Twilight (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Twilight may end up being the most disappointing film of 1998. It certainly holds that distinction to date, but I'm aware that there are ten months left in the year. And let me emphasize that by "disappointing," I mean something that falls drastically short of my expectations. That's different from "bad," which Twilight certainly isn't. There are pleasures to be found within, but this movie never comes close to living up to its potential. It's like the baseball rookie phenom who's supposed to hit .300, but can't get his bat on the ball.

Look at the talent involved in Twilight. The three leads -- Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, and Gene Hackman -- all have gold statuettes on their mantelpieces (and for good reason). The supporting cast includes the always reliable James Garner, Stockard Channing, and M. Emmet Walsh, not to mention up-and-coming actress Reese Witherspoon. The director, Robert Benton, has written and helmed such efforts as Nobody's Fool and Kramer vs. Kramer. The cinematographer, Polish-born Piotr Sobocinski, was one of Kieslowski's favorite collaborators, and did the photography for Red. Considering all of this, it's no wonder that I had high expectations for Twilight -- expectations it didn't come close to fulfilling.

The problem is the script, which could charitably be called unspectacular. This is a B-movie screenplay with an A-level cast and crew. Ultimately, no matter how talented the people making the film are, there's a limit to what they can do with a plot this contrived and predictable. True, the high level of acting and rich, noir atmosphere keep viewers intrigued and involved, but, when the final credits start to roll, there's a vague sense of dissatisfaction. The question foremost in my mind at that moment was "Is that all there is?"

Paul Newman plays Harry Ross, an ex-cop turned ex-private investigator turned alcoholic. He's in the twilight of his life, looking back on the wreckage of an existence that he's not especially proud of. "When I started out," he remarks, "I had a wife and daughter. Now, I'm a drunk." The only time Twilight's screenplay truly shines is when it contemplates questions of age and mortality. Normally, mystery/thrillers have younger, stronger protagonists -- not white-haired retirees who have to worry about prostate problems. If nothing else, Twilight captures a slice of the melancholia associated with growing old.

Harry lives with his good friends, the actor/actress couple of Jack and Catherine Ames (Hackman and Sarandon). In return for their hospitality, he does an occasional odd job for them. His latest errand lands him in hot water. What is supposed to be a routine transfer of a sealed manila envelope puts Harry on the wrong end of a gun wielded by another ex-cop (M. Emmet Walsh) -- only this guy has blood leaking from several bullet holes in his body. Unsurprisingly, Harry soon finds himself involved in a web of intrigue that involves murder, blackmail, and a secret buried 20 years in the past. Meanwhile, he learns that Jack is dying of cancer and Catherine is all-too-willing to have an affair if that's what Harry wants.

Twilight is classic potboiler stuff, and it's easy to figure out how things are going to turn out in the end. The few twists and surprises are obvious and the seams are visible in the pedestrian screenplay. Still, although the story isn't likely to stave off boredom, Newman's acting accomplishes that. This isn't the actor's best work, but, even not in peak form, he is adept enough at his craft to create an engaging personality. Harry may be caught in the midst of a silly plot, but we're still interested in how he gets out of his predicament and whether he makes peace with himself. Sarandon is a wonderfully mature-yet-sultry femme fatale, Garner is enjoyable as one of Harry's old friends, and Witherspoon is fresh and sexy. The only one who rubbed me the wrong way is Giancarlo Esposito, who plays a fatuous would-be sidekick.

Twilight drips atmosphere. Even though it's a contemporary tale, it has the feel of something set forty or fifty years ago. But stylistic photography and solid acting aren't everything, and there are only so many plot imperfections such assets can mask. Twilight should have been a better movie. It's rare that this much talent is assembled for a single production, and it seems criminal to waste it in this manner. With a lesser cast, the film would have been easy to shrug off. But with this bunch, although the final product is undeniably better than it would have been with a group of secondary performers, the aftertaste is vaguely bitter.

Twilight (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 1998-03-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity,Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1