Obsession is the marrow of erotic thrillers, from the sublime (“Fatal Attraction”) to the ridiculous (“Obsessed”), the hey-not-so-bad (“Sleeping with the Enemy”) to the very-bad-indeed (“The Boy Next Door”), to the auteur-crafted (Tyler Perry’s “Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor”) to the Netflix-knockoff (“Fatal Affair”). This sub-genre is so abundant that in “Fatale,” its latest victim (an appropriately jittery Michael Ealy) once played the unhinged baddie in another film about physical intimacy gone very much awry (“The Perfect Guy”).
That said, despite the ample availability of films that are built on the concept of “guilty pleasures” and delight in unspooling wacky-crazy, sex-mad, unhinged freakfests, the telling of their stories can contain all the freshness of data entry. We have someone attractive who’s blessed with an equally attractive spouse, a good job, a lovely home, maybe some cute kids, and then they to decide to bone someone they shouldn’t (oops). They soon discover that their one-off partner is a full-throttle nutbar prepared to wreak havoc on the aforementioned very nice life. By the end, the adulterer makes good and has probably killed, or at the very least jailed, the sex-partner-turned-psycho, and reaffirmed what matters most. Credits roll.
These films are typically not kind to their villains (usually women, undone by the loss of a hot man), and they sure as hell love to let bad “victims” (mostly straying men) off the hook because they have (other, better, more “normal”) partners at home who, inexplicably, still love them. That doesn’t mean the pleasures aren’t pure; anyone who didn’t stand up and cheer when Beyoncé Knowles told “Obsessed” nemesis Ali Larter that she will “show you crazy” and “just try me, bitch” needs to seriously reconsider what they want out of popcorn entertainment.
For better (and worse, so, so much worse) Deon Taylor attempts to subvert the pattern with his baffling “Fatale,” an erotic thriller that’s convoluted, boring, and maybe worst of all, hideously unsexy. No one comes out happy, especially the audience. Taylor, who reteams with his “The Intruder” star Ealy and screenwriter David Loughrey (who also wrote “Obsessed”!), takes some swings that have to be admired, because the basic ideas are quite good, even as the execution is very bad.
What if, instead of a thriller in which a “good guy” attempts to earn back his life after a terrible mistake, we start with a “good guy” whose life is maybe not worth getting back? Where could that go? In “Fatale,” that premise serves a tortuously plotted story that, despite all manner of misdirections, also manages to be incredibly obvious. You’ll think you’ll know where it’s going, but then you won’t, but then you might, and it also doesn’t really matter, because it’s all bad.
Ealy is Derrick, a former college basketball star turned big-time Hollywood agent. He’s a millionaire with a big house and a sweet car and a gorgeous wife, he gets to hang out with athletes all day, and do that alongside his best pal and business partner Rafe (Mike Colter)… but there’s something missing. Said gorgeous wife Traci (Damaris Lewis) is a real-estate agent who quite transparently hates her husband, doesn’t care about their union, and is most likely stepping out on him in her spare time. (Gotta love a realtor who is beholden to all the, uh, late-night carousing demanded by residential sales; sure, Traci.)
Enter a weekend in Vegas, where Rafe suggests Derrick take the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” stuff literally, all but yanking off the man’s wedding ring and setting him loose in a sweaty nightclub. You’re single now, Derrick! Have fun!
Turns out, fun has a name (and a really great dress): the alluring Valerie (Hilary Swank), who loves to come to Vegas to blow off tension from her unnamed stressful job in an also unnamed city. Valerie is also clearly off her rocker, so much so that even in the midst of their single night of (wooden, mostly cringe-worthy) passion, Derrick still has the presence of mind to give her a fake name and lie about where he lives.
Oh, but life has other plans for Derrick and Valerie. After a weird, very clearly not-random burglary, Derrick and Traci invite the the LAPD into their home to help solve the crime. This includes one of the force’s top detectives, a cop whose messy personal life might have ruined her marriage and her relationship with her young daughter, but hasn’t tainted her gun-toting career. (The film’s bent toward making it feel “timely” with its depiction of unhinged cops and the innocent Black people often caught in their crosshairs often feels out of place, but that doesn’t mean Taylor and Loughrey are wrong.)
Valerie is shocked to see Derrick in Los Angeles — wasn’t he “Darren” from Seattle? — but she’s bent on staying professional. Until she’s not, as “Fatale” moves with glacial urgency toward the obvious: Valerie is insane, and she’s going to ruin Derrick’s life! But not for the reasons we have come to expect, and not in the ways we’re used to seeing. (Hint: A lot more murder to come, plus a subplot involving a disgraced local politician! Hot hot hot!)
The most interesting part of this setup, unfortunately, is never fully explored. What would it be like if Derrick recognized this destructive crisis as once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Instead of examining that tantalizing idea, it’s mined for more cracked-out convolutions that hinge on Valerie’s loosening grip on reality.
Looking and feeling like the most mediocre of The CW’s ’90s-era soap operas, most scenes are bathed in harsh yellow light and many of them sport some of the worst CG blood ever committed to the big screen. Valerie’s loft, the stage of a massive final face-off, bridges the gap between “hip” and “illegal squat” with a single old couch and a massive fire hose, perhaps as some sort of wink to its industrial roots. Even Derrick’s glam house gets worse for wear, eventually finding Taylor focusing on its long (?), steep (?), and wholly inelegant cement driveway as its major focal point.
For all of the film’s intricately plotted twists, there’s one that it likely didn’t intend. Toss the word “Fatale” up on a screen alongside a sultry woman, and that usually equals “femme fatale,” but what’s most deadly about Taylor’s latest isn’t a miscast Swank or her character’s demented arc, or even the uncomfortable Ealy and his character’s insane idiocy, it’s the sense that this sub-genre should still be able to have plenty of naughty fun doing very bad things. Just not this kind of bad.
Lionsgate will release “Fatale” in select theaters December 18, with a PVOD release to follow January 8.
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