Published February 1, 1998
The Gingerbread Man, directed by Robert Altman from a story by John Grisham is a kind of cross between Deliverance and Fatal Attraction—that is a meditation on how bad things happen to nice yuppies when they fall victim to wily backwoodsmen or “white trash tramps” or various sorts of throwbacks still lurking around the edges of their soft, liberal good intentions. Favored for the part of atavistic reminders of what liberal middle America’s moral progress—towards tolerance, trust, compassion, non-violence and general as well as sexual liberality—is supposed to have left behind are bogeymen like the excellent Mr Robert Duvall, doing one of his crazy hillbilly numbers. Yet the movie never quite manages to scare us as both Deliverance and Fatal Attraction did.
For one thing, the plot is too unbelievable. I cannot reveal too much of it without spoiling the enjoyment of those who may want to ignore my recommendation and see the movie anyway, but this hesitancy is pro forma. I would be disappointed in my readers if they could not see the ending coming a long way before the end. As so often in these cases, we are asked to believe, on the one hand, that someone is a certifiable lunatic and carpet chewer and, on the other hand, that he has amazing powers of guile and resourcefulness to disrupt the lives of ostensibly intelligent people to whom he has taken an irrational dislike. The irrationality and the weird, almost superhuman powers are both necessary to confer on the avenging hillbilly, especially if he is associated—as he almost invariably is and is again here—with religious belief in the form of some bizarre cult or other.
I should add that there is also an essential piece of information which is, I think, unfairly withheld from the audience, though once revealed it completely gives the game away. Anybody can construct a thriller simply by not telling the audience relevant facts. The art of the genre is to reveal the facts and let the audience try (unsuccessfully, of course) to put them together in such a way as to reach the right conclusion. I also objected to the film’s raising the issue of tension between the police and a sharp defense attorney who has recently been defending a criminal who has shot a policeman. Suddenly the attorney himself needs police protection, or finds himself in a position to defend himself as the shot cop had done, and the police won’t help him. This is an interesting idea, but it is raised only to be dropped again almost immediately, and it has no bearing on the denouement.
Kenneth Branagh, who is often a splendid actor (usually when he is not directing himself), does a fine job with the lawyer, Rick Magruder, catching just the right mix of seediness, corruption and decency. He does the Savannah accent—to my ear—flawlessly and even manages that hitherto almost completely unmastered shibboleth of Americanisms for transplanted Britons, the double d in “goddamn.” Embeth Davidtz, by contrast, seems not quite up to the job of the white trash tramp, Mallory Doss, perhaps feeling a bit overawed by Branagh’s high-power star-turn opposite her. Famke Janssen may be miscast as Branagh’s ex-wife—it is hard to tell because she has so little to do—but Darryl Hannah is definitely wasted in the role of Rick’s legal factotum, Lois. Mr Duvall, Robert Downey Jr and Tom Berenger in supporting roles all do competent and workmanlike jobs of impersonating Messrs Duvall, Downey Jr. and Berenger respectively.