Irresistible 'Seduction' Linda Fiorentino turns up the heat in John Dahl's taut thriller

January 20, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"The Last Seduction," which opens today at the Rotunda, certainly bears out the Biblical injunction that the last shall be first: It's the first good movie of the year. It may be the first good movie of last year. It's an archly ironic film noir that whirls along like a dervish on shore leave, teasing its own conventions exactly as it fulfills them.

It's of the noir subset No. 7A -- the femme fatale -- built around a beautiful, predatory woman who has no moral compass, deploys her body as a lethal weapon, and uses the weaker sex as one might use tissue: to soak up fluids and to dispose of. Linda Fiorentino, briefly big years ago after "Vision Quest," is big all over again as sultry, leggy Bridget Gregory, a New Yorker married to a weak-willed physician (Bill Pullman) whom she's bullied into selling pharmaceutical cocaine to street hoods. Profit: $750,000.

But Bridget is too large to remain married to a nervous piker like Pullman's Clay, particularly when he briefly rebels and smacks her in the mouth. One of Fiorentino's great accomplishments here is that she really makes you feel her relish for the damage she's doing, and the pleasure she takes in the power of her own charisma. There's not a quiver of ambivalence anywhere in her: I am bitch, she says in this performance, hear me roar. For smacking her, she punishes her husband by walking out with the $750,000. What's he going to do, call the cops?

Actually, he calls a private detective, as the situation is somewhat urgent. Each week he can't pay back a loan shark he gets a finger broken, and when he runs out of fingers the goons will probably break something bigger, like a neck. She knows this. It's part of the joke.

Bridget sets up in western New York, a rural town called Beston for whom the "Big City" is Buffalo, while she figures out her next move. Sitting in a bar on her first night, her next move walks in: dewy-eyed blond hunk Mike Swale (Peter Berg), a self-hating small-towner who is attracted to her exactly as he is frightened of her. It's not much of a match -- the spider woman and the boy fly. When Bridget rivets him with her dark eyes and gropes him under the table, he melts like a chocolate soldier in a microwave. "You're the designated ----," she tells him, her idea of a romantic line.

In fact, at heart the mechanism of the film is its inversion of romantic ideals. The men -- Mike and even mildly forgiving Clay -- are true romantics, the clingy, nurture-needing, valentine-sending battered-husband types. They look on Bridget and her beauty and cogitate sweet feelings of yearning and togetherness. She looks on them and sees . . . smack, smack, chomp, chomp . . . free lunch. Her great weapon is that love is a complete con to her. She feels nothing for anybody but herself and can therefore manipulate like a chess master, laughing to herself as she does it.

This same contempt relates to geography, too. One of Bridget's great weapons is her contempt for small town life. Isolated in Beston, she's like Attila in a day- care center. Everywhere she sees nothing but marks and fools who weren't tough enough to make it to New York. "There's a place for losers and quitters," she tells Mike, "it's called Beston."

John Dahl, who directed this film and is a specialist in noir (he also did "Red Rock West"), has a true feel for sexual tension at the heart of the melodrama. So overwhelming is Bridget, so cunning and darkly charismatic, that she truly becomes the movie. One can feel the snares being lovingly draped around poor dim Mike, though the suspense mechanism is somewhat peculiar: Though Bridget is the point of view character, we never know her true agenda.

Eventually, the movie seems to lead into another area, as Bridget uses Mike's computer knowledge (he's a claims adjuster) to isolate a set of wealthy women whose husbands' credit records suggest they are keeping mistresses on the side. Bridget, who ** clearly has an entrepreneurial gift, sees a service she can offer to such people. But Dahl brings this offshoot back into the original story line in a convincing way.

The movie will remind many of "Body Heat," Laurence Kasdan's great film from 1981. It's not as good as "Body Heat," and the big secret that Bridget learns to give her total control over Mike turns out to be pretty ridiculous. The ending could have been stronger; one feels a mousetrap snapping closed at the end, not a chrome steel trap on ball bearings. But "The Last Seduction" seduces us, early.

"The Last Seduction"

Starring Linda Fiorentino and Bill Pullman

Directed by John Dahl

Released by October Films

Rated R

*** 1/2

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