The Austin Chronicle

A Dangerous Woman

Rated R, 102 min. Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal. Starring Debra Winger, Barbara Hershey, Gabriel Byrne, Chloe Webb, Jan Hooks, David Strathairn, Laurie Metcalf.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 3, 1993

Gyllenhaal's film feels like a lost Tennessee Williams play -- it's chock-full of repressed hostilities, illicit sex, mental impairment, alcohol and sprawling old houses. Martha Horgan (Winger) is a damaged woman, slightly impaired mentally, and living alone in the guest house of her Aunt Frances (Hershey) amongst the citrus orchards of Southern California. Frances is no stranger to pain herself, locked as she is in a one-way affair with a local politician. Into both their lives comes Mackey (Byrne), a nomadic handyman who shows up to rebuild the porch of their house, destroyed in the opening moments of the film by the politician's drunken, jealous wife (Metcalf, of TV's Roseanne). When Martha is fired from her job at a dry cleaners for a theft she didn't commit, she retreats back to the place she knows best, her tiny guest house with its sparse furnishings and homey, comfortable feel. Mackey, meanwhile, spends his days fixing the porch and his nights getting drunk in local bars. One night, in a half-drunken stupor, he makes love to a willing, virginal Martha, who instantly falls for his bearish, unkempt charm. Aunt Frances is oblivious to this one-sided romance, plagued as she is with her own romantic problems. None of the three have any idea of the slowly mounting tragedy they are setting themselves up for, really, and by the end of the film, the walls have come down and the unspeakable has already occurred. A Dangerous Woman is an odd film -- half Southern Gothic, half silly melodrama -- that never manages to fall flat on its face despite numerous warning signs to the contrary. Much of the film's charismatic solidity comes from its three leads, who turn in excellent, finely nuanced performances with nary a flawamong them. Winger's Martha, in particular, is a triumph, managing to be simultaneously pathetic and amazingly courageous; she clings to the truth like a drowning swimmer in a hurricane. The deceit and lies that surround her every day are no match for her childlike inner strength. Both Winger and Hershey have previously been called “thinking men's beauties” (or things to that effect), and it's easy to see why: both women exude passionate intellect like pheromones. If Gyllenhaal's film seems a bit melodramatic at points, a bit overwrought, it's a fairly easy sin to absolve in the face of the sheer talent before you.

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