The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of While She Was Out was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Now Playing on Starz, Encore Drama
Roughly seventy minutes into While She Was Out, I was prepared to shrug my shoulders, give it a two-star rating and move on with my life. Then, writer/director Susan Montford makes such a monumentally bad choice during the climax that I had to sit and ponder whether the error was so egregious that it deserved to knock the film all the way down to zero stars or just one star. Since it’s the holiday season, a time of peace and forgiveness, I decided to go with one star.
Della (Kim Basinger) is an upper-middle-class housewife. She’s married to Kenneth (Craig Sheffer), a stockbroker who is verbally (and possibly physically) abusive to her. She tries to play the part of the content homemaker, but it’s obvious that she only finds joy in her two children. On Christmas Eve, she runs out of wrapping paper and heads to the local shopping mall to pick some up. Of course, the mall is packed with last-minute shoppers, and she is forced to park far away from the entrance. On the way into the mall, she leaves an angry note under the windshield wiper of a car that is taking up two parking spots. She shops until the mall closes and returns to her SUV, only to find the car that she left the note with has blocked her from backing out of her parking spot. The occupants of the car are Chuckie (Lukas Haas), Huey (Jamie Starr), Vingh (Leonard Wu), and Tomas (Luis Chávez). They casually threaten to rape and kill her for leaving the note. When a security guard arrives and tries to run them off, Chuckie pulls a gun and shoots him in the head. Panicked, Della takes off in her SUV, jumping the curb to get away. Needing to eliminate the witness to the murder, Chuckie and the others give pursuit.
I tend to appreciate films that want to be exercises in pure suspense. With While She Was Out, Montford seems to be attempting such an approach. Aside from the early scenes of Della’s home life and three awkward and embarrassing encounters that leave her feeling like an utter loser during her leisurely stroll through the mall, there is zero attempt at character development. Once Della meets Chuckie and his goons, it’s one long chase sequence as they pursue her through a building site and the nearby woods. There is ample opportunity for Montford to squeeze out some surprises, shocks, or just good old-fashioned spooky atmosphere from the situation or the locations. Instead, she chooses a workmanlike approach of getting some flat footage and editing it together with as little muss and fuss as possible. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach (especially in this age of directors relying on an over-abundance of empty visual flourishes at the expense of a coherent story), but the story is so slight and the characters so one-dimensional, I wanted some kind of flavor from what was essentially the film equivalent of junk food. Instead, I was given a plain rice cake.
And then Montford goes for what is undoubtedly one of the most misguided attempts at shaking up the audience I’ve ever seen. I don’t like to spoil plot twists in a straight review, so I’ll refrain from spilling the beans on possibly the most idiotic twist I have ever seen in a film. Not only does it fail to make sense at the most basic level of logic, it seems just as incomprehensible to the characters as it did to me. Not to mention, I found it to be an incredibly offensive message to women and a slap in the face to anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted. The only way I could stop my stomach from turning while it was happening was to laugh at the ridiculousness on display.
Not surprisingly, given the pedestrian direction, the performances suffer. Basinger tries, but she comes off looking slightly embarrassed at times. None of Chuckie’s gang makes any kind of impression as they strike tough-guy stances and spout clichéd slang about how tough they are. Only Haas seems to be having any fun. Obviously, I can’t be certain, but it seemed that he realized just how ridiculous his character was. He spits out his dialogue with relish, a near-constant smirk on his face. It’s also to his credit that he laughs his way through the climactic twist, echoing the unintended laughter I imagine greeted the film upon its release.
While She Was Out was given only the briefest of theatrical releases during the 2008 holiday season, and it’s easy to see why. Even without the ridiculous, offensive attempt at a twist, it’s a bland movie. The basic story had the potential for a tight thriller in the John Carpenter vein, but Montford showed a lack of vision and taste that dropped it to the level of a bad DTV movie.
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