Faithful husband and father Charles Schine (Clive Owen) is a hard-working, creative talent working for a downtown Chicago ad firm. He is such a noble man that he willingly gave up his true passion, teaching remedial English composition, because he needs to make better money. He has taken out two mortgages on his house, and repeated shots of the kitchen, full of outdated appliances, make clear how much the nominally upper-middle-class family is suffering economically.
What afflicts these pilgrims’ progress? Charles and his wife Deanna (Melissa George) have been saddled with the heartbreak of a daughter, Amy (Addison Timlin), suffering from a severe form of childhood-onset diabetes. As the child suffers, the parents suffer. And sacrifice. And everyone suffers some more. The suffering is terrible, and endless. But suffering only draws them closer, forging a more deeply loving family unit. And, on top of all this, they still manage a show of respectable bourgeois propriety for the neighbors.
Against this paint-by-numbers background, the audience can only wonder how Charles could permit himself to be drawn into a casual pick-up on a morning commuter train. (He’s somewhat sloppy, the kind of guy who, according to the country tune, can’t always keep it between the lines.) A total stranger and a fellow professional, Lucinda Harris (Jennifer Aniston), has rescued Charles from a silly little faux pas–he had forgotten to buy a ticket before boarding the train and realized too late he hadleft home without any cash. Imagine his chagrin, and his relief, when Lucinda pays his fare and then responds to his flirtatious efforts to make nice with her. The playful cat-and-mouse sexual teasing which ensues foreshadows a more ominous cat-and-mouse game to come. The pair repeatedly disengage and vow not to go through with the hook-up, such that it takes the film a very long thirty minutes to get these two in bed together.
And then, BLAM! The tepid come-on between these two pretty, in-vogue Hollywood faces (the pre-empted money shot adds up to scant female breast and a few seconds of exposed male belly) becomes another movie altogether. Many snares indeed have already been set by the time that Charles and Lucinda have checked into a seedy hotel. Charles wrings audience sympathy by feeling as guilty as Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) checking into her Hotel Psycho California ("You can check out any time, but you can never leave"). The film’s shift in genre, from romantic drama to horror, perversely echoes Fatal Attraction as well.
What ensues might be described as a revenge of the urban thriller cliche machine. Charles finds himself the victim of an improbable and elaborate con game. French actor Vincent Cassel’s character, the master scammer Philippe Laroche, is such a phony, over-the-top sociopathic sleaze bag that even his French accent sounds phony. Unexpected acts of gratuitous violence abound, including (but not limited to) gun brandishing, pistol-whipping and unauthorized discharging of firearms, bitch-slapping, beeyatch-slapping and heterosexual rape, cold-cocking, scrotum-squeezing and baroque scenes of emasculation, blackmail by phone, letter and email, bullets through arms, legs, chests and brains, ditching of murder-victim-bearing cars in rivers, Saint Valentine’s Day-style massacres, even inappropriate trips to prison wash rooms and implausible reversals of plot. The montage of brutality snowballs on-screen faster than a multi-car pile-up on a dark and rainy freeway.
Blue Velvet this ain’t. When Charles is derailed into the evil underbelly of Chicago, he finds himself in the comic-book fantasy world of some fourteen-year-old boy, the normative demographic target the film is scripted to appeal to. Where else are all the bad guys (because they lie and cheat and kill people with guns) duly punished, and all the good guys (because they lie and cheat and kill people with guns, but for the right reasons) duly rewarded? The film’s final saving grace is that it does reveal the truly evil (the French) for what is truly unredeemable about them (they speak French). (sotto voce: The horror!