This is a dark and stylish tale of lies, cheating, extortion, incest, betrayal, and murder that begins in the antiseptic and meticulously maintained office of a dentist, Frank Sangster (Steve Martin).
Frank seems to have everything. He has a successful dental practice that is operated with efficient precision by his fiancée, Jean Noble (Laura Dern), yet he is vaguely unsatisfied. When beautiful patient named Susan Ivy (Helena Bonham Carter) asks for narcotic pain medication, Frank knows it is wrong, but he is drawn to Susan, fascinated, almost intoxicated by her. He agrees to prescribe 5 pills, his first small departure from a life of conventional propriety. Then the pharmacist calls to ask about the prescription, which Susan altered to say 50 pills. Frank knows it is wrong and that he could get into serious trouble, but he tells the pharmacist that it is all right and does not call the police. Susan comes to see him in the office after hours. He knows he should not perform dental work without staff around to assist him (and act as witnesses), but he agrees. They end up having sex. Every time he breaks the rules he ends up getting in deeper trying to cover up Susan’s violations and his own. Frank becomes more enmeshed and more trapped in his lies.
“Average man caught in a spiral of deceit” movies are really about the loss of control. Frank’s world at first appears to be as exact and precisely regulated as his dental office. Although he tells us in a voiceover that everything is the way he wants it, we see hints almost immediately that he finds it sterile and unsatisfying. He has not admitted even to himself that he senses something wrong, even corrupt, in his neatly ordered world.
Even before he meets Susan, we see hints of his tolerance for – and interest in – a less controlled life. Frank finds what looks like a dead body drenched in blood in his house. It turns out to be his ne’er-do-well brother Harlan (Elias Koteas), who decided to paint a room red and then took whatever drugs he could find in the house until he passed out. On his last visit, Harlan had made a crude pass at Jean, and she is impatient with Frank’s willingness to put up with him. Frank’s tolerance for Harlan at first looks like guilt – he is very successful, while his brother is a mess. But then, as we see Frank fall under Susan’s spell, it appears that Frank feels suffocated by his success and is intrigued by those who chose another path.
This movie is a throwback to classics of the “film noir” genre like “The Woman in the Window,” where a beautiful, seductive, mysterious, but possibly deceitful woman in distress draws the law-abiding hero into a web of corruption. Instead of rain-soaked streets on moonless nights, though, this film is set in the white, sun-lit environment of a California dentist. Director David Atkins and stars Martin, Dern, Koteas, and Bonham Carter make good use of the contrast between the bright, sterile setting and the dark desires of the characters, and the plot twists keep surprises coming until the very end.
Parents should know that the movie features graphic violence, murder, drug abuse, drug-dealing, and sexual situations, including incest and betrayal. Characters use very strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about how people can feel suffocated by doing everything “right.” Why was Frank so fascinated by Susan? Why did he put up with Harlan? What did he really think of Jean? Why was it so hard for him to understand what he wanted? What do you think the author was trying to tell us with the names of the characters, like Jean Noble and Susan Ivy and Frank?