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The striking images underpinning Niagara, Niagara’s opening credits—a montage of cascading waters and misty spray—evoke memories of previous cinematic excursions to those cataracts: Marilyn Monroe, in her most blatantly carnal role, plotting to kill deranged husband Joseph Cotten in Niagara; CIA agent Roy Scheider battling for his life beneath the falls at the climax of Jonathan Demme’s underrated neo-Hitchcockian thriller Last Embrace.
I doubt that moviegoers will recall Bob Gosse’s feature debut as fondly. A 1986 SUNY-Purchase film school graduate, Gosse (who collaborated with filmmaker Hal Hartley before co-founding an independent production company) has teamed with screenwriter Matthew Weiss on a project that cannibalizes elements from at least a dozen alienated-youth-on-the-run theatrical features and disease-of-the-week telemovies. Watching Niagara, Niagara is rather like sitting through an American film retrospective at which a drunken projectionist has jumbled the reels. Bits of Badlands, Rain Man, David and Lisa, Thieves Like Us, Bonnie and Clyde, Drugstore Cowboy, and Mad Love (to list only the most obvious sources) collide in an episodic narrative that plunders past successes without ever finding its own identity.
E.T.’s Henry Thomas, who has survived boyhood stardom without any evident damage, plays Seth, a withdrawn, dorky loner in an upstate New York town. (The film was largely shot in Poughkeepsie, though the setting is never specified.) While clumsily attempting to shoplift from a department store, he literally bumps into volatile Marcy (Robin Tunney), a booster with far more finesse. (This is Weiss’ ’90s notion of meeting cute.) Seth returns to the dilapidated house he shares with his abusive, depressed father, only to meet Marcy again later at the same emporium. Outraged that the store does not stock the Black Bobbi hairstyling doll she’s seeking, she persuades Seth to drive her to Toronto, where, apparently, that item is more readily available.
After stopping at Marcy’s parents’ mansion, the pair hit the road. Seth soon begins noticing some oddities about his companion’s behavior: aggressive verbal outbursts, ineptly concealed physical tics and spasms, excessive alcohol consumption from a silver flask. After a visit to a liquor store, where Seth steals booze for Marcy and she protects him from the taunts of a gaggle of teenagers, they repair to a motel, where Marcy reveals that she suffers from Tourette syndrome and demonstrates this obsessive-compulsive condition by meticulously arranging the contents of her cosmetics bag. Having left her medication at home, she explains that alcohol and sex help to control her disease. Seth happily provides the latter palliative.
A series of increasingly desperate misadventures follows. During a flubbed robbery attempt to score pills at a drugstore, Seth is wounded by the pharmacist (Stephen Lang). Speeding away with Marcy at the wheel, the car crashes into a ravine, from which Marcy and Seth are rescued by Walter (Michael Parks), a widowed tow-truck operator. He takes them to his ramshackle junkyard, where he ministers to Seth’s wound and hospitably provides lodging, meals, and entertainment (fishing, sharpshooting, and golf). His kindness is repaid by a violent, though unintended, beating by Marcy, whose disability has driven her to the edge of insanity. Escaping in Walter’s truck, Seth and Marcy cross the Canadian border and, after a glimpse of the titular falls, proceed to Toronto, where they finally locate a chained display model of Black Bobbi. Their frenzied attempts to secure the doll lead to the film’s violent climax.
If this summary sounds appealing—and you’d better do some serious introspection if it does—you’ll find that Gosse executes it efficiently. Marcy is an aspiring actress’s dream role, and Tunney gives it all she’s got. (Her efforts won her the Best Actress prize at last year’s Venice Film Festival.) Dark, slim, and graced with an oddly expressive mouth—in some shots, she’s a ringer for the young Margot Kidder—Tunney unsparingly jerks, twitches, curses, and otherwise freaks out. It’s an explosively clinical performance, but not a particularly pleasurable one to witness. Although far less histrionic, Thomas’ part is arguably more demanding, requiring him to evolve from giving subtle, mute reactions to exhibiting authority and responsibility as Marcy goes increasingly bonkers. Parks, whose career has taken him from failed James Dean clone (The Wild Seed, Bus Riley’s Back in Town) to television series star (Then Came Bronson, Twin Peaks), emerges as a subtle character actor, conveying Walter’s gruff complexity in a few sketchy scenes.
Niagara, Niagara is not without incidental pleasures. Cinematographer Michael Spiller, who has been responsible for the rich images in Hal Hartley’s features, gives the film a visual sheen seldom found in budget-pinched indies. (There’s a magical shot of Walter towing Seth’s inverted car down a rural highway, a shower of sparks glittering where the metal scrapes the pavement.) And Weiss’ dialogue occasionally has some inspired passages. Prior to raiding a convenience store, Marcy muses, “I feel like fucking Farrah. She’s my favorite Angel.”
But we’ve traveled this road in the company of disaffected misfits too often in the past for Niagara, Niagara to have much impact, and its sole novelty—the Tourette-addled protagonist—is a source of more exasperation than edification or empathy. After spending 93 minutes with Tunney’s hysterical Marcy, one leaves the theater wondering whether the most compassionate treatment for her ailment might not be lethal injection.