The Last Seduction (1994)
She wants it all …
Straddling the precise line between ‘criminally underrated gem’ and ‘revered classic,’ American noir specialist John Dahl’s third feature film, The Last Seduction, is one of those flicks absolutely adored by those who are across it, but seemingly a complete mystery to those outside its fairly constrained circle of influence. In the film geek world, it’s a touchstone. Outside of that? Crickets, tumbleweeds, leading lady Linda Fiorentino’s current career status.
Which is a damn shame, because this is the kind of crime thriller people are always saying they want: lean, mean, merciless, unsentimental, provocative, transgressive, stylish and effortlessly cool. Dahl’s no slouch as a stylist, and he’s smart enough to keep the Venetian blind shadows to an absolute minimum, but the real stars here are the drum-tight script by Steve Barancik — who sadly never seemed to capitalize on his first produced work’s almost universal acclaim — and Fiorentino’s fearless turn as antiheroine Bridget Gregory. It’s widely accepted that Fiorentino was robbed of an Academy Award nomination, and probably a win when The Last Seduction’s HBO debut ruled it out of the Oscar race. You should really find out why.
When we meet Bridget, she’s a ruthless call center manager who busts balls with casual, delicious malice and is married to a medical student, Clay (a sweaty, sardonic Bill Pullman), who is in debt to a loan shark. When tense Clay thoughtlessly slaps Bridget, she absconds with the $700,000 he needs to not have his limbs reconfigured by his lender. Hiding out in the small town of Beston, New York, Bridget needs to figure out how to get Clay off her trail and get away clean with the money. Luckily for her, local stud Mike Swale (future resolutely ordinary director Peter Berg) is entranced by the exotic beauty from out of town and thinks he can melt her icy heart.
He’s wrong. He’s so fucking wrong. Bridget doesn’t have a heart, but what she does have is a brain like a razor and a keen eye for human weakness, and both serve her incredibly well as she manipulates the hapless Mike, Harlan (Bill Nunn), the private investigator Clay has sicced on her tail, and pretty much anyone else who wanders into her field of vision in order to ensure that she comes out on top.
It’s hard to think of a more singularly ruthless and fascinating character as Bridget Gregory. The script, economical as it could possibly be, presents her as an enigma: bereft of past or obvious motivation, she simply does what she thinks she needs to in order to maximize her own outcomes, and she does so fearlessly and with absolute clarity. In the world of the film, anyone with feelings, anyone with a past or a secret, is a tool to be used or discarded. Anyone with an overriding want or need is fatally vulnerable to those without such foibles. Sleek, enigmatic Bridget is almost frictionless in her lack of weakness. She’s the ultimate predator here, and if her stunning looks and palpable sexuality mean the men around her don’t recognize that until it’s too late? Well, that’s on them.
Fiorentino, perhaps sensing that this is one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ roles, puts everything into her performance, infusing the character with a defiant, dominating sexuality, coloring it with the smoky sultriness of classic noir dames, but letting the audience see the hard, sharp edge that the other characters in play are mostly blind to. Dahl and Barancik smartly set the audience at somewhere close to her intellectual level; while the script has secrets and surprises it reveals precisely and devastatingly along the way, we’re still at least a degree or two above the schlubs, brutes, and small-thinkers she shoves around the narrative game space like expendable pawns — all the better for us to, if not empathize with her, at least be on her side when the chips are down.
What’s really remarkable about The Last Seduction, however, is its steadfast refusal to apologize or explain Bridget. Yeah, Clay’s an abusive asshole by any measure, but the opening scene of Bridget browbeating her little army of telemarketers shows that she’s a fairly awful person by the time we meet her — she’s just our awful person in the context of the film. Sure, you could argue that the film is saying that this kind of ruthless aggression is what is required for a woman to survive in the environment she lives in, but that’s making excuses that the film simply does not, and by the time the final credits drip down the screen a lot of pretty innocent people have suffered because of the choices Bridget has made.
It’s interesting to see where the film divides along class lines rather than gender, too. On the one hand, we have the sophisticated city slickers of the story: Bridget, Clay, his PI Harlan, her lawyer Frank Griffith (a brief but very enjoyable cameo from the great character actor J.T. Walsh). On the other, there are the little people of Beston, mainly represented by Mike, who are barely deserving of notice, let alone contempt. Indeed, one character’s backstory, involving an attempt to get away from their small-town origins, proves to be their downfall — their sin isn’t in being small-time, but in imagining they could ever be a bigger deal than who they are. While the gender politics of The Last Seduction are very much forefronted, there’s more going on than just the obvious — and rightly so for a twisty noir of such a fine pedigree.
The Last Seduction is one of those films you just wish more people would discover. It deserves to be more well-known than it is, and the fact that it’s obscure (to the general populace, film geeks, hold your water) is made even more tragic by the fact that almost no one involved was ever as good again. Barancik has one other full screenwriting credit to his name, while Dahl’s last theatrical offering was 2007’s You Kill Me, although he works steadily in television. Fiorentino, meanwhile, has not acted in a decade. While audiences may know her from the first Men in Black (1997) film or Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999), her last credit was the little known 2009 karaoke comedy, Once More with Feeling. For a moment there, though, they were the best in the business.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson