The death of George Hickenlooper last October at the age of 47 from a heart attack brought on by an accidental overdose of pain killers came in the wake of his highest-profile film in more than a decade: Casino Jack, starring Kevin Spacey as the scandal-plagued Washington insider and lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The film, which earned its star a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, was widely criticized for fictionalizing a real-life narrative but also praised for its unapologetic criticism of Beltway duplicity.
The mixed reviews were, in a way, appropriate for a filmmaker whose career was a mixed bag — quite possibly because Hickenlooper liked it that. It’s difficult to reconcile 1991’s Hearts of Darkness; A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse — a harrowing behind the scenes account of the making of Apocalypse Now – with the slacker comedy The Low Life (1995) or Grey Knight (1993), a Civil War ghost story edited by Monte Hellman (whom Hickenlooper profiled in 1997’s Monte Hellman: American Auteur), to say nothing of the star-studded literary satire The Main From Elysian Fields (2002).
Hickenlooper’s almost nomadic tendency to move between styles and genres resulted in 1996’s Persons Unknown. Starring Joe Mantegna as a retired-cop turned security consultant (“a glorified locksmith,” he snorts) conned by a Roller-Blading femme fatale (Kelly Lynch) en route to getting mixed up with requisite petty thugs and vicious drug dealers, the film slots nicely into the mid-90s neo noir revival kickstarted by films like Carl Franklin’s One False Move (1991) and John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1994). The difference is that Hickenlooper doesn’t direct the proceedings with his allusions on his sleeve — Persons Unknown honours certain generic conventions without know-towing to them, in terms of narrative construction or visual presentation.
Hickenlooper’s clean, uncluttered style mostly eschews shadowy cinematography and slanted angles, lending the proceedings a sense of everyday realism (the violence is especially blunt and unglamorous, especially in a scene where Mantegna is unexpectedly confronted in the hallway of an empty house). He also throws a curveball in terms of the plotting by having Mantegna’s character fall in love not with his duplicitous, long-legged one-night stand but rather her wheelchair-bound sister Molly, played by a then-unknown young actress named Naomi Watts.
Predating her breakthrough in Mulholland Dr. (2001) by half a decade, Watts’ performance is a similar balancing act between mysteriousness and vulnerability: in her early scenes, she plays directly against the natural empathy a viewer might have for Molly’s physical plight. The scenes between her and Mantegna are fascinating for the combination of wariness, pity and pure desire he directs at her — perhaps reflecting the audience’s shifting responses to her character.
It’s the sort of role that should have won the then-twenty-something actress some It Girl attention, but for whatever reason, Persons Unknown got lost in the shuffle. Of course, if Watts had had more commercial success earlier in her career, she may never have nailed the desperation at the heart of her Mulholland Dr. performance, which led to her becoming one of the major actresses of the past decade. Credit Hickenlooper for spotting and showcasing her talent well ahead of the rest of the pack. If his career is indeed destined to be remembered as a mixed bag, then this wise piece of casting should be remembered as a little treat — and so should Persons Unknown.
Adam Nayman is a film critic for Eye Weekly in Toronto. He is also a regular contributor to Cinema Scope.
Acknowledgment: Stills taken from Movie Screenshots