You don’t see too much undisguised perversity in movies these days. It’s usually masked. The sex is vanilla, the violence morally righteous. This is not the case with This World, Then the Fireworks, a refreshingly unapologetic adaptation of Jim Thompson’s posthumously published novella of the same title. The movie has a homicidal narrator, Marty (Billy Zane), and the nicest thing about a homicidal narrator is that no one is permitted to censor him. He can slap around his girlfriend or ram a message-spindle through someone’s eyeball–and you watch, amazed, as if on board a fun-house tram, as one taboo after another is flouted for your delectation. By far the sweetest and most healthy relationship in the movie is the one between Marty and Carol (Gina Gershon), his twin sister, whom he also happens to be fucking. To see her curled up in bed with her thumb stuck between those bow-shaped lips, one breast exposed, with Marty perched above her, stroking her smooth skin, is to witness a perfect, self-enclosed universe. In the world of Jim Thompson, it doesn’t get any more romantic.
Some viewers will dismiss this movie as a pointless wallow in depravity and ask, “That’s entertainment?” But I’m with Mark Edmundson, who wrote an essay defending Sigmund Freud in last week’s New York Times Magazine on the grounds that it was Freud, after all, who first codified the notion that “at night … nothing human is foreign to us: incest, murder, bizarre cruelties, sexual urges of all sorts arise directly, or in distorted form, within the dreaming theater of the mind. … At night, we discover what our precivilized self is and what it wants.” As represented by his major novels–The Killer Inside Me (1952), The Getaway (1959), The Grifters (1963), and Pop. 1280 (1964)–and by Robert Polito in the sobering biography Savage Art (1995), Thompson was practically a Freudian case study, a gentlemanly alcoholic who poured his primordial rage against humanity into works of transcendentally dreamlike pulp.
The films of Thompson’s books, even the devastating The Grifters (1990), have soft-pedaled the sadistic indifference to suffering, the unbridled viciousness, the violence so sordid it stinks to heaven. The whimsical existentialist killers who twist Scripture as they kill, more or less arbitrarily, testing the limits of their freedom in a morally barren universe, are reminiscent of those towering blasphemers of literature, the protagonists of such Jacobean blood baths as ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Revenger’sTragedy, and The White Devil. Thompson doesn’t exalt these monsters, as Oliver Stone did in the noxious Natural Born Killers (1994). He never lets us forget that they represent the worst of us. But our complicity suggests that they are somewhere deep inside us just the same.
The film version of This World, Then the Fireworks opens with both barrels blazing. Literally. The 5-year-old Marty and Carol witness a primal catastrophe in which their father, interrupted in coitus with a married woman, blows the face off her gun-toting husband; drenched in blood, young Marty laughs and laughs. “The man on the floor didn’t have any head, hardly any head at all,” he narrates. “And that was funny, wasn’t it?” Haunted by that tableau and reviled by the neighbors who figure out what he’s up to with his sister in the woodshed, Marty moves to Chicago, marries an obese woman (“because no one else would”), and risks his neck as a muckraking reporter. When he’s framed for a murder, he high-tails it back to the coast of New Jersey and the home of his mother (Rue McClanahan, under a mottle of spirit gum and latex) and his sister, now a prostitute with a similar predilection for risk-taking and low tolerance for people who tell her what to do. (“When someone thinks they know me, what makes me tick,” says Marty, “I have to take ‘im down.”)
The plot doesn’t have much of a motor, and God knows, you can’t really like the people. But the film has a scurrilous purity, along with a density of images that skillfully evokes a novella so compressed that reading it, in the words of the writer Max Allan Collins, is “like drinking a can of frozen orange juice without adding the water.” (Only, of course, not so sweet.) The director, Michael Oblowitz, comes to movies from music videos, and you’re always aware of the overdesign: the fish-bowl lenses, the crammed foregrounds, the nausea-inducing editing, the hammy hothouse jazz, the color that drenches the frame the way Thompson’s sardonicism drenches his prose. None of this comes at the expense of a narrative thrust, though. Garish energy is what this particular narrative requires.
It also requires a narrator who can make hell a sexy place to visit. Zane’s toasty voice and suspiciously good looks already verge on parody. Here, everything he says sounds as if it’s in quotation marks; you never know if the narrator is playing mad or is mad or (more likely) both. Often, it seems as if the act is taking over the man, as if what began as a put-on has taken on a schizoid life of its own. This is the kind of performance where you suspect that the actor has reached down into himself to find some basic vein of rankness. He and Gershon are exceedingly overripe creatures, and they have a fetching contrast in Lois (Sheryl Lee), a buttoned-up policewoman whom Marty snares in a pickup of breathtaking baldness. (“Are you blond all over or just where it shows?”) Where Zane and Gershon show a dark mask to the world, Lee flushes crimson under Marty’s innuendo. And when he routinely taunts and then wallops her, it hurts her but it also makes her hot. This is one of the movie’s more convincing sadomasochistic relationships. Cerebral cruelty and bestial instinct are thrillingly scrambled, with neither party fully in control. Their sex, like the movie, is unpredictable–and good, and dirty.
D irty sex is what saves Star Maps, written and directed by Miguel Arteta, from turning into one of those dreary, overearnest morality plays about minorities who struggle for respect in mainstream American culture. The protagonist, Carlos (Douglas Spain), is a dull Mexican lad who dreams of becoming the next Antonio Banderas. He is aggressively discouraged by his raffish dad, Pepe (Efrain Figueroa), who thinks he’s doing the young man a favor by putting Carlos out on the streets of Hollywood, ostensibly to sell maps to the stars’ homes, but really to turn tricks.
Another monster out of Freud, Figueroa’s fatted Pepe–who fancies himself a jaunty, Marcello Mastroianni kind of guy but who can’t even swing a golf club without falling all over himself–gives the film a comic-horror jolt whenever he shows up. He propels you past the terrible, overemphatic dialogue, and he has a lusty partner-in-crime in Letti (Annette Murphy), the mistress he strings along with tales of his dying wife. Carlos becomes the sex toy of soap-opera star Jennifer (Kandeyce Jorden), who tells him she “just wants a poor Mexican boy to fuck my brains out,” and is persuaded, in return for his sexual favors, to secure for him the role of a gardener on her show. (“You Latin stud. I’m helpless and I’m white.”) Star Maps reveals its larger (and less interesting) social intentions with a downbeat, slap-in-the-face finale, but along the way it has some good domestic grotesquerie and a layered, ironic attitude toward sex.