May 7, 2009

While She Was Out

Reviewer: Jeffrey Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***

Susan Montford wrote and directed While She Was Out, a revenge-of-the-woman thriller (based on a short story by Edward Bryant) and it's filled with fascinating ideas, bringing it just a notch above your standard-issue exploitation flick (not to mention that the director is a woman). Kim Basinger plays Della, a housewife who loves her twins but who meekly puts up with an angry, drunken, abusive husband (Craig Sheffer). Just before Christmas, she takes a night drive to the mall to pick up a few last-minute supplies. It's late and raining, she's fed up, and there's no parking, so she makes perhaps the most courageous move of her life: she leaves a note on a car that's taking up two spots. Unfortunately, the car belongs to a thug called Chuckie (Lukas Haas), and his multi-racial gang: the African-American Huey (Jamie Starr), the Vietnamese Vingh (Leonard Wu) and the Hispanic Tomas (Luis Chávez).

They begin to pick on her, a mall cop intervenes, and Chuckie shoots him. Now with Della as the only witness to their crime, she takes off, with the gang in hot pursuit. She crashes her soccer-mom car on a dead-end road, near a construction site and eerily dark woods. She grabs some items from her car, hides and proceeds to take them out, one by one. Montford makes several allusions to the idea of family -- most of the thugs talk briefly about their broken homes, but together the bad guys have a fairly tight-knit family, more so even than Della.

Oscar-winner Basinger, who still looks sexy at age 55, plays a character not unlike the one she played in Cellular, with fragility and strength and a searching quality in her eyes. She's quietly tormented, and we have no idea just how deep and dark her thoughts are capable of wandering. The film starts out with twenty solid minutes of character development for Della before anything happens, all of which is handled beautifully and without much dialogue. She orders a tea, and nearly orders some chocolate biscotti, but cancels (perhaps she thinks she doesn't deserve it). The clerk spells her name wrong, but Della doesn't say anything. She runs into an old classmate but can't muster the energy to compare their suburban lifestyles. She has overrun her credit card, etc. On this one outing, we get to know all about Della, and how unhappy she is. She laughs twice in the film: once while cuddling and kissing her kids, and a second time, which is better left to the viewer.

Even better is the ending, which does not turn around and suddenly justify conservative, suburban values. This is brave, tightly-constructed stuff, and it deserved a theatrical release in place of the soulless new The Last House on the Left remake.

DVD Details: Anchor Bay released the 2009 DVD, with a director's commentary track (though producer Don Murphy does most of the gabbing), and a rather blah, 25-minute making-of featurette, as well as trailers. Somehow, Guillermo Del Toro is credited as an executive producer!

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Posted by cphillips at May 7, 2009 2:17 PM

Kim Basinger looks great in this movie! I couldn't believe it was really her. Also, Luis Chavez gives a great performance as Tomas.

Posted by: Ares at May 9, 2009 12:36 PM

Wow, Jeffrey. You liked this one better than I. We found it bearable due to its very high camp quotient: These "gang" kids are so stupid and easily whooped that you wonder how they manage to get out of bed in the morning. And although the Mall is so jam-packed on Christmas Eve no one can find a parking place (the plot point that sets the movie in motion), the roads to and from it (and every other location shown) are absolutely deserted. The film is certainly watchable, though, if only to wonder at the kind of roles Lukas Haas -- everyone's favorite kid-in-danger ("Witness") -- is now consigned to.

Posted by: James van Maanen at May 11, 2009 5:51 AM
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