Best Actress categories (Michael Douglas probably would have been nominated as well, if he hadn’t actually won an Oscar for Wall Street that same year). One of them was so woefully dated that its current irrelevance is well-earned. But Fatal Attraction (aside from the obvious differences in technology available at the time) aged like not a day has passed.

For the uninitiated, the latter movie is built on three timeless things that we’ve all been through personally, despite our best efforts to the contrary.

  1. Diving into trouble genitalia-first. There have always been men who got into problems by thinking with their dicks, and there always will be. Though to be fair, women are known to have horny and drunken lapses in judgment as well. Have enough of them and MTV will pay you for it, after all. The sex drive is a total bitch no matter what your set of chromosomes, and we’ve all done ill-advised things for even the smallest possibility of getting laid. This is often how we meet…
  2. A crazy ex. I have one, you have one, everybody who’s been dating for any significant length of time has one. We’ve all fallen for at least one person who seemed perfectly lovely at first, only to learn too late that (s)he is a perpetually needy, emotionally unstable basket case. Even worse, a relationship with one pretty much always leads to…
  3. A nasty breakup. One that’s far more drawn-out, painful, and heartbreaking than it needs to be. Maybe the breakup is awful because one side is particularly obsessive and/or vindictive. Maybe it’s drawn out because one side isn’t brave and/or cold-hearted enough to make a clean break without regard to the other party’s emotional state. Even worse is when one type is breaking up with the other, which is never going to end well for anyone involved.

On a related note, I think George Carlin put it best: “Here’s all you have to know about men and women: Women are crazy, men are stupid. And the main reason women are crazy is that men are stupid.”

Anyway, let’s get to the plot. We open with an introduction to Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), a successful copyright lawyer. We see that he has a wife (Beth, played by Anne Archer), a young daughter (Ellen Hamilton Latzen, here making her debut at age six), and a dog, all living with him in a New York apartment.

Then along comes Alex.

Dan first meets Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) at a book release party. She’s an editor for the publishing company that employs Dan’s law firm, you see. It’s a totally innocuous meeting and it’s over quickly. They later cross paths again at another business meeting, only this time, the wife and daughter are out of town for the weekend to go look at a house for sale in the suburbs. So Alex tempts Dan into a liaison, and they have an extremely passionate weekend together. As you can expect, this is where I lost all sympathy for Dan.

Until the affair, Dan had a perfectly good thing going. Yes, his home life appeared rather dull, but it looked stable enough. By all appearances, there was nothing wrong with it. Dan had absolutely no reason to endanger what he had, yet that’s exactly what he did. Moreover, it’s easy to tell just by looking at Alex that something isn’t entirely right. She looks and acts way too good to be true, and what a shock, she is.

Everything that happens in this movie happens in large part because Dan is a total idiot. Fortunately, the movie never demands that we forgive the guy for committing adultery. In fact, Dan is frequently reminded that this whole thing is his fault. And he pays for it. Oh, how he pays for it.

As Dan continues to spurn his former mistress and try to get on with his life, Alex starts to lose more and more of her sweet facade. In truth, the woman is so mentally ill it’s not remotely funny. It would take a straitjacket made of kevlar and a room padded with at least three layers of rubber to contain all of her crazy. This is a kind of insanity that knows absolutely no boundaries. A kind of insanity that’s dangerous to Alex and to anyone around her.

So naturally, Alex refuses to accept that Dan is ending their affair to be with his wife and get back to the way things were. Naturally, her obsession becomes increasingly deranged and violent. Naturally, I didn’t have any compassion for her.

The two main characters in this movie are so unsympathetic that it’s borderline impossible to root for either one of them. As such, my enjoyment of this film wasn’t emotional, but visceral. Here we’ve got a very lonely and unpredictably crazy woman fighting for her perception of love, and a man fighting to protect his family and his own life. We’ve got a woman with nothing to lose and a man with everything to defend.

There’s no way of knowing how Alex’s delusions will manifest, there’s no way to tell how Dan will react, and there’s no way to know how Alex will counter. The only certain thing is that neither side will ever back down. This conflict can only escalate, and it’s guaranteed that things are going to get very ugly very quickly. In short order, it’s just a question of who’s going to draw first blood and when. Remember, the movie is titled “Fatal Attraction.” We’re told right up front that somebody is going to die.

In any event, it’s guaranteed that the adulterer and the psychopath are both going to get exactly what’s coming to them by and by. No matter which of them dies or which of them lives, both are going to repent for their sins the hard way before this is through. And we get to watch every minute of it.

Something else that adds to the visceral thrill of this movie is in how it’s presented. The film’s camerawork, editing, and sound mixing are all expertly arranged to provide an overwhelming sense of dread. The film’s use of cuts, camera angles, close-ups and POV shots to create tension is on par with the movies of Hitchcock, and that is not a statement I make lightly. The infamous “bunny boiling” scene is rightfully iconic, and I could write a whole essay on how this movie associates a ringing telephone with such a strong sense of dread.

The tension in this film is exemplary, and the scares are better than those in most horror films. In point of fact, I can almost picture an alternate universe where this movie spawned a slasher franchise, with Alex Forrester as a kind of “Michael Myers” figure.

Fortunately, the film is good enough to provide some moments of levity. Stuart Pankin is on hand to play Dan’s coworker/best friend, a character who provides some decent comic relief despite his total lack of relevance to the plot. We’re also treated to some very touching scenes of Dan with his family, usually just before something awful happens.

Last but not least, I must address the raw power brought to this film by its two lead actors. Their initial attraction and passionate affair are exquisitely presented. Their desperation and paranoia are chilling to watch. Both of these actors bring a tremendous amount of intensity that’s captivating to watch from start to finish. These are both very desperate characters in their own way, both extremely clever and surprisingly strong, and they’re both played as worthy adversaries. This makes it all the more exciting to watch Dan and Alex at war with each other.

With all of that said, and as great as Douglas’ performance is in this film, the work that Close turns in is on another level. I don’t think Hollywood has invented an award to do justice to Close’s portrayal of Alex Forrest. She really committed to Sparkle Motion for this character, burying herself in dementia to a disturbing and frightening degree. Even when the character’s actions are improbable enough to border on plot holes, Close sells it because Alex is made to be that damned crazy, scary, and unpredictable.

Fatal Attraction is a masterpiece of suspense thriller cinema. The camerawork, editing, writing, sound design, and performances are all of superior quality, even by today’s standards. Give it a watch if you haven’t already.

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