(Robert Benton, USA, 1998)


Robert Benton's Twilight nudges an audience to gently realign its generic expectations in regards to a modern day, private eye mystery set in Los Angeles.


It is not a grand-slam piece like L.A. Confidential (1997), covering a vast fresco of social vices and corruption. Its star power Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon is deliberately underplayed.


Benton takes the logic and mood of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) to a further extreme. For this is a story geared to its characters their age, rhythm and reflectiveness. Not since Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) have we had the thrill of seeing a movie that so delights in showing the vicissitudes of desire, deceit and murder among a bunch of people well into their advanced years.


This is a modest, even slight movie. The story never moves beyond a small circle of old acquaintances: Harry (Newman), a mournful ex-cop and private eye; his boss and card-playing friend Jack (Hackman), facing the prospect of slow death; Jack's wife Catherine (Sarandon), once a sultry movie star; and a group of Harry's longtime companions in the law enforcement business, including faithful Raymond (James Garner) and feisty Verna (Stockard Channing).


Everywhere Harry goes he stumbles upon a dead body that serves mainly to stir some ghost from the past and incite some transgression in the present. The movie's themes are embodied in low-key interactions rather than emblazoned in dialogue: loyalty, class difference, self-knowledge. A scene in which Harry accuses Catherine of an excessively materialist attachment to 'things' and she responds by showing just what she thinks of her daily world is indelible.


Strangely, the contemporaneous film with which Twilight has most in common is the dreadful The Big Lebowski (1998). Both partake of the splintered, melancholic mood of late Chandler (The Long Goodbye), both display a heightened feel for architecture and landscape, and both indulge in an odd comedy about the hero's castration anxieties. But Benton 's work has none of the laboured ostentatiousness that afflicted the Coens' effort.


His film is finely-crafted to a fault, classical and self-effacing in the best sense. It offers the joys of an observational style: insight into complex characters, the precise mood of a time and place, a gradually unfolding intrigue dedicated to the unfathomable mysteries of heart and mind. The dead opposite of a spectacular, Twilight will satisfy those who can gladly attune themselves to the novelistic subtleties of psychological mystery-thriller fiction.

© Adrian Martin May 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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