Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot is unusual and surprising. His previous films (such as Out of the Blue  and Colors ) have opted for a deliberately chaotic, seemingly improvisatory style, sacrificing aesthetic niceties for the emotional truth and energy of each moment.
The Hot Spot, however, is a much more controlled and composed work, reminiscent of Hopper's respected excursions into still photography.
The screenplay was co-written in the '60s by the late, much-admired pulp novelist Charles Williams. The story, its atmosphere and morality, hark back even further, to the late '40s film noir cycle, and the downbeat thrillers of the early '50s starring anti-heroes like Robert Mitchum – who was in fact, once upon a time, cast in the lead role.
Don Johnson ably fills Mitchum's shoes as a wise-cracking, slick, but ultimately passive vagrant who breezes into a sleepy Texan town. Boredom has turned the town's inhabitants into a quietly desperate bunch of eccentrics – variously blind, sick, pining or (in the case of Virginia Madsen as the resident femme fatale) hot to trot.
Why does Hopper want to tell this tale of bank robbery, corrupted innocence and doomed love? Its stereotypes – good girl (Jennifer Connelly) vs bad girl, decrepit old husband, amoral hero – border on the outrageous. Hopper almost disregards the plot in favour of a mesmerising exercise in minimal art, elongating and exaggerating the oddities of mood, gesture, look. The blues musical score, the prominent way it is featured and mixed, is particularly innovative and striking.
Indeed, after his triumphant acting comeback in Blue Velvet (1986), Hopper may well be paying his own, idiosyncratic homage to that film's director, David Lynch. Certainly, Twin Peaks fans will find much here that is familiar and congenial.
By turns intriguing and exasperating, it is a memorable and distinctive film.
© Adrian Martin June 1991