Going into Fatale, the new Lionsgate movie from director Deon Taylor, all I knew about it was that it starred Hilary Swank as some kind of Fatal Attraction/hook-up gone wrong alongside a mostly black cast.
Hilary Swank in a movie about a crazy white woman? I thought. Sign me up.
Swank is one of those actors so acclaimed that she rarely gets to do anything fun. As it turns out, Fatale never skimps on the action, but it doesn’t entirely deliver on the promise, either. It’s one of those rare movies where “too grounded” is actually a fair criticism. It manages to fall into the space between realism and escapism, excelling at neither.
Michael Ealy plays Derrick, an athlete-turned-sports-agent so successful that he parks his Lamborghini on one of those rotating showcase disks (a wealthy Susan?) outside his tacky, modernist glass-and-steel baller mansion. Weird flex, but okay. Despite his aspirational (yet somehow corny) lifestyle, Derrick’s beautiful wife with very shiny hair (Traci, played by Demaris Lewis) seems to hate him — allegedly on account of he’s chosen his career over her. Seeing that he’s depressed over his rocky marriage, Derrick’s business partner, Rafe (Mike Colter from Luke Cage) takes him to Vegas for the weekend to get his mind off things. Over drinks at the club, Rafe makes Derrick take off his wedding ring and be not married for the weekend. A nice little vacation from monogamy, another perk of being rich.
Almost immediately, Derrick meets a tigress — Val, played by Swank — who refers to herself as an “unaccompanied adult.” She has a high-stress job and goes to Vegas from time to time to “blow off steam,” she tells Derrick. Someone who goes to Las Vegas, alone, to go to clubs, as a way to blow off steam, sounds like a nightmare human, and a statement that should interpreted as be the world’s biggest red flag. But what the heck, it’s not every day you take a marriage vacation and immediately find someone so redolently DTF. And so Derrick and Val retire to a hotel room to have some sex, which they do, set to Fatale‘s bizarrely loud and intrusive musical score. This screeching track periodically swells up throughout the movie, drowning out everything else with thumping distorted fuzz, presumably as a way to make sure we’re still paying attention.
When Derrick wakes up the next morning, he naturally tries to flee as fast as he can. Before he can, he discovers that Val has taken his cell phone hostage, locking it in the hotel room safe. She won’t give him the combination until he does what she wants. “I have to f*ck it out of you?” asks an incredulous Derrick, who nonetheless f*cks it out of her (a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do).
It’s probably Fatale‘s most effective scene, naughty enough to keep us hooked and making us wonder, Is Hilary Swank crazy, or just clever and horny? The writing, by David Loughery, and direction by Taylor, excels at staying grounded, with dialogue that sounds just naturalistic enough, like classed-up Skinemax. When the action flows directly from characters, it works. It’s only later, when it has to do the heavier narrative lifting, that it falters.
Derrick comes home, driving his Lambo back to its rotating disk (what’d he do, stick his $300,000 convertible in long-term parking at the airport?), and tries to make fake-nice with his unsuspecting wife. Everything seems to be going swimmingly — the monogamy vacation worked! — until Derrick becomes the victim of a home invasion. Which unexpectedly thrusts Val back into his life.
This is the point at which the movie both gets interesting and also falls apart. It feels like Taylor and Loughery figured, probably correctly, that a Vegas lady looking for a one-night stand and then getting it wouldn’t be justification enough for her to go all Single White Female on Derrick. And so they write for Val instead a subplot in which she’s trying to regain custody from her ex, a corrupt city politician who is siphoning money from “children’s charities in South Central,” who also has all the cities’ judges in his pocket.
That’s, ah… a bit much to try to work into Derrick’s story, considering that he’s also dealing with a flaky wife, an attempted hit, and corporate intrigue at his sports agency. Trying to cover that much ground was probably a bad idea to begin with, and in order to resolve it all in under five hours Fatale‘s solution is to just sort of turn everyone into action heroes and have them start shooting at each other. Meanwhile, all the backstory sucks the fun out of Val as a character, explaining her away until there’s nothing left for her to do but react. That she’s trying to get her daughter back makes the sexual angle basically irrelevant, transforming the story from naughty to simply wordy.
All that being said, it’s impossible to deny that a lot of stuff happens in Fatale. If judged by quantity alone, it’s a masterpiece. Fatale isn’t a good movie, per se, but it does seem like a perfect movie to watch while really stoned and say “Oh damn” at every wild plot twist.