Here’s an unsung gem of a movie. If you’re a noir fan, The Last Seduction probably comes to mind as that 1994 arthouse film that won acclaim on HBO until a brief but memorable stint in cinemas led Roger Ebert to crown it one of the year’s best. If you’re not a fan, the title probably sounds like a softcore porno — something closer to what the original producers, IFC Entertainment, believed they were financing.
Today, The Last Seduction is a forgotten triumph in the land of neo-noir. It was directed by John Dahl, whose previous Red Rock West shook the independent film scene with its authentic approach to noir. It was the first screenplay written by Steve Barancik whose career unfortunately never followed this powerful debut, and it boasted an electrifying performance by actress Linda Fiorentino, omitted from an Oscar nomination due to exhibition rules.
Fiorentino plays Bridget Gregory, a telemarketing manager living in New York City with her husband, Clay (Bill Pullman), an aspiring doctor turned drug dealer. They’re a toxic pair. Bridget demonstrates ferocity and ambition in the workplace while Clay fumbles his drug deal like a boy fundraising for cookies.
Clay slaps Bridget (presumably not the first time), prompting her to steal his drug money and flee to the nearest town. We’d expect her to establish a clean life for herself, or at least want to, but not in this film. Bridget gets the scoop from lawyer Frank Griffith played by J.T. Walsh, to lay low should Clay claim the money once they file for divorce and hunt her down by deadly force.
Bridget stumbles into the sleepy town of Beston, wedged somewhere between New York and Chicago. At the same time, down-on-his-luck loser Mike Swale (a not so down-on-his-luck now Peter Berg) studies the bottom of a shot glass vowing to ditch Beston if it’s the last thing he does. We all know it will be. Good guys like Mike never make it out in the cruel world of noir and Berg does a great job expressing the American naivety that shapes small town men into thinking they’re destined for greatness.
As fate would have it, Mike pins Bridget as “the one” after she spars with the bartender for requesting a martini without saying “please.” Beston, Mike reminds her, is a place of customs — which she quickly ridicules by forcing his fly open in the middle of the bar. What Mike never realizes is that it’s Bridget who has pinned him as “the one,” the unlucky fall-guy of classic noir. Only this time, we’re not privy to his sad musings; we get to watch Bridget make him suffer in all of her diabolically hilarious schemes.
Bridget hatches plans that go from disturbing to ridiculous but are never inconceivable for her character. She is an evil force of nature, and the film doesn’t show her shortcomings or peel beneath her thick skin. At times, she can be sympathetic and get men to do anything that she wants. Like a classic femme fatale, she is always several steps ahead of the men, and in this movie, guts them from the inside out.
Fiorentino is all at once malevolent, witty, sexy, and human. Somehow. While the film hardly attempts to humanize the way Bridget’s actions are carried out, her goals in the film strike a chord. A subplot involves her bargaining with cheated spouses, hunting down their unfaithful husbands, and murdering them for double indemnity. Sounds cheesy, but some of the most impassioned moments involve Bridget’s crusade to punish men permitted to commit atrocities to women without consequence.
There’s a criticism to how men’s dominance — or its lack of in film noir — is toxic to both sexes, and while I don’t think the film champions itself as feminist, Bridget aims to punish men who are both knowingly sadistic (Clay threatens to kill her several times) and ignorantly sexist (Mike, well-intentioned as he is, chides her for not simply wanting to be his wife), creating a life for herself far away from male identification.
By the end, I wasn’t sure that I ever knew this woman, or that I had access to who she is. As over the top as the film gets, the reasons behind Bridget’s malice leaves much to be implied (or maybe it’s fairly obvious), but a smart move on Dahl’s part is never exploring it.
The Last Seduction brings to mind several other thrillers that have sought to update the femme fatale. I’m thinking mainly of Fatal Attraction and Gone Girl, but in those films, the women hardly escape being labeled ‘crazy.’ Is The Last Seduction just another sexist noir about a ‘crazy’ woman who wants to murder men?
I don’t think so.
She is less ‘crazy,’ than intelligent to the world of men surrounding her. She doesn’t want them; not their marriage, their love, or their small-town charm. When the men in this film are rendered simply — as either completely evil or stubbornly foolish — it’s hard not to root for her, and easy to understand why she’d tell these doofuses to stick their business someplace else. To write off Fiorentino’s tour-de-force performance as merely ‘crazy’ dismisses the complexity many great actresses have brought to the femme fatale: Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Gloria Grahame, etc. Fiorentino belongs up there with them.
The Last Seduction has a lot going for it, even if elements are dated. It’s a surprisingly entertaining film, running both a comedic commentary on the tropes of film noir while honoring them with intense violence and passion. It successfully uproots the stumbling protagonist of noir by situating an extremely interesting villain in the lead, and doesn’t ruin it with illusions of love or loss. The film is truly hard-boiled, fatalistic, and vividly stylish. I wonder what fans of Jessica Jones might think of it, given the similarities it bears.