Twisted begins with bird cries on the soundtrack, which segue into marginally scary music full of foreboding, and a shot of clouds obscuring the moon. Some might call it classic genre schtick, others might label it cliche, but there’s not a shred of doubt that a thriller is underway. In a meaningless, but cleverly executed shot, those birds are reflected onto the irises of the terrified eyes of Jessica Shepard (Ashley Judd). The camera pulls back to reveal that she is being held from behind by a man who is holding a knife to her throat. As he begins to explore her body with his free hand, she seizes an opportunity, breaks free, and announces that she’s a cop. She handcuffs the perp, Edmund Cutler, and becomes an instant hero, promoted to the homicide department.
Shepard’s back story is filled in–her father was a cop who went on a killing spree himself when she was a young girl. He ended up killing her mother and committing suicide, leaving her traumatized. All these years later, she hasn’t made peace with that history; she drinks an awful lot and she’s into one night stands and rough sex with bar pickups. When her first homicide case–a murdered guy with a cigarette burn on the back of his hand and a bashed in face–turns out to be one of her past lovers, it seems to be coincidence. When a second corpse with the same mutilations turns up and proves to be yet another of her lovers, it’s clear that a serial killer is on the loose.
Be grateful for Shepard’s promiscuity, for it begets a veritable surfeit of suspects. There’s Jimmy Schmidt, an ex-boyfriend who refuses to give up and shows up in her apartment uninvited. There’s Ray Porter, the defense attorney who is representing the creep she arrested; she and Porter have a sexual history as well, and Porter is still interested. She’s made enemies, too, like the cop she upstaged when she arrested Coulter. Shepard even begins to suspect herself and then her partner, Mike Delmarco (Andy Garcia).
Also wrapped into the plot are the police commissioner, John Mills (Samuel L. Jackson), who was a friend of her father’s, and her police department shrink, Melvin Frank (David Strathairn). Camryn Manheim injects a bit of life into things as a medical examiner–shades of C.S.I.
Director Philip Kaufman (Quills, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) brings his storytelling skills and a slick visual style to the proceedings here, but it’s clear he’s just earning mortgage money with a run-of-the-mill thriller that will fade from memory as quickly as poor Jessica’s boyfriends are getting bumped off. Drawing no more than adequate performances from any of his cast, the characters remain flat and uninteresting, mere props in a contrived plot. Kaufman provides plenty of great San Francisco backgrounds to provide a sense of place, including the most obvious (the Golden Gate Bridge, a cable car, the Palace of Fine Arts, Pac Bell Park), but the story could have taken place anywhere at all. It would be a yawner regardless of location.