Sir Peter Hall’s “Never Talk to Strangers” is a tight, taut little thriller with several things going for it, not the least of which is Rebecca De Mornay’s performance, which grows in assurance and awareness as the film goes on.
Saddled with one of those all-purpose TV movie-type titles, which sounds like it should be on the USA Network, “Never Talk to Strangers” is an intimate acting exercise for its small cast, one that mixes in ingredients from two other superior thrillers - David Miller’s “Midnight Lace” (1960) and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie” (1964) - while also breaking some new ground on its own.
There are several genuine surprises here and a subversive ending that goes against the political correctness that mars most films these days.
De Mornay, who was also executive producer of the film, stars as Sarah Taylor, a criminal psychologist who is working on the case of a serial rapist, Max Cheski (played by Harry Dean Stanton), who can’t make up his mind if he wants to plead innocent on the grounds he’s a schizophrenic or that he suffers from multiple personalities disorder. Sarah tells him he has to figure out which one he wants to go with, which angers both Cheski and his attorney (Beau Starr).
As in the case of films like this, Sarah herself has a troubled past, involving her father (Len Cariou, the star of Broadway’s “Sweeney Todd”). Just around this time, someone starts to stalk Sarah, sending her dead flowers, placing her obituary in the newspaper and killing her cat (cat abuse is getting to be an ugly trend in movies), and the prime suspect is her hunky new Latin lover, Tony (the ubiquitous Antonio Banderas), whose own past is rather murky.
Hall (the British stage director who has dabbled in British films and makes his American directorial debut here), however, keeps fooling us. He and his writers, Lewis Green and Jordan Rush, create a web of fascinating deceit. Tony certainly looks guilty, but so do Cheski’s attorney, Sarah’s father, and her nosy neighbor (Dennis Miller) in the apartment building where she lives.
The stress eventually gets to Sarah, which affords De Mornay the chance to dig into her role and create some really juicy scenes, opposite Banderas and Cariou in particular. With a change of mood as daringly impressive as anything you’re likely to see on screen these days, the actress can go from a marvelously urgent scene to one of utter quietness. Everyone else is fine, but they are clearly in support of their boss here.
MEMO: “Never Talk to Strangers” Locations: Lincoln Heights and Newport cinemas Credits: Directed by Peter Hall; starring Rebecca De Mornay, Antonio Banderas, Dennis Miller, Len Cariou and Harry Dean Stanton Running time: 1:42 Rating: R This sidebar appeared with the story: OTHER CRITICS’ COMMENTS Here’s what other critics say about “Never Talk To Strangers”: Caryn James/New York Times: For a film like this to work, it has to be sleek and unpredictable. “Never Talk to Strangers” is not aggressively bad, just slack and unsurprising. … “Never Talk to Strangers” opened Friday without advance screenings. It’s an easy-to-watch movie that will be even easier on video, where it should turn up any minute. Michael Janusonis/Providence Journal-Bulletin: Most of it is a respectably eerie thriller: Who is mentally torturing psychiatrist Sarah Taylor (Rebecca DeMornay)? They kill her cat, send her dead roses, plant her obituary in the newspaper, break into her apartment and scrawl ugly words on the wall. But the solution is so off-the-planet that you may demand your money back.