Published September 1, 1999
Double Jeopardy, directed by Bruce Beresford, is the latest example of what is coming to be one of Hollywood’s favorite new genres: the female paranoia movie. Like The Astronaut’s Wife of a few weeks ago, it deliberately sets out to exploit the sort of insecurity that has become endemic, in some ways the most destructive of the sexually transmitted diseases, since feminism, the sexual revolution and no-fault divorce put an end to the old social safeguards of female sexuality. Of course we know from experience that women are more victimized by the casual, live-in relationships so easily taken on and shed and adapted to male needs and desires, but it is once again marriage which is the target here. For the point of these movies is not just to reassure them, in that perverse way that paranoiacs need to be reassured, that their fears are justified, but also to reassure them in a more straightforward way that things are just as bad for those who are mothers, married and moneyed as for the most vulnerable.
The story concerns the Parsons, Libby (Ashley Judd) and Nick (Bruce Greenwood), who have what is apparently a perfect marriage. And—oh the diabolical cleverness of it!—the film even wants us to believe that Nick really does sincerely love Libby and their adorable son, Mattie. But when there is a threat to the wealth that sustains their opulent life by a lake in Washington State, Nick does not hesitate to recover his fortunes by ditching Libby. This he does by staging his own death while the two of them are alone on a yacht far out to sea. His story is that he took out a large insurance policy on his own life with the idea that Libby and Mattie would be well-provided for while he started a new life in a new place with a new name and a clean credit rating. The trouble is that the insurance policy aroused suspicions that Libby, the only other person on the boat after all, had killed him for the money, and she is convicted of his murder.
One of the conventions that makes this kind of movie possible is that of gender equivalence. There is an unwritten rule in Hollywood nowadays not only that frowns on women in jeopardy being rescued by men but also that you must never hint at the truth that everyone knows, namely that there are differences in physical strength between women and men. Therefore, no one apparently even raises an eyebrow at the idea that little Libby could have taken a kitchen knife to big Nick, stabbed him so many times as to have left blood all over the boat, but not sustained so much as a scratch herself. Nor does anyone apparently consider the unlikelihood that a happily married woman with a child would want to do such a thing even if the money was a certainty. Nor do Nick’s financial difficulties make anyone smell a rat. She seems to be convicted with scarcely a word said in her defense.
And then, also in the spirit of sexual equality, she goes to prison and starts to buff up. The stage is set for the revenger’s comedy when the friend (Annabeth Gish) to whom she entrusts the care of Mattie soon disappears with the boy, and Libby learns by accident that she is living with the supposedly dead Nick. How this can have come about—particularly as the film does not vouch for a pre-existing relationship between the two, is left to our imaginations. Nothing must be allowed to disturb the central conceit of a genuinely perfect marriage which nevertheless conceals multiple masculine betrayals of the most appalling kind. Men are natural liars, like Libby’s fat and unattractive lawyer who blandly reassures her that “It will be all right, I promise.” Thus, too, when Libby arrives in prison, her first two acquaintances there say: “Heard you did your husband. He probably deserved it. Mine did.”
When life sends them lemons, these women make lemonade, and female prison for them is a warm and supportive place without men. One of them (Roma Maffia), an ex-lawyer, is soon a pal who believes in Libby’s innocence and informs her about the double jeopardy clause of the Constitution, which is said to mean that, since the man she supposedly killed is alive, “You can kill him. . .Kind of makes you feel warm and tingly all over don’t it?” When I saw the film, the audience laughed and cheered at this line, as they did when Libby, allowed out on parole after six years (“Throw in some of that born-again Jesus stuff” her friend advises her when she appears before the parole board), uses her reputation as a hubbycide (“sliced and diced, that’s what they called it”) to scare off a creep who tries to pick her up. There’s girl power for you!
But even paranoiacs can be romantics too, so there has to be a love interest for poor wronged Libby. This is brought in in the improbable form of her parole officer, Travis Lehman (Tommy Lee Jones) a former law professor with a secret sorrow who first acts as a (remarkably incompetent) Inspector Javert when she takes off after the errant Nick and later her accomplice in bringing Nick, now known as Jonathan Devereaux, a hotel-owner in New Orleans, to book. Naturally any hint of passion between the two of them is muted and left for future development, since all the film’s energies are directed to the cathartic and presumably empowering working out of the paranoiac’s revenge against the demons of distrust that haunt modern marriages. Doubtless, once she is reunited with the missing Mattie, Libby’s single-motherhood will be enlivened by occasional trysts with Travis—so long as they don’t involve commitment.