Tame at Heart

Instinct is about as primal as a mall focus group.

Directed by John Turteltaub
Buena Vista Pictures

The Loss of Sexual Innocence
Directed by Mike Figgis
Sony Pictures Classics

Why do big-studio movies that celebrate wildness and primal man and equate civilization with corruption tend to play as if their plots have been hammered out by Hollywood executives on car phones? And why do those pictures always feel as if they’ve been honed with the help of focus groups in suburban shopping malls to ensure that no aspect will be jarring to the middlest of middle-class viewers? Instinct is the newest specimen of commercially overprocessed primitivism. The film, which purports to explore the circumstances under which a celebrated anthropologist, Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins), disappeared among Rwandan gorillas and emerged two years later as a mute and wild-eyed killer of park rangers, is loaded with radical credos–ideas evocative of Kafka, deep ecology, and Dian Fossey at her most gorillaphilic. But every one of those conceits is rendered toothless by a form of storytelling that’s the opposite of instinctual. The more subversive Instinct gets in proclaiming free will an illusion fostered by a rigidly repressive society, the more captive it seems to a rigidly repressive studio marketing department.

Instinct is “inspired” by Daniel Quinn’s 1991 cult novel Ishmael, which is largely a Socratic, telepathic dialogue between a man and a gorilla, the latter of whom hectors the former about the destructive path of modern society and restates the history of the world as a struggle between “leavers” (animals, wise nomadic tribes) and “takers” (mostly white males). Someone must have spent a fortune to option Quinn’s book before concluding that an interspecies Socratic, telepathic dialogue with huge chunks of the Earth First! manifesto wouldn’t burn up the box office, so screenwriter Gerald DiPego was brought in to fashion a story around Quinn’s core principles. (The movie would have been more fun, though, if DiPego had left in a token telepathic ape. Maybe just for a prologue: “Gimme that banana and I’ll tell you the story of my old friend Ethan Powell. What a character …”)

Anyway, Instinct is built around that theater standby, the series of charged encounters between a psychiatrist and a shackled patient, during which it dawns on the doctor (Cuba Gooding Jr.) that he and his society are the ones who are actually in need of curing. (Come to think of it, the first Broadway play I ever saw, Equus, featured Hopkins in the role of the shrink who concludes that a boy who blinded eight horses with a metal spike has a passion sadly lacking in his sterile countrymen.) The ambitious Gooding’s first challenge is to get Hopkins, sedated and under heavy guard at Florida’s Harmony Bay Correctional Facility, to speak. It seems to me that his next challenge is to get Hopkins to shut up, since with relatively little prodding the ex-mute wild man launches into a stream of resonant orations about life among the silverbacks: “Did they think of me? I thought of them. … It was terrifying and wonderful … I was coming back to something I had lost a long time ago and was only now remembering.” Danny Elfman puts a swelling choir on the soundtrack to help us remember those same things–i.e., awestruck countercultural jungle movies such as The Emerald Forest (1985) and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984).

Instinct recycles a lot of countercultural touchstones–the lovable psychotics out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), the fascist guards out of Cool Hand Luke (1967). “He lives with the animals, takes on their behavior, becomes one of them,” says Gooding, seemingly on the verge of a chorus from Doctor Dolittle (1967). “He can give me a look at man at his primitive state–ungoverned man.” It’s a giggle, but the idea of a young African-American learning the secrets of the Dark Continent from a 60-plus-year-old Welsh ham has its daft charm: “He’s leading me into the jungle,” concludes Gooding. Maura Tierney, playing Hopkins’ estranged daughter, listens to Gooding talk and struggles to keep her emotions in check, smoking intensely while her eyes water and her chin quivers. Will she and Gooding do the Wild Thing? No; perhaps the mall focus groups turned thumbs down on interracial romance. Back in the prison, Hopkins puts Gooding in a headlock and gives him an intellectual noogie: What has he lost, now that he has been immobilized by a senior citizen? Control? No: No one has control. Freedom? No: No one is free. The answer is supposed to be his “illusions”–but more likely it’s whatever remains of Gooding’s credibility as an actor.

If nothing else, the director, John Turteltaub (Phenomenon, 1996), keeps the performers from drifting into camp. A raw-skinned actor named John Aylward does a good job of making the warden–a malignly neglectful bureaucrat–recognizably human, and John Ashton plays the chief villain, a guard called Dacks, as a man whose cruelty arises out of an obsession with control: What makes him scary is his watchfulness. But Turteltaub’s technique is otherwise too slick for his supposedly primal subject. The larger problem is that Instinct doesn’t have the courage to leave its natural subjects untamed. The gorillas are pussycats, and Powell isn’t a true murderer after all. He killed a couple of Rwandan park rangers in defense of his adorable ape family–which makes the movie a de facto vigilante picture and thus as mainstream a product as any that Hollywood churns out. “You taught me to live outside the game,” says Gooding, his eyes misting up. But Instinct is the work of players.

F or true instinct, you must turn to Mike Figgis, an English director (Leaving Las Vegas, 1995, One Night Stand, 1997) who’s defiantly not a player and whose pixilated, semi-autobiographical, semi-allegorical The Loss of Sexual Innocence would not have got past the mall focus groups that evidently embraced Instinct. It nearly didn’t get past the screening that I caught at Manhattan’s indie-friendly Angelika Film Center, which was marked by uneasy throat clearing and lots of walkouts. What the hell is this thing?

In the movie, Adam and Eve show up at intervals looking like Calvin Klein models: He (Femi Ogumbanjo) is black and muscular, she (Hanne Klintoe) is waiflike and flaxen-haired with an expensive-looking coif. They emerge naked from golden waters into a yellowish African landscape, explore each other’s orifices, and recline beside a white stallion and in range of a (disappointingly ordinary) snake. At the end, they eat squishy fruit, vomit, and are set upon by paparazzi.

Before that, seminal episodes of disillusionment, jealousy, and betrayal are recalled by the movie’s protagonist, Nic (Julian Sands). As a lad in Kenya, he peers through a window at an African girl practicing her English in lingerie for a drowsing old white pervert. Cut to an English landscape from which all color has been drained, and where Nic is a skinny teen-ager (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) whose pubescent girlfriend drunkenly cheats on him during her father’s wake. Sex and death are forever entwined: Nic sees photos of a naked woman stabbed by a lover, a corpse bloated after three weeks in a river. As a grown-up, he drives through the northern English countryside beside a frostily pissed-off blond wife, whom he subsequently takes from behind in the kitchen of their country cottage while his young son, clutching a stuffed animal, wanders their way. Figgis shoots all this through windows to make the couple’s alienation palpable.

Nic’s wife dreams of coming upon Nic in a jazz combo, then dancing half-naked for old people; Nic dreams of being dogged at a train station by a gangly cretin who then stabs him. As the pavement rises up to meet his falling body, he sees himself and his wife walk into their country cottage and close the door. Cut to a shot of newborn twins, who are then separated and grow up to be the lush Saffron Burrows, one English, one Italian. The twins nearly meet each other in an airport, but fate keeps them from connecting. The Italian twin drives Nic–who turns out to be a documentary film director–to the desert of Tunisia, where there is further betrayal, loss of sexual innocence, exploitation of Third World peoples, and a tragic retaliation. The soundtrack is melancholy classical piano.

That The Loss of Sexual Innocence doesn’t gel is a point too obvious to belabor. Much of it is risible, yet I loved watching it–not because I thought that the emperor was wearing new clothes but because I thought he looked fine–beautiful, actually–naked. Figgis’ camera is probing and alive, so that even when his meanings are laughable, his images remain allusive and mysterious. What can I say? The man gives good movie.