Rush February 8, 2021
ush (1991) is about a pair of undercover cops who get so deep into the world they’re infiltrating that they almost can’t find their way out. This well-crafted but psychologically limited drama stars Jason Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the officers. Patric is Jim, a hard-bitten veteran who’s gotten cocky with time (he doesn’t hesitate before cutting a corner). Leigh is Kristen, a naïve rookie who’s so
much a clean slate that the darkest thing lurking in her past is that she was
caught smoking pot a few times as a youngster — twice in high school, once in college. The two are assigned early in the movie by their lieutenant, Larry (Sam Elliott), to take down a local drug lord and porn distributor, Gaines (a wraithlike Gregg Allman), who’s proven elusive to arrest.
Jim has done this kind of work plenty of times before. He picks out Kristen as his partner in the case almost on a whim — maybe as a challenge for himself. When he sees her for the first time, training on the racetrack with some of her fellow recent police-academy graduates, she sticks out, especially once she wins an impromptu race. Jim gives her the low-down ahead of time: how you can get your veins to stick out as if you were really a hard-drug addict; how to look convincing to the people in the drug milieu you're about to invade. (The film is set in Katterly, Tex., mostly in 1975; a radio happily chirps in an early scene that the previous year will be remembered as the one during which Patty Hearst got abducted and Nixon was disgraced.) First order of business: Kristen needs to stop washing her hair so regularly — its clean bounciness gives her an unwanted wholesomeness, like she was one of Charlie’s angels. Jim, meanwhile, fits right in — he’s always so bedraggled-looking it’s like he’s just gotten out of bed, forgetting until waking up that he failed to take off the workday’s clothes before shutting his eyes for the night.
Jim and Kristen are to pose as heroin-addicted lovers. They have no trouble convincing the various minor local dealers from whom they buy of their identities; they even befriend some of them. But as they keep buying and buying, hoping to uncover even a tenuous connection to Gaines, the latter stays evasive — and the more evasive he gets, the better Jim and Kristen get at performing as this struggling couple. They get a little too efficient: they eventually do become a couple outside of the charade; they also eventually become full-blown heroin addicts after taking a few too many doses as means to blend in. “Something’s changing here, and we’ve got less control of it all the time,” Kristen says forebodingly just before she and Jim hit an inexorable rock bottom.
Rush is consistently unnerving on a visceral level. It’s almost willfully unsentimental, too. As Jim and Kristen plunge downward into complete despondence, we can feel their worlds getting progressively claustrophobic — and director Lili Fini Zanuck, working off a screenplay by Pete Dexter (itself based on a Kim Wozencraft novel), credibly and critically brings both this small town’s drug and police milieus to the screen in her sole directorial effort. (Zanuck primarily worked as a producer; though she’d only produced three movies before Rush, the film has been made with the assertiveness of someone who’d helmed several more.) But while the movie is narratively engaging — we watch it almost compulsively, the way we would keep vigorously turning the pages of a potboiler crime novel — it remains psychically and emotionally hard to reach.
Little of Jim’s and Kristen’s backgrounds and interior lives are made clear to us, and so they feel more like stock creations than people being pushed to their limits. He’s the world-weary professional whose confidence is in part what dooms him; she’s the cherubic newcomer whose drive and sense of purpose are permanently derailed following a sordid few months of living. Jim and Kristen are imbued with extra texture by actors who inhabit them as if they had more to work with on the page than they actually do. Great supporting turns from Elliott, as the compassionate but judicious superior who had a similar undercover experience long ago (his come-to-Jesus moment came when he was shot in the toe unexpectedly), and Max Perlich, as a touching, too-trusting addict who befriends Jim and Kristen, give some needed additional dimension to the movie. But like with Patric and Leigh, these underwritten roles are lent exigency only because of who’s playing them. We see vividly what it’s like to get too close to the fire in Rush, but we can’t quite feel its heat. B