Palmetto offers up a tasty serving of hot and steamy noir with a Southern twist.
Thursday, February 26, 1998
When it comes to the art of cooking or filmmaking, there is often something to be said for sticking closely to a tried-and-true recipe.
In the case of the stylish noir thriller Palmetto, German director Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum) has thrown together all the right ingredients to create an updated and thoroughly satisfying tale of greed, lust and betrayal that evokes the best of ''40s and ''50s film noir.
Woody Harrelson stars as the embittered and hapless Harry Barber, a small-town newspaper reporter doing time in prison after being made the fall guy for refusing to cover up evidence of bribe-taking among numerous city officials of Palmetto, a quintessentially corrupt Florida backwater burg.
When an informant recants the testimony that led to Barber''s incarceration, Barber is released, only to find himself torn between starting a new life in a new town, or being drawn back into the moral sinkhole of Palmetto.
Out of work and out of sorts, and desperate to make up for the years he lost in prison, Barber falls in with Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue), a seductive, wealthy, young married woman who proposes a straightforward, seemingly harmless kidnap and extortion plan.
For a cool $50,000, all Barber has to do is call Malroux''s tight-fisted, ailing older husband to announce that his daughter, (Malroux''s stepdaughter) has been kidnapped; and to arrange to be on hand to pick up the ransom.
Barber is wary at first, and goes so far as to tape his initial meeting with Malroux. But as soon as he succumbs to Malroux''s seductive charms and learns that the kidnap is a ruse, Barber agrees to become an accomplice in a plot he feels will redeem the years he lost by being honest.
Needless to say, things immediately go awry with the plan-but not for the reasons Barber and the audience immediately suspect. While it is impossible to reveal any more without giving away Palmetto''s dark and nasty surprises, suffice it to say that nothing is as it seems.
It is a testament to Palmetto''s mastery of the noir genre that as the story slowly, inexorably unfolds, very few of the characters are who they profess to be-and those who seem the most straightforward are the ones the audience seems to trust the least.
One of the delights of Palmetto, as with any crime thriller, is trying to stay one step ahead of its protagonists. Just when the audience thinks it has mastered Palmetto''s labyrinthine web of deception, Schlondorff throws in extra plot twists, double crosses, and cases of false or mistaken identities that will satisfy the most voracious murder mystery fan.
On top of Palmetto''s superb storyline and dialogue are a host of great performances by a group of actors who clearly relish the chance to play fully realized and richly written roles. As the conniving Mrs. Malroux, Shue offers up equal doses of lust and menace while projecting an aura of sinister innocence that is wonderfully effective. As Barber''s artist girlfriend Nina, Gina Gershon comes across as tough, steadfast and loyal, someone not to be played for a fool and who seems suspiciously involved in the whole mess.
With the look and demeanor of the great character actors of classic pulp moviemaking, Harrelson is perfectly cast as the set-upon victim of Malroux''s evil ruse. By underplaying yet balancing the role of victim and perpetrator, Harrelson''s Barber comes across as the typical cinematic everyman-someone who is neither especially bright nor stupid, as honest as the next guy, and as susceptible to fast money and loose women as any mortal man.
While Palmetto works superbly as a formulaic thriller, and is particularly good in its portrayal of jaded corruption with a Southern twist, it falls short in its effort to create a broader allegory about the ambivalence of human morality.
Where filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Joel and Ethan Coen have had great success injecting the traditional crime thriller with a more modernist sensibility, Schlondorff essentially plays it straight with his plotting and characterization. Except for its beautifully rendered self-referential ending, Palmetto stays within the strictures of film noir without breaking any new ground or offering new insights into the crime genre.
Nevertheless, for audiences who don''t like too many surprises when it comes to the twin pleasures of fine dining or classic filmmaking, Palmetto is one very tasty treat.