Monday, March 1, 2010

When Basinger Goes Bad

There should be an annual award for the marketing executive who best captures the essence of a film with its tagline. If there were, then the team behind 2008’s WHILE SHE WAS OUT would have won hands-down.

With a limited theatrical release in December of 2008 before being unceremoniously dumped into home video oblivion in April of last year, WHILE SHE WAS OUT boasts the telling tagline: “Everyone has a breaking point. Tonight, she reaches hers.” Nine words ably convey all you need to know about this slightly better-than-average, revenge-fueled, I-am-woman-hear-me-roar flick, but for those who enjoy lengthier pontifications about such films, I oblige with the more extensive recap and critique that follows.

WHILE SHE WAS OUT is Scottish director Susan Montford’s directorial debut, with screenplay work by Montford based on the acclaimed short story by Edward Bryant (which first appeared in the premiere issue of PULPHOUSE: THE HARDBACK MAGAZINE in 1988 and went on to become one of Bryant’s most anthologized short stories).

Oscar winner Kim Basinger plays Della Myers, an unhappy housewife in upwardly mobile suburbia, where luxury condominiums reside behind gated entrances and every driveway is adorned with a BMW and an SUV. The film opens with Della’s husband Kenneth (Craig Sheffer) coming home from a hard day at work only to be less than impressed with his wife’s serious lack of domestic skills. After enduring a tongue lashing and an angry fist through the sheetrock, Della is eager to escape her suburban nightmare for hell of a different kind: the shopping mall on Christmas Eve.

Out into the rainy night to secure more wrapping paper for gifts for her twins, Della is surprisingly frustrated to find the mall packed with last-minute shoppers and no parking spots. Her ire increases when she spots an old land yacht taking up two premium parking stalls, so much so that she quickly scribbles an angry note about what a “selfish jerk” the owner is and leaves it on the windshield.

Despite the crowds and bothersome inconsiderates, Della is grateful for the temporary reprieve from her miserable life and quickly dismisses the nuisances to indulge in the comforting ordinariness of the mall experience – admiring some sexy lingerie, treating herself to an overpriced mall coffee (although she inexplicably eschews the chocolate biscotti), and perusing luxury beauty products at the salon. Just as poor Della loses herself in the mundane, she runs into an old college friend who reinforces just how dismal her life really is. After her credit card is declined in the Hallmark store, forcing her to pay cash for the wrapping paper (a true nightmare for the upwardly mobile), Della resigns herself to returning home.

In the parking lot, she casually passes by the egregiously parked old car and notices that the snide little note she left is gone.

Uh oh.

Before you can process the thought and before poor Della can shift the SUV into reverse, the mysterious car pulls in behind her, blocking her exit, with car stereo blaring. But Della is in no mood for games, folks. She gets out of her SUV and confronts the most laughably politically correct band of thugs – including Huey, the requisite African-American (Jamie Starr), Vingh, the requisite Asian-American (Leonard Wu), Tomás, the requisite Hispanic (Luis Chávez), and (just to make sure we don’t break too many cultural barriers here and maintain some semblance of Aryan order) the requisite Caucasian ringleader, Chuckie (Lukas Haas, who’s all grown up and smarmy to the max). Enter a hapless mall cop whose attempts to intervene get him two bullets in the brain for Christmas. No, kids, Daddy won’t be home for the holidays.

While the thugs panic and lament the ramifications of Chuckie’s rash actions, Della hightails it out of there, jumping the curb and taking off down the road. That sheetrock-smashing, whiskey-swilling louse of a husband of hers must not be looking too bad at this point.

With no one to call (an earlier scene involving a forgotten cell phone charger already foreshadowed this cinematically requisite lack of communication with the outside world) and with the thugs in hot pursuit, Della speeds along seemingly deserted roads until she crashes the SUV into a construction site where a new spread of upwardly-mobile homes just like hers is being built – almost in an architectural nod to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Resourcefully, she grabs a flare and toolbox from the trunk before she takes flight into the maze of half-finished homes.

What ensues is a relentless game of cat-and-mouse through the construction site and the surrounding woods. Our Benetton band of hooligans proves surprisingly resilient, developing expert forest ranger skills in tracking Della (cracked tree branches, disturbed earth, correctly identifying and following the scent of her perfume).

But Della is dealing with some serious issues of her own, carrying more baggage than will fit in her little red toolbox. Faster than you can say BURNING BED, Della channels her inner rage and turns the tables on her attackers. ‘She’s gone bad, man,” utters the Asian.

Indeed she has, my friend. Not since Sarah Palin has a woman over forty gone so rogue.

Della dispenses with all of the minority thugs first, her magic toolbox enabling her to employ great creativity in her kills that include a broken neck, a screwdriver through the back of the throat, and a tire iron up the nose. Jason Voorhees would be proud.

Finally, it’s her and ringleader Lukas Haas – and he is fittingly impressed. “You are one tough bitch. And that is hot.”

“Husband, house, security – every woman’s dream,” Chuckie continues, appraising her with remarkably astute observations on her life. “But what you’ve longed for is the wind in your hair.”

He finally draws her out when his psychological mind games strike the right nerve. “A woman’s purse can tell her whole life story,” he taunts with a thinly-veiled threat to go after her kids. Della emerges from her hiding place, but the has-she-snapped-or-hasn’t-she denouement will have you questioning whether she’s giving in to built-up sexual frustration or animal-like cunning. (Hint: Bet on the latter.)

With this last of her attackers dispatched, a preternaturally determined, newly confident Della takes off for home, a woman on a mission to reunite with her children. As she walks through rain-soaked suburbia, tubes of wrapping paper in hand, softly humming “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, you just know that a few lug nuts came loose during her most excellent Christmas Eve adventure, leaving her more than slightly unhinged.

By now, having survived the extreme horror of the night, her abusive husband looks nothing more than a pathetic pissant. Sure the ending is cheap and you see it coming from a mile away, but still, it’s true to everything that came before it. It’s like a subtler version of the microwave finale in THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remake – all there so that the audience can enjoy that last macabre laugh with the film’s heroine.

WHILE SHE WAS OUT plays like a super-efficient slasher film that dispenses with the body count and introduces us to the final girl in the first frames. That the extended final chase scene actually makes up the bulk of the movie is where WHILE SHE WAS OUT earns some props for playing with convention. Montford demonstrates respectable enough chops for pacing and action sequences, although the repetitiveness of the search-and-destroy scenes border on overkill after awhile.

Basinger essentially carries the film, and she shakes, quakes, quivers and shivers with admirable aplomb. Props again to Montford and casting director Shannon Makhanian for recognizing that a woman over forty can bring a welcome maturity to the damsel in distress role while matching the physical agility of her younger scream queen counterparts. Not since Lee Grant in VISITING HOURS or Lauren Bacall in THE FAN has a mature horror heroine been this much fun.

Rent this one with THE BRAVE ONE and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and have yourself a marathon night of womanly revenge.


Pax Romano said...

You had me at "Not since Sarah Palin has a woman over forty gone so rogue." Off to Netflix I go.

Will Errickson said...

Wow, hadn't heard of this flick... but of course the Bryant story is a classic. As soon as I saw the title, I thought, my god, is it an adaptation of *that* story? Good to know.