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Turning Pulp Into a Soggy Mess

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 1998

  Movie Critic


Movie Scene
Woody Harrelson and Elisabeth Shue star in "Palmetto." (Castle Rock)

Director:
Volker Schlondorff
Cast:
Woody Harrelson;
Gina Gershon;
Elisabeth Shue;
Angela Featherstone;
Tom Wright;
Rolf Hoppe;
Michael Rapaport;
Chloe Sevigny
Elisabeth Shue;
Angela Featherstone;
Tom Wright;
Rolf Hoppe;
Michael Rapaport;
Chloe Sevigny
Running Time:
1 hour, 54 minutes
R
For overt sexual situations, violence and profanity
Palmetto" is set in a town in director Volker Schlondorff's own private Florida. It's a place of low, trashy palms, infested with both cockroaches and human beings. Sometimes it's hard to tell them apart.

Harry Barber – Woody Harrelson, pretending ownership of a double-digit IQ – wears those clip-on suspenders, a fedora and dark polyester suits as he lounges about in various low spots trying to figure out what to do next. He's clearly a bug waiting for the windshield of life. An ex-reporter, he's just sprung from two years in the slammer where he was unjustly sent to rusticate for investigating the city fathers of Palmetto too aggressively. Naturally he is bitter and looking for adventure.

In walks Rhea Malroux. I don't know how James Hadley Chase described her in his original 1962 novel, "Just Another Sucker," but for the sake of my own amusement, I am going to pretend that I am James Hadley Chase and give it a go, '62-style: "Rhea had the kind of figure that reminded me why 8 was my favorite number and an hourglass my favorite clock. Her clothes appeared to have been shellacked onto her curves. If you rolled a marble from her chin to her toes down any vector, the marble would have a very good time and pick up so much spin it would drill through the floor."

Is that bad writing, or what?

Still, from the description, you will perhaps be surprised to discover that Rhea, the movie's resident femme fatale, is played by Elisabeth Shue, who has the equipment for the part but looks so wholesome even when she vamps that it's embarrassing. Usually I love it when nice girls go hot, but somehow Shue broadcasts quivers of humiliation rather than vibrations of seduction.

Anyhow: Back in the movie, Rhea has a proposition for the try-anything Harry. She's set up a scam with her rich husband's disgruntled daughter: The girl (Chloe Sevigny) will disappear for a while, Harry will call her pop and pretend he's kidnapped her and accept a ransom, the girl will return, and the three conspirators will split the profits.

Obviously, poor Harry hasn't figured out that he's in a film noir pastiche, so before you can say "just another sucker," he's bitten. Imagine the confusion he feels when he finds the daughter dead in his motel room even as the cops – they've hired him as their press liaison – are waiting outside to pick him up for his first day on the new job.

That's the film best sequence: It gets Harry's clammy terror as he tries to flack for the police while watching their investigation draw nearer to his own pathetic, framed self. But quickly enough the movie gets lost in the tendrils of its own seemingly dense but actually stupid plot.

"Palmetto," directed by the German genius Schlondorff, who memorably brought "The Tin Drum" to the screen, somehow never quite finds the right line through the materials. It was meant, I believe, to be a neo-noir in the style of Lawrence Kasdan's "Body Heat" or John Dahl's "Red Rock West," in which the outrageous twists and wrought-iron destiny of film noir conventions were amiably kidded, while the story itself was amusing enough to keep you hooked.

But Schlondorff never gets the right spirit of play into it; it seems not ironic, but somewhat dull and sluggish. All these women keep throwing themselves at Harrelson – poor Gina Gershon has to lick his face in the steamy tropical roadway! – and the plot, for whatever its clumsy gropings at sophistication, is really quite crude. It simply turns out that everybody is somebody else.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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