Movie Review: Palmetto

February 25, 1998|By Jason Myers

The sweat and swamp of Louisianna bayou country has been so thoroughly, but not necessarily accurately, portrayed in cinema that Hollywood broadly assumes mugginess equals murder. That's why Volker Schlondorff is wise to place his film noir "Palmetto" in a fictitious Florida town by the same name.

His acumen ends there, for much of the rest of this adaptation of James Hadley Chase's 1962 novel "Just Another Sucker" bores and confuses the viewer.

The anonymous swelter of Palmetto hits Harry Block (Woody Harrelson) as he exits jail after serving two years for a crime in which he was framed. He is welcomed by his tongue-wagging girlfriend, Nina (Gina Gershon).


Not too long after returning to the humid outdoors, Harry gets his mojo running when a blonde with legs like ice sculptures walks into the bar he frequents - only, he does not drink alcohol, one of the film's pathetic attempts at irony.

Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue) coyly charms Harry, whom the film would have us believe was once a brilliant journalist but now would lose a battle of wits to Forrest Gump.

Shue, seeming about as naughty as Helen Keller, is grievously miscast as the femme fatale. I do not want to suggest she be typecast, but Shue would do better to choose roles more, well, wholesome. She certainly has the body to play a vixen, with her curves and platinum tresses, but her adorable face and inescapably innocent voice contradict the vamp she portrays.

"Palmetto" deals with sex in such a predictable, pulpy manner that it begins to lack any sexiness.

Mrs. Malroux seduces Harry into her plot to manufacture a kidnapping of her stepdaughter, Odette (Chloe Sevigny). Rhea and Odette then plan to split the $500,000 ransom, after giving Harry a 10 percent cut.

Director Schlondorff dredges through the prototype plot staples of film noir with all the exuberance of Garrison Keillor. The rule of these movies is that weird and wicked things happen to mysterious, morally-conflicted people.

"Palmetto" creates a general ambience of danger and deceit; it gets the look without the feel. The movie strikes the viewer as terribly dated and distant. It lacks the neo-noir sophisticated wit of "Red Rock West," and the classic sheen of last year's "L.A. Confidential." Cinematography plays its most significant role in this genre, and here it bogs down an already complicated plot in roiled browns and greens.

"Palmetto" aims to entangle the viewer in its sordid spiderweb, but the plot twists are merely that - red herrings that do not add up to a coherent. When Odette turns up dead in a seaside bungalow Harry has been renting, this leaps beyond coincidence into sheer contrivance. Most film noirs delve into the ambiguities of characters to see just how malevolent and murderous they will become with the temptation of money and sex.

But these characters have no depths to explore. Harrelson, an actor too talented for a B-movie like this, grapples with the indefinition of Harry. You cannot feel sorry that someone is being manipulated by diabolical women when he is so much of an idiot. Except the movie also wants you to think Harry is clever, that his clueless demeanor is a facade for his deeper intuition.

This story is dense and difficult, and some mystery-lovers may relish the chance to unravel a plot. "Palmetto" earns some praise for having a story with so many facets - most movies any more do not even have a story - but these facets seem so incomplete and uninspired. I do not mean to boast of any surpassing intellect - usually I am terrible at guessing a film's outcome - but I knew what was going on about an half hour into "Palmetto."

From its tedious use of palmetto bugs as metaphors for licentious behavior to its rote treatment of sex, "Palmetto" destroys all sense of subtlety and mystery vital to film noir. Perhaps the filmmakers were working toward a new genre - film obvious.

Jason Myers is a senior at North Hagerstown High School.

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