Hack directors repeat themselves over and over, their styles remaining stable in the face of changing subjects, whereas Philip Kaufman is one of the American cinema’s true chameleon artists. I don’t love all his movies: I thought the eroticism of Henry and June (1990) was laughably highfalutin; and I couldn’t forgive him, in Quills (2000), for turning the fascistic Marquis de Sade into some kind of martyr for free expression. But I’m always agog at the way he can transform himself from the inside. His remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) hit all the horror beats but had a free-form dread that perfectly caught the underside of the post-counterculture New Age. The Right Stuff (1983) was a macho American vaudeville in the manner of Tom Wolfe’s prose while The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) was as glancingly meditative and Eastern European as you could want. Now, in Twisted (Paramount), Kaufman proves again how miraculously in synch with his material he can be. Directing a fourth-rate, maladroit, derivative mystery, he becomes a fourth-rate, maladroit, derivative director—worse even than a TV-movie hack, who’d at least have whipped up some empty atmospherics. A TV-movie hack wouldn’t have given up quite this easily.
This had to have been a money job: Maybe there was a house or a boat payment due, or maybe Kaufman just got tired of fighting for stuff he cares about and snatched something off the studio pile. This particular bit of snatch is another Ashley Judd vehicle, what feels like the 25th in a line of benumbed erotic mystery-thrillers in which the actress exploits her own elfin eroticism to ever-diminishing returns. This time, Ashley is a tough San Francisco police detective newly promoted to the homicide division. As the movie opens, she has a knife at her throat, courtesy of a sexual predator. Then, faster than you can say “Fuck this,” she disarms him, delivering a kick to the groin and another to the face (“One more thing …”) for good measure. When the would-be rapist hisses, “I know your dirty little side. I know you … You’re me,” she surprises us by not responding, “Yeah, I’ve seen that movie, too, moron” but appearing to be thunderstruck, as if the psycho had just penetrated to her innermost being.
I’ve always liked Ashley Judd for her self-possession and the glint in her eye when she breaks out of her gamine mold and into something defiantly lewd. But this is a career-killing performance. There’s something lazily credulous about the way she says these stupid lines: She doesn’t distance herself from them, but she doesn’t dig down into herself and find the emotion that would make them work, either. (She’s a perfect mirror for the director, come to think of it.) The gimmick is that her psyche has become dangerously compartmentalized: She’s a good-girl detective by day (raised to do right by her dead father’s partner, played by Samuel L. Jackson) and a bad-girl, bourbon-slugging pick-up chick by night. She goes to bed with a series of anonymous hunks, and when they turn up dead with their faces bludgeoned and the backs of their hands scorched with the end of a cigarette, she begins to suspect that she has murdered them during a series of red-wine-induced blackouts.
The script, credited to Sarah Thorp, is one of those have-it-both-ways/backlash numbers: Someone is probably punishing Ashley for her sexuality in a way that should fill us with outrage but instead leaves us guiltlessly titillated. (I respected the thinking behind In the Cut much more after seeing Twisted—although not enough to reclassify it as a good movie.) As the bodies keep turning up, Ashley wanders around a succession of overused San Francisco landmarks while pondering various suspects beside herself, including David Strathairn as her insinuating shrink and Andy Garcia as her smirky/lascivious partner, the only single heterosexual male I’ve ever known to keep a side of homemade gravlax in his refrigerator. (He has to be guilty of something.) I never thought I’d see a Phil Kaufman movie with a flashback sound collage: a sequence in which the movie’s key lines—”I know you. You’re me”; “You know we all have it in us”; “People keep dying around you”—play over and over while Ashley’s face contorts accordingly. In the end, when the villain is floating in the San Francisco Bay, a sea lion swims underneath, and the shot is irrationally absurd—the preview audience exploded. I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s so funny—and it just hit me. It’s Kaufman saying, “You didn’t think I could turn myself into a trained seal, did you?” It’s the director’s cameo.