Let's see -- which movie sports the most clichés? Outside of the Naked Gun-style spoofs, The Monkey's Mask, a new murder-mystery from Australia, is a serious contender for that dubious honor.
The Monkey's Mask is essentially a run-of-the-mill film noir whodunit with a central twist: The wisecracking, lonely gumshoe hero has been replaced by a wisecracking, lonely gumshoe heroine -- a lesbian shamus named Jill Fitzpatrick (Susie Porter). Jill is a leather-jacketed tough gal with a soft spot for alluring older women. While tracking a missing teenager, she's instantly turned to jelly by statuesque Diana (Kelly McGillis), a married poetry teacher who mentored the missing girl. Jill soon pops into bed with Diana, but finds her new paramour may be involved with the girl's disappearance. When the girl turns up murdered, Jill realizes her romance has drawn her into danger.
Sound familiar? It should. Based on a novel by Dorothy Porter and adapted for the screen by Anne Kennedy, this story line seems deliberate in using stock story devices: a loner detective, a femme fatale, an antagonistic police detective, several red herring suspects, a few dark secrets, and plenty of déjà vu. Whole scenes are lifted from movie history. Jill returns to find her home has been ransacked and a critical videotape has been destroyed! She keeps getting calls from a silent caller! A prime suspect dies in a fiery car crash that might be sabotage! Take away the lesbian angle and what you have is very, very routine.
The gal gumshoe genre seems to be burgeoning of late. Certainly the Edna Buchanan and V.I. Warshawski novels fly off the shelves, and several films and television projects have explored this territory. Helen's Mirren's Jane Tennyson, enshrined on PBS's Mystery! series, is a precursor to The Monkey's Mask. Another comparison can be made to Judy Davis's lesbian heroine in Susan Seidelman's Gaudi Afternoon, which debuted locally at the 2001 Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. But the obvious comparison lies with Bound, the 1996 feature from the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix) that featured Gina Gershon as Corky, a tough lesbian heroine who gets mixed up with Violet (Jennifer Tilly), a married woman with a lot of secrets. Bound featured some stylish camera work and a good dose of dark, mordant humor, aspects that The Monkey's Mask lamentably lacks.
Credit director Samantha Lang for wisely steering the focus toward Jill's emotional struggle and away from the seen-it-before story twists. Lang, who has experience tracking lesbian relations in The Well and other earlier films, keys on Susie Porter's feisty, entirely engaging performance as Jill, whose brisk, efficient demeanor masks a deep romantic longing. Jill is a visual contradiction as well: She opts for tight leather jackets and snappy repartee, but her pouty lips and Jean Seberg haircut give her a vulnerable air. Once she falls for Diana, she becomes a victim of her own emotional honesty. Although Jill may be tough, she's also honest and forthright. What she wants is one good woman. Problem is, Diana is not playing by Jill's rules, and the deeper Jill falls for her, the messier the relationship becomes.
As Diana, Kelly McGillis turns in an unsettling, somewhat malevolent performance. Since her early days as a Hollywood star (Witness, Top Gun), the tall, striking McGillis has always relied on a languid acting style, which here is put to effective if emotionally limited use. Her Diana doesn't reveal much; she's waiting to see what Jill reveals and then toys with whatever she's given. McGillis, now a mature actress, certainly is more intriguing and dimensioned than she was in her younger, creamy-cheeked days, and she offers the sort of dangerous allure that Faye Dunaway brought to Chinatown, Roman Polanski's classic that The Monkey's Mask references in virtually every aspect.
The film also features an odd, interesting relationship between Jill and her romantic rival, Diana's husband, Nick, well played by Marton Csokas. Jill is startled to learn Diana is married. She's even more unsettled when she realizes Nick not only does not object to his wife's lesbian liaison, he wants to hit on Jill himself. Jill's standoff with Nick is so unusual it's the most intriguing aspect of the story. She can't figure out what Nick is up to and what his presence means to her unstable relationship with Diana.
All this is explored in detail -- perhaps in too much detail. The many scenes of tasteful naked bodies and postcoital conversations tend to drag the overall pace, and much of the larger mystery is dispensed with in short, blunt sequences. Lang doesn't bother with much visual style; her camera rarely moves, and when it does only tentatively. The film, only 91 minutes in length, is shot almost exclusively in midshots, like television. This probably is television in other countries, and it seems better suited for cable here than as a feature. There's next to no physical action onscreen other than the brief but frequent sex scenes. There's very little suspense or tension in Lang's direction, and several obvious missed opportunities. The car crash is so cursorily and poorly staged, it's confusing.
Which leads to the question: With so many flaws and so few, if admirable strengths, why was this film released as a feature? As film noir, this is routine straight-to-video material. As lesbian cinema, it's hardly groundbreaking material. Message to Australia: more femme noir? Yes, but better.
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