Fatal Attraction August 2, 2017
1 Hr., 59 Mins.
Adrian Lyne’s infamous Fatal Attraction (1987) could more easily burrow under our skin if it teetered less toward sensationalism. Its performances are nuanced. So are the dialogue and the characterizations, developed by screenwriter James Deardan. But the pivotal sex scenes are laughable, not steamy. The finale is so overwrought, it almost seems a letdown that that’s the method of catharsis we’re supposed to buy. It doesn’t help that it is an inherently sexist movie. What its male protagonist is able to say and do and still remain our protagonist is frustrating.
Its story remains one of interest. After his wife (Anne Archer) and child (Ellen Hamilton Latzen) go away for a weekend, a happily married Manhattan lawyer, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), gives into his sexual temptations and has a fling with attractive publishing company editor Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). By Sunday has Gallagher made it clear to Forrest that what they had was purely a three-day dalliance – it’ll be an affair for him to forget and her to remember. Despite his intentions being obvious at the time they even began anything, however, Forrest nonetheless reacts to this reality with such recklessness Gallagher immediately recognizes the magnitude of what he’s done. He’s risked the well-being of his domestic life with a woman he’s just now realizing is hardly the discreet type she'd initially painted herself.
As the film progresses, Forrest’s instability increases significantly, perpetuated by a possible pregnancy. A little stalking here and there turns into deranged phone calls, targetings of family pets, kidnappings, and more – before the movie finishes do we wonder why Mrs. Gallagher would be willing to stay with a man indirectly responsible for putting the safety of herself and her child at risk over and over again. But not a lot about Fatal Attraction makes sense anyway. The screenplay tries to convince us that even after witnessing Gallagher’s adulterous tendencies, we must believe that he’s still a good man — just one who figured he could get away with weekend affair. It also views Forrest as a monster but never bothers to explain why she is the way she is.
Centrally, Fatal Attraction is a cautionary tale. Before you cheat, it warns married men, remember that the person with whom you're cheating might be crazy. But such an idea can’t fly because no woman is one-dimensional enough for that to not be profoundly misogynistic. Sure the main antagonist of Fatal Attraction is an unstable woman who eventually proves herself a sort of lunatic favored by psychological thrillers. But the film additionally believes that there are only a few different types of women in the world, among them saintly sorts exemplified by Mrs. Gallagher and demonic ones who are sexually confident and will not be cast aside when they’re interested in someone and that someone rejects them.
It isn’t fair that Forrest turns into the knife-wielding maniac by the film’s end. Who we see preceding that – a high-powered career woman pretending not to be vulnerable who’s likely been used and abused one too many times – is compelling. Her snapping has less to do with Gallagher and more with the fact that she cannot, at 36, psychologically handle being the “other woman” any longer. Close’s performance is so exceptional because it brings remarkable — and largely unwritten — depth to a part that loses its complexity the more it wears.
For all its debilitating, very 1987 world views, though, Fatal Attraction is nevertheless an effective thriller. A lot of it has to do with how gifted Lyne is by way of imagery and how immaculate Michael Kahn and Peter E. Berger’s editing is. Notice how Lyne places a lit match between Gallagher and Forrest’s faces just as they begin their affair, signifying the danger coming ahead. How the illicit couple has to walk through the meat-packing district, which very much looks like hell here, to get to Forrest’s apartment. How Mrs. Gallagher is drawn as feminine and put together whereas Forrest is presented, with her wild hair and her busy clothing, as a villainess before we even get to know her. The editing, which utilizes cross-cutting superbly, is so frenzied in scenes of suspense it wouldn’t be far off to compare it to the brilliance of George Tomasimi’s work in Psycho (1960).
Fatal Attraction is also lucky to have Archer, arguably the reason why so much of the content can endure. Gallagher is a selfish prick we struggle to feel sympathetic for, and Forrest is a crazed antagonist too thinly drawn to even really fear. But as Mrs. Gallagher, Archer brings a believable goodness that makes us root for the happiness of her family. She is an innocent thrown into this mess, and the way she has to grapple with the situation is equal parts admirable and heartbreaking. Especially in the last act, in which she has to put on a brave face in spite of being completely shattered, Archer is put through a great deal of tumult and still proves victorious. Fatal Attraction was a critical and commercial success upon release nearly 30 years ago; it was nominated for a total of six Oscars. But a movie like this could not pass by without consequences today. Its sexual politics questionable and many of its conclusions tone-deaf, it is strictly a movie of its time. But that it continues to provoke discussion is only a testament of its endurance. It’s never going to stop being a relevant provocation no matter how much its ideas age. C+