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‘Music Box’ (PG-13)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 19, 1990
With its palette of sacred mauves and ruddy browns, the political mystery "Music Box" suggests the stains of long-spilled blood. There's tragedy in the hollow of Jessica Lange's huge eyes, and terror in the plentiful Hungarian wine, poured garnet into tumblers, then drained like the cheeks of the heroine. Her face as pale as the winter sun, Lange moves through the spooky landscape with the haunted urgency of the movie's Gypsy violins.
"Music Box" is an evocative courtroom drama, precisely crafted by Costa-Gavras, the master of message entertainment. It tells the story of a daughter's stubborn love for her father, a Hungarian refugee accused of heinous war crimes. A crafty Chicago attorney, one who has warmed her hands at the bonfire of the vanities, she systematically discredits the prosecution's witnesses -- Holocaust survivors -- in defense of her great bear of a father.
But the evidence is too compelling, and it penetrates even the thickest skin. Ann Talbot (Lange) is a wonderfully tough character, estranged from her Lake Forest husband (Ned Schmidtke), scion of a leatherbound legal dynasty. Her peasant's heritage reflected in her sturdy figure and the vaguely rustic look of her upscale wardrobe, she is an earthy woman, but never sexy. When her bathrobe falls open, she seems surprised to find that she has long beautiful legs.
Her career, her 11-year-old son Mikey (Lukas Haas) and her widowed father, Mike Laszlo (Armin Mueller-Stahl), are the world to her. Mike, a retired steelworker who immigrated from Hungary in the last days of World War II, is charged with lying to gain his U.S. citizenship. According to crusading federal prosecutor Jack Burke (Frederic Forrest), Mike was not the farmer he claimed to be but the leader of a Nazi-trained death squad, Arrowcross. "We are not speaking of the banality of evil ... we are speaking of evil incarnate," the prosecutor declares.Despite its potential for high melodrama, the movie never fails its actors or its material. If anything it is a bit too restrained, leaving all its anguish and doubts to the incredible fluency of Lange, Forrest and Mueller-Stahl -- and to the terrible revelations of the victims of Mishka, the ruthless young captain of Arrowcross. There are stories of families wired together and drowned in the Danube, of push-ups over bayonets, of gang rapes and cigarette burns, of the way Mishka and his men enjoyed their work. "It's not me. I am not a beast," shouts the accused in his thickly accented English. "I am a good American."
Mike or Mishka? The father she adores or the sadistic war criminal? At first Ann believes her father's claims that Hungarian Communists are behind the attempt to extradite him, but she becomes increasingly troubled as she uncovers a dubious past that only a devoted daughter would believe proof of innocence. Like the heroine of Costa-Gavras's last film, "Betrayed," she follows her heart, not her head, to become the devil's advocate.
Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, author not only of "Music Box" and "Betrayed" but also of "Jagged Edge," continues to test the duality of man against the naivete of woman. There's Debra Winger's G-woman duped by her Klansman lover, Glenn Close's lawyer falling for her wife-murderer client, and now Lange and her devoted poppa. Happily, here the heroine is befuddled not by her glandular responses but by her concept of family duty. If she accepts her father's guilt, then she becomes the child of evil incarnate.
How can a man nurture his own children and still slay another man's 7-year-old? The movie begs the question, one that seems to have no answer. It is but another warning from Eszterhas and Costa-Gavras, best articulated by Ann's father-in-law (Donald Moffat), a former espionage agent rumored to have drunk with Klaus Barbie. "Then you really did drink with those monsters?" she asks. "None of the men I knew were monsters. They were salt-of-the-earth types like your old man," he replies.
"Music Box" would be ham-fisted, would sit on your stomach, but neither Costa-Gavras nor Lange will allow it. His skill behind the camera and her romance with the lens sustain its terrible poignancy and grant it a power beyond the elementary.
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