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Movie Review : Beth B.'s 'Small Bodies' a Captivating, Complex Work

May 27, 1994|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Two Small Bodies," a thoroughly captivating film adaptation of Neal Bell's play, seemingly is simplicity itself.

*

A trench-coated police detective (Fred Ward) comes to a suburban house to interrogate a single mother (Suzy Amis) on the disappearance of her two young children. Very early on it's clear that Ward's Lt. Brann believes that Amis' Eileen Maloney, estranged from her husband, has murdered her kids--and that Brann, who speaks only with love of his own two children, will quickly become obsessed with the case.

"Two Small Bodies" allows its stars to shine in far-ranging, deeply probing characterizations of the kind that actors all too rarely get to play on the screen, even those as talented as Ward and Amis.

Brann and Maloney's ensuing battle of wits yields an amazing thicket of thoughts, emotions and evolving perceptions, and they have been elucidated with an unsettling thoroughness by the veteran independent filmmaker known as Beth B. Indeed, Beth B., who collaborated on the screenplay with Bell as well as directed the film, is ideal for this assignment. Such earlier films as "Vortex" (1983) and "Black Box" (1978), made with her husband, Scott B., have been concerned with the abuse of power, both political and sexual.

Worn and pale when we first meet her, Eileen, a strip joint hostess, reminds us of Meryl Streep's mother of a missing child in Fred Schepisi's "A Cry in the Dark" in that she seems simply weary rather than heartbroken or distraught, which is how mothers are supposed to act in such circumstances. (It is possible, after all, for a mother to be a grudging, reluctant parent without being a child killer.)

Right off her aura of cool resignation throws Brann, a sexy ultra-macho type with a traditional view of women's roles as a wife and mother. His relationship with Eileen teeters like a seesaw, as the impact of his menace wavers as Eileen appears to gather strength, acquiring an increasingly blunt, hard edge, seeming to agree with much of what he has to say about her.

Through this endless parrying much emerges. First, we find ourselves not quite so quick to believe that Eileen may in fact be guilty of infanticide, and then we start wondering about Lt. Brann. How do we know he really is a cop? Could he be the killer of the children himself?--if they are in fact dead.

Suspense, in turn, triggers paradox: Could a man as sexually dominant as Brann, a man who sees himself as a good guy, be finding himself tantalized by the prospect of yielding to what he sees as the embodiment of evil? And then there is the role of illusion, seemingly so much more crucial to men than to women, who constantly find themselves in situations where they feel that they must pretend to be other than what they are to men, many of whom even today still see women as either madonnas or whores. Illusion, in fact, battles with truth throughout "Two Small Bodies," which is so compelling that it never once seems a filmed play.

* MPAA rating: Unrated. Times guidelines: It contains blunt language, as well as complex and menacing adult themes.

'Two Small Bodies'

Fred Ward: Lt. Brann

Suzy Amis: Eileen

A Castle Hill Productions release. Director Beth B. Producers Daniel Zuta, Beth B. Screenplay by Neal Bell, Beth B., based on Bell's play. Cinematographer Phil Parmet. Editors Melody London, Andrea Feige. Costumes Bea Gossman. Music Swans. Art director Agnette Schlosser. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 652-1330.

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