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‘Storyville’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 09, 1992

Mark Frost's "Storyville" begins with an apparent suicide and the story emerges slowly and deliberately, as if from the brackish depths of the Louisiana bayou. But nothing is precisely as it seems; the past keeps bobbing to the surface like a bloated corpse rising to expose some ancient sin. And no one, it seems, escapes implication.

You only have to watch a few minutes to know you are in the presence of a major new moviemaking talent. A brooding sense of guilt haunts Cray Fowler (James Spader), who, though obviously a little nuts, is running for Congress. Frost, who worked as a writer and producer with David Lynch on "Twin Peaks," has learned from his partner how to create a sense of dread out of the most innocent details, and the slow, suggestive pace he sustains is a Lynchian technique as well. But Frost has a tighter narrative focus and his story follows a more conventional path.

That does not mean, however, that the world of "Storyville" is in any way normal. The movie is about redemption and spiritual cleansing. The man who falls dead in the bayou was Fowler's father, and it is thought that he killed himself to avoid the disgrace of indictments over illegal oil rights. The land in dispute was stolen, essentially, from the poor people in the parish where the oil was found, but with the elder Fowler's death the investigation is discontinued. To quiet his own suspicions, though, his son begins poking around in the files, looking for either proof of his father's guilt or evidence that might exonerate him.

Frost is expert at pulling us deeper into the dark, Gothic corners of Southern politics. While Fowler continues his investigation, he is lured by Lee (Charlotte Lewis), a sultry Vietnamese beauty, into a bizarre tryst that ends with the murder of the woman's tyrannical father. The motive is blackmail -- a video camera recorded the candidate's hot-tub interlude with his seductress -- but when Fowler unexpectedly decides to defend Lee in her murder trial, the situation takes on the intrigue of a hall of mirrors.

The miracle of "Storyville" is that it works both as a political thriller and as a meditation on the repercussions of the past. Spader's candidate is a ravaged character; at first glance he looks almost like a vampire. Fowler wants to know the truth about his father, and therefore about himself, and he's willing to pay any price to find out.

In the meantime, he's being hounded by a sinister security man for his opponent's campaign (Michael Parks), toyed with by prosecuting attorney and ex-girlfriend Natalie (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer), and manipulated by his uncle and surrogate father (Jason Robards). Ironically, Fowler's only real ally in this mission is an African American lawyer named LaFleur (Michael Warren, formerly Officer Hill on "Hill Street Blues"), a champion of the poor who was once the younger Fowler's severest critic.

With all this rich subtext, the actors have a field day. Spader is razor-sharp in every scene; he's never had this sort of weight and authority on screen before. The supporting cast excels as well, including Lewis, who has been known more as a pretty face than a real actress (she was Eddie Murphy's costar in "The Golden Child"), and especially Warren, whose silkiness underlines his ruthlessness. Robards is superb too, as a bull-slinging pol who's had power all his life and knows how to use it. And there are other small glories throughout, such as Piper Laurie, dissolute Southern matriarch (she's young Fowler's mother), and Chuck McCann, the family's political gofer.

But it's Frost's masterly manipulation of the moody atmosphere that is most gripping. As the tale unfolds, the air seems to get thicker and more sluggish and suffocating; the weather seems to reflect the corruption waiting to be discovered. And when the resolution comes, the air finally clears and we feel the catharsis almost as palpably as Fowler does. Frost has made a spectacular debut.

"Storyville" is rated R for adult situations and sexuality.

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