Sketch Artist

(Phedon Papamichael, USA, 1992)


Sketch Artist – which is sometimes referred to with an erroneous The added at the front – is a minor sex-thriller with intriguing credits and a curious plot structure. Proudly presented by the Motion Picture Corporation of America (!), it actually appears to be a telemovie.


Jeff Fahey – ubiquitous fixture of B movies of the 1990s (and beyond: his latest project in 2020 is Alone, a “lockdown horror-thriller”) – plays Jack, a somewhat dissolute quick-draw artist working for the police, and often hearing the disapproved roar of his boss, Tonelli (James Tolkan in his usual barking-harasser role). With his trusty sketch-pad and pencils, Jack brings out the picture in other people’s minds … or does he? Buried in the script is the question of whether he only ever projects what he sees. De Palma could have worked that into a nifty subplot in one of his paranoid-mosaic movies (like Blow Out, 1981) … but maybe not based the entire plot on it.


Anyhow, there’s a malaise-ridden, separated-by-careers, sexless relationship between Jack and his wife Rayanne (Sean Young) going down. The fact that she is she often shortened to the masculine-sounding Ray should have tipped someone off about more dreadful problems behind these scenes!


The prologue – one of two very ‘90s (but also pretty chaste) sex scenes – has shown us a murder of a wealthy businessman, presumably by a woman – but probably not the professional Lady of the Night (Charlotte Lewis as Leese) who just slinked out after the act of passion (and a plot-required bit of CD playing), despite the studious camera angles effacing easy signs of identification. Only one person has inadvertently got a close look at the killer, and that’s chance-encounter delivery-girl Daisy (Drew Barrymore). Jack actually gets to say to her later: “Daisy – pretty name for a pretty girl”. The screenplay is credited to Michael Angeli, who has written and produced a ton of stuff for TV after this debut.


Now, hold on a moment, film critic! Fahey, Young, Barrymore, Tolkan … what can go wrong here? And as the credits roll: Phedon Papamichael is the director (as a prolific DOP he today works with the likes of Alexander Payne and James Mangold), and his Dad of the same name (a regular collaborator with John Cassavetes in the 1970s) is on the crew as production designer, and even has a funny Greek-obscenity-spouting cameo! Mark Isham provides the requisite sexy saxophone blasts that are de rigueur in this ‘90s genre of the erotic thriller. Some dust just has to rub off all that gold!


Alas, Sketch Artist is pretty flat, at best routine. (And it has, just to jump ahead for a moment, one of the most elongated “hero walking away from the whole mess back into his everyday life” endings I’ve ever seen – it’s almost like watching Fahey as the bottle rolling along the street in Kiarostami.) Quite early on, the crunch comes: when Daisy describes the killer, what Jack draws is … Ray! And there’s really no way around this damning proof. But Jack, of course hides it. And the problem the movie has is in making you believe that he would keep on ignoring it – the second sex scene is really more of a delaying tactic than a psychological turnaround on the marital front.


So, we get complications – sort-of like the usual array of possible suspects in a murder plot, but not very convincingly, since we’ve already seen that sketch materialise. There’s cold-as-ice Krista (Belle Avery), wife of the dead guy – but this fabulous “fashion empire” of theirs ever-looming in the background never has any palpable reality, even on a telemovie budget. And there’s the unfortunate woman, Jane (Stacy Haiduk, oddly miscredited here and on IMDb for a different character name), whom Jack has implicated by pulling a switcheroo and drawing any old face as the chief suspect. Oh, and I forgot to mention, there’s Tchéky Karyo, poised between the twin peaks of Full Moon in Paris (1984) and the global-narco-epic TV series ZeroZeroZero (2019), playing Paul Korbel, suave fashion associate.


But nothing really much comes of any of this, because the ending, when it plods in, was always in sight. That ending, though (before the Fahey-roll) is fun to see, just to follow the line of Sean Young’s militant gunfire. Ouch!

© Adrian Martin 7 August 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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