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Movie Review : 'Extremities' Turns The Tables

August 22, 1986|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

"Extremities" (selected theaters) is the serious, non-exploitative, carefully done adaptation of William Mastrosimone's play, written in 1978 and performed Off Broadway in late 1982.

It is, as its ads announce, the story of a woman, twice the victim of a would-be rapist, who turns the tables on her attacker--powerfully. Although director Robert M. Young does not sensationalize either encounter, he is absolutely successful at making us share her feeling of brutalization and humiliation.

When the power shifts to the woman, who barricades her pursuer in the fireplace of her house one long afternoon, the film questions to what extremes we can all be pushed. In the case of Marjorie (Farrah Fawcett), that extreme can apparently be murder. Even hogtied, his eyes swelling from a blast of insecticide, Joe (James Russo), her attacker, taunts her with the vagaries of the law: Without physical proof of rape, the law cannot hold him. And as soon as he is released, he will come back and get her.

Battered, bloodied, almost suffocated, Marjorie decides that her only alternative is to do away with him. This is the situation that confronts her two roommates, Terry (Diana Scarwid) and Patricia (Alfre Woodard), as each woman comes back late in the day.

Having seen "Extremities" here on the stage and now in Mastrosimone's own film adaptation, I have to confess a terrible fact: I'm not sure what the writer wanted us to learn from this fierce dramatic exercise. If it was outrage at the ineffectualness of our existing laws, then he succeeds. If it was a taste of humiliation and fear, then director Young, working in huge, searching close-ups, most assuredly puts that copper-penny taste in our mouths.

Anger? Outrage? Are these new feelings for audiences dealing with the fact of rape--aborted or not? You might hope not, but if they are, the film generates them, as well as the shamefully satisfying taste of bone-cracking revenge. But they still don't add up to reason enough to make a movie, or to make it in 1986.

Somehow, on the stage it was easier to overlook the fact that "Extremities' " characters are painfully underdeveloped. The screen magnifies this flaw. Although under the credits we now have a visit to Marjorie's job at the Museum of Natural History and to her racquetball workout, and although we gather later that Patricia is a social worker, that's all we know about these women. And frankly, in spite of Chester Kaczenski's helpful and evocative production design giving us visual details of their lives--plants, animals, warmth, unpretentiousness--we need a lot more.

We have to understand why these three are roommates; we need the dynamics of their relationship, the depth of their friendship; it might even be helpful to know something about their lives before. But most especially we must know why a \o7 friend\f7 --faced with a traumatized, bloodied roommate, in a house that's in shambles after an obvious struggle--would take the assailant's side. It's the story's single most infuriating and inexplicable point.

To be sure, Marjorie's solution is extreme and irrational: She plans to bury Joe alive in their backyard. You don't abet your friend in that sort of madness, but you do quiet her, calm her, reason with her, reassure her, even placate her--in short, all the things these women do astonishingly little of. (Woodard is the exception; Scarwid's antagonism is bizarre, even in light of her melodramatic revelations later.)

Mastrosimone has made his villain a very particular case--too particular to be universal (or to be revealed in the context of a review). But he has set him in a story too uncharacterized to be particular. And so, except for the explosive release of tension, the film is gripping but in a maddening and unsatisfying manner.

That Farrah Fawcett can act is something we all really knew, after TV's "The Burning Bed." She is genuine, pathetic and heroic here, by turns. But it is not a performance that grows mightily from beginning to end; it's on a single sustained note. Most of all, in the crucial difference between the large and small screen, when we look behind her eyes for the thinking behind an action, it isn't there.

James Russo, who played his role Off Broadway, is best in his early scenes inside the house, full of menace and controlled aberration. Once he is cornered, playing shamelessly on the roommates' sympathies and/or weaknesses, his act seems far too broad for them not to see through.

Scarwid, one of "Silkwood's" greatest assets, has been brought on at too high a pitch and has nowhere to go but way, way over. Director Young's trump card was the casting of Alfre Woodard, who provides the film's emotional ballast and is the single character who it's possible to imagine living outside the frame of the film. In the fewest possible lines, she creates a character of intelligence, action, depth and as much compassion as the script allows.

Special mention must be made of the film's extraordinarily fluid camerawork and lighting. The action takes place from afternoon to early evening and cinematographer Curtis Clark (justly celebrated from "The Draughtsman's Contract") begins with warm sunshine without a hint of television brightness to it, then fades slowly to the lonely bleakness of late twilight in a magical sustained arc. His gaffer was Michael Barrow. ("Extremities" is MPAA-rated: R.)

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