Right from the start, there’s something a little off kilter about Collie (Jason Patric). He’s scruffy and unkempt, yes, but it’s something beyond that. It’s the shuffly way he walks, and the way his clutches his paper bag full of personal belongings. Most of all, it’s just the look in his eyes, like he’s focusing on something that no one else can see. In a voice-over that opens the film, he essentially lays it out for us – “I wonder if I should go back. They weren’t really doing me much good there, anyway.” The “they” plainly means an insane asylum.
When Collie wanders into a small bar for a beer, his behavior is jittery and annoying, and he is very clearly getting under the skin of the bartender. When Fay (Rachel Ward) wanders in, the movie spikes immediately. Fay is an alcoholic – That much is plain very quickly, but she also has a smoky, “Throw me down on the linoleum” sensuality to her. She seems like a woman who knows that men desire her and is not adverse to using this knowledge if it would benefit her. In this case, she takes Collie home, and puts him to work doing yard work for her.
This relationship is fascinating for the way that the film lets the sexual tension simmer away between the two of them. When Collie asks her about where her husband is, she replies “He’s dead – Gone to Hell” What the hell is up with that line? Another snippet of dialogue that makes you take notice is when she reacts to a peculiar stare with “Don’t get any ideas, Collie – We just met.” If you are trying to dissuade a man’s lust, that one doesn’t quite do it, does it?
The dynamic between Fay and Collie, is vital to the later events, but the film doesn’t really kick into gear until we meet Uncle Bud, played by Bruce Dern. He is a former cop and is one of those Film Noir characters that have a little something on the go. He wastes no time in starting to work on Collie, in that slimy Dern way. We’ve already had a hint of what Bud’s “deal” is, from some newspaper clippings left out at Fay’s place. The plan is to kidnap the child of a wealthy family for a ransom, with Collie being the one who takes the child.
It’s not a criticism of ADMS, but rather merely an observation that the details and motivations behind the kidnapping are not really important to the film. We learn that Uncle Bud has some debts that are starting to threaten his future well being, but what about his partner Fay? It’s hard to pin down her role in the crime. There’s no indication that there is anything between her and Bud. The monetary aspect is more likely, but is not really spelled out, either. Look at the home she lives in – it is an expensive home, but it is in disrepair. The late husband appears to have been well off, so is she going along with the scheme to maintain an affluent way of life that she can’t maintain any longer? We never really know. She even tries to warn Collie away from Uncle Bud at one point.
I haven’t mentioned the role of Doc Goldman (George Dickerson), who meets Collie in a restaurant, and quickly sizes up what is going on with him. In truth, this character could have possibly been omitted from the film. He is notable in that in his meetings with Collie, he tries to push him away from getting involved an anything destructive. He’s a kind of Jiminy Cricket character. The other thing is that this man is almost certainly homosexual, and is attracted to Collie.
I can’t say enough about the performance of Jason Patric in this movie. It’s hard enough to portray mental illness, and he does that remarkably well, but here he has a character that, despite his sickness, is slyly intelligent. He suggests an alternative to the ransom – Someone will rescue the kid and get a reward. He goes along with Uncle Bud’s plan, but is smart enough to know that Bud is going use his own idea to double cross him.
There are brief flashbacks during the film to Collies boxing career, and as the story progresses they eventually culminate in the event that led to his breakdown – He loses it in the ring and brutally beats another fighter to death. In addition to explaining why Collie ended up in an asylum, this information also points up something else – something that was a cornerstone of Film Noir – the need for a character to atone for part misdeeds.
The kidnapping goes as planned, but now Collie steps away from his nut-job façade and starts to take the lead. The child, it turns out, is diabetic, and will die unless he gets insulin. It’s Collie who protects the kid when Bud wants to get rid of him, and it’s he who gets the insulin and nurses him back. Patric is truly brilliant in these scenes, as he alternates between cold toughness with Fay and Uncle Bud, and tenderness with this frightened child.
When you read commentaries on many of the landmark Noirs, there’s a word that comes up often. That word is inevitability. The protagonists’ destruction is the only way for the scales to be balanced. Well, that concept has rarely been dealt with in a more sublimely perfect way than right here. Collie knows that the child has to be returned to his parents, and he knows that there is one way for Faye to escape. He has a great monologue which sets this plan into motion, while at the same time making us re-consider what we think we already know about him. And, inevitably, he gets the outcome that he needs.