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‘Never Talk to Strangers’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 21, 1995

What if your mom told you never to talk to strangers and the stranger was Antonio Banderas?

What would you do? What would Mom do?

You can see that problem confronting Rebecca De Mornay as Sarah Taylor, the criminal psychologist heroine of Peter Hall's engaging thriller "Never Talk to Strangers." De Mornay is an ice blonde in the Hitchcock tradition of Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren. She plays Sarah as an immensely capable professional woman who has a successful career and a peaceful, uneventful private life with her cat in their modest Manhattan apartment. From the outside, she appears to be the picture of self-confidence and mental health. Even when forced to share an interview room with a serial killer (Harry Dean Stanton) attempting to beat the rap with an insanity plea, she remains cool and unruffled. And if that isn't enough to convince us that the doctor is not someone easily dissuaded from her point of view, we see her turn away her own father (Len Cariou) when he drops into town on business and asks if he can crash on her sofa.

When Sarah first bumps into Tony, played with extravagant Latin charm by a tattooed, long-haired Banderas, she makes mincemeat of him—almost. But she can't help but be coaxed into dropping her guard, especially when he begins to display his knowledge of wines. After he offers advice about a particularly good bottle at the store where they meet, she calls his bluff.

"Do I look like the kind of woman who can be bought with a good vintage?" she snaps.

To which Tony responds, after the briefest of pauses, "You look like the kind of woman who has to be won."

This does it for the doc. Before the cork on the bottle is dry, Sarah throws caution to the wind, embarking on a wild affair with a man she knows almost nothing about. This section of the film is probably the most satisfying, perhaps because we get to watch Banderas and De Mornay roll around together without any clothes.

Though the script—by Lewis Green and Jordan Rush—is sloppy and conventional, and the thriller plot consists primarily of infuriating red herrings, these two ravishing stars do manage to generate some real intensity together, both in bed and out. As luck would have it, though, strange things begin happening to Sarah almost as soon as she starts seeing Tony. First, it's just a matter of phone calls and disturbing letters; then it's dead flowers, and, later still, other dead things.

Naturally, Tony becomes a prime suspect. As the movie develops, a theme—of sorts—begins to emerge. Because of a tragic accident resulting in the death of her mother, Sarah can't seem to open up to anyone.

This is really just so much psychobabble, though. Hall is far more interested in delivering the simple, straightforward pleasures of a thriller. And even with its feeble script, that's pretty much what "Strangers" accomplishes. As always, Banderas seduces the camera as easily as Tony woos the well-defended doctor. And De Mornay does an affecting job of suggesting the tiny fissures of mental damage underneath the mask of professional imperviousness.

As a director, Hall—who is legendary in England for his theater work—mostly gets out of the way. He can't triumph over the problems in the script, or tie up all the loose ends, but his brisk, competent approach does minimize the effects of these flaws. But your mother was right—you should never never never talk to strangers. Okay, just this once.

Never Talk to Strangers is rated R for nudity, adult situations and dead kitties.

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