Mortal Thoughts

(Alan Rudolph, USA, 1991)


Coming out of the preview of Mortal Thoughts, and noticing the slight but telling signs of unease and confusion in all audience members (myself included) I knew straight away I had just witnessed something important, and special.

It's an ambiguous, quite mysterious film; and it's that unsettling ambiguity which distinguishes it from its neighbours in the current cycle of films about women who must kill, like Thelma and Louise (1991) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). It's a canny film that uses the star appeal of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis to lure in a crowd, and then show them something really unexpected.

But it's not a movie that spells out in big letters what it wants you to think and talk about afterwards, which means that it effectively lost its chance to be a topical hit.

Mortal Thoughts is, in a very attenuated and low-key manner, a mystery film. It depends so much on its strangely unfolding plot moves that I wouldn't like to give away even the initial steps. Let's merely say it deals with a woman's murder of an unbearable, violent man, the fraught domestic complications that ensue, and a police investigation that frames the entire narrative.

From the first to the last, there's a strange cleaving between two worlds, two registers of voices, two orders of experience in the film: that of men and women. In fact, from one angle, it all seems like an uncanny replay of what feminist critics in the late '70s found so classical and conservative in the '40s film noir: fatal women on the side of duplicity, evasion, flightiness; men on the side of law, justice, truth. Even the press kit notes (and this is a worry) that what started as a script about women's response to domestic violence ended more as a thriller about how cops ferret out the truth from shifty murder suspects.

But something else is happening in Mortal Thoughts, and I suspect it has a lot to do with the director, Alan Rudolph (who reportedly came onto the project very late after the writer, Claude Kerven, was ejected from the director's chair.) As Rudolph has shown again and again in films like Remember My Name (1978), Choose Me (1984) and Love At Large (1990), his aversion for pre-digested, unambiguous morality plays is surpassed only by his intense empathy for female characters.

Whatever Mortal Thoughts was originally about on the page, Rudolph has introduced into it clouds, refractions, complications. Harvey Keitel as the cop, for instance, plays the mirror inversion of his part in Thelma and Louise: there he was benevolent and understanding of the women's plight, here, his police manners are resolutely creepy, quietly and insidiously misogynist.

With this character as with everything, Rudolph focuses on the lethal non-communication and non-exchange between the sexes. In one unforgettable domestic moment, Demi Moore is trying to get a gun upstairs in a brown paper bag; when her husband bullishly demands to know what's in the bag, she immediately produces the response certain to deflect him: "It's my tampax".

Mortal Thoughts is a terrifically disturbing film.

MORE Rudolph: Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, Equinox

© Adrian Martin October 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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