Normal Life (1996)

D: John McNaughton
S: Luke Perry, Ashley Judd

We have come a long way since Bonnie and Clyde. Couple on the run movies existed before Arthur Penn's blood-soaked cry of anguish in 1967. Even 1940s films like Gun Crazy and They Live By Night dealt with the frustrations and fetishes of young people turning to crime to escape the constraints of the system, followed decades later by Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands, and Thieves Like Us. The 1990s have seen a revival of this particular strain of social/personal crime drama, with the likes of Thelma & Louise, Mad Love, Guncrazy (not a remake), and, of course, Natural Born Killers. The question now, especially in the wake of Stone's death warrant on all meaning and culture, is what meaning such parables have for contemporary audiences. What frustrations and anxieties are being problematised here? What moral lessons are we to learn from seeing the story unfold yet again, even if in this case the story is "inspired by" real events (as Bonnie and Clyde was: subsequent documentaries have revealed just how much liberty was taken with the facts in that film). John McNaughton has already shown how even the most disagreeable material can make a strong, clear statement about contemporary societal dysfunction in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. In this film, made for theatrical distribution but shown on cable, he presents a vision of American society in which normalcy is not so much undesirable or unobtainable, as untenable in the face of irrational emotions like blind love. There is nothing terribly new about this, but McNaughton's distant, almost clinical, certainly observational approach to the material makes it more a morbidly fascinating study of moral failure and psychological decay which is neither as impassioned as Bonnie and Clyde nor as chilling as Henry.

The story concerns the relationship between nice guy cop Luke Perry and his flaky wife Ashley Judd. She's a disturbed but beautiful woman whose alcoholism and other addictions are not so much the cause of her problems as a response to deeper rooted (and slightly mysterious) psychological maladies. He just wants to "have a normal life" and does his best to manage increasing debt and emotional confrontation in an attempt to attain it. It is all denial, of course, because in time he turns to successfully robbing banks to obtain funds with which to build this normal life, all the while ignoring the fact that it is absolutely impossible under these conditions. In the way of these things, his fatal attraction to the unstable Judd is his biggest weakness, but it is not his only one (fantasies of control, a gun fetish). In many ways the couple enable each other's most negative behavioural quirks, and this eventually overwhelms them both.

Perry seems to be attempting an impersonation of Michael Rooker throughout this film, with a low-key manner, limited facial expressions, and a gravelly voice which don't quite sit with the actor's youthful looks and light build, but he is effective. Judd has the showier role and makes the most of it, portraying the disintegration of this woman's personality though its ups and downs with gusto and some pathos. There are enough scenes of sexual and emotional passion between the two to make the relationship convincing, and the actors work well together as they slide the slippery slope to mutual self-destruction which the story (and the genre) demands and expects. When it comes it lacks the tragic feel which is often also expected, largely because of the directorial style, and also lacks the kind of hammer blow which gives a story like this moral force. McNaughton handles all of the action well, and though it does resemble a TV movie in the choice of shots and cutting rhythm, some scenes have a more expansive feel. The script incorporates a range of small scenes which add depth to the characterisation, including Judd's fascination with astronomy and Perry's with books, but it is mostly predicated on the details of the relationship and its decline. This comes to assume broader significance when the crime plot begins, as we are asked to understand these actions in the context of what has gone before. Again there is nothing terribly new about this, and, in a sense, the film does sink under the weight of precedent. It does work on its own terms though, and viewers relatively unfamiliar with the wealth of previous versions of this kind of tale will find a well directed, well acted, generally engaging, and mostly effective tale of enduring love and true crime which will provide adequate entertainment for an evening. Whether or not it has a lasting, meaningful effect on your life (and whether you think that matters anyway) is another question. Worth a look.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.