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Caught is an unfashionable movie. Although its release coincided with that of vaguely concept-alike Curdled and Bound, Robert M. Young’s sober, not-noir thriller has none of their glossy, visually energized, so-bloody-it’s-funny attitude. The second-generation Tarantinos (and we promise not to mention his name again, sort of) gleefully smash the moral compass underfoot. Caught glances at the readout and throws it away; here, as in life, clear moral distinctions are irrelevant, impossible.

It is Caught’s resemblance to real life, with its unstylized rhythms and skewed juxtapositions, that gives the movie an intimate chill that no hip, alienated effort can get near. The camera is cool and unexcitable; it goes where it needs to go, and no tricky or showboating shots burden this complicated, ambiguous, heroless story with judgment. This lack of flash brings the emotional tone in very close to the viewer. By the time Young begins sending out little tremors of the horror to come, the movie fills your vision completely.

With a light sprinkling of narration, the story follows Nick (Arie Verveen), a good-looking Irish lowlife, as he stumbles away from arrest and into something much worse—the loving middle-class life of Joe and Betty, fish-store owners and parents of an adult working in show business. In their first long scene together, Joe, Betty, and Nick lay out the terms of their relationship, unwittingly making disaster inevitable.

Everything looks normal around the family dinner table: Betty (Maria Conchita Alonso) jabbers matter-of-factly but with a great deal of enigmatic nervous excitement about Nick’s future with them, which she takes to be a certainty—he’ll work at the fish store, receive minimal pay, and can even camp out in their son’s old bedroom. Joe (Edward James Olmos) puts up a blustery refusal, but it’s more reflex than anything else; easygoing Joe, who loves fish and his beautiful wife, feels it’s a man’s duty to be stalwart about his business and authoritative about his home. Nick, shoveling down food as if he’ll never eat again, watches one and then the other as they debate his fate, nodding acquiescently where necessary.

But it isn’t normal; this is a very odd scene. Betty talks of her son Danny, off in Hollywood trying to make it as a comic, with a combination of adoration and detachment that is truly scary. Her blithe replacement of Danny with Nick—she slips seamlessly from recounting Danny’s achievements to verbally tucking Nick into her son’s childhood bed—is too glib an offer to be generous. But at this point Nick isn’t interested in motivations. He wants a change from the streets, a little cash, and an unlimited supply of food. He’ll do it for a week, then move on.

True to noir form however, no luckless protagonist who has blundered into a situation as ripe for disaster as this can spring himself before the storm hits. And Betty and Joe give him compelling reasons to stay. Joe is desperate for the kind of son Danny never was, one willing to deal with fish all day, to put on a show of guys-together friendliness based on genuine affection and a degree of emotional distance the father-son bond doesn’t quite allow. Betty, well…Betty is harder to figure. She’s impulsive, iron-willed, unconsciously sexy except when she’s being very consciously so.

Nick settles into the routine of life with Joe and Betty; aside from the weirdness of the son’s room—and the son—he has nothing to complain about. Danny (Steven Schub) sends bizarre, aggressive videotapes to his doting mother, who plays them over and over, lingering over such scenes as her chicken-necked son stuck through with joke-shop butcher’s knives, sneering, “What’s the matter, Mom? Don’t love me anymore?”

Danny is obviously a nutball, the kind of fuck-you-just-kidding asshole comedian whose inability to quit performing even in private fails to disguise a snakepit of unsavory psychoses. But Nick pushes the specter of his other half, his former and future self, to the back of his mind and continues on his damned journey, commencing an extremely hot affair with Betty one night in front of the refrigerator and continuing it everywhere, it seems, but the fish counter itself.

All this would seem like the stock stuff of psychological thrillers from the dawn of (their) time, if only Betty could manage to keep Nick and Danny straight in her head. She can’t—but worse, she doesn’t try to. By the time Danny does return, more terrifying than amusing in a Halloween-costume Elvis jumpsuit with snap-on wings, as well as a wife (Bitty Schram) and baby, the two boys are so thoroughly muddled the stage is more than set for what comes next.

But Young isn’t content with betrayals, jealousies, and revelations—mere aspects of plot. Caught is more of a story (it originated in a novel by Edward Pomerantz, called Into It; he also wrote the screenplay), and it works the icky physical magic of a good horrible story. Danny’s surprise entrance interrupts an afternoon of oral frolics for Nick and Betty; moments later, Danny hoists his mother in his arms and cries, “You’re so beautiful. I could eat you.” A picnic in the park that is clearly blissful for the participants is squirmy stuff for the audience, who watch dismayed as Betty dances to salsa with her three men in turn; she’s just enjoying herself, too primally unaware of the havoc she’s caused to even relish the friction of their conflicting intentions toward her.

It’s no wonder Danny hates Nick and wants his mother back; he and she share the same demented worldview. Neither betrays any awareness that some lines are not to be crossed. If her excuse is ignorance, his is wickedness, but the result—a heedless transgression of any and every common human boundary—is the same. The things Danny is willing to do and say to find out whether Nick is boning more than shad are unthinkable, but he doesn’t think twice. And Betty, selfish to the point of madness, coos yearningly to Nick before the scales fall from Joe’s eyes, “I wish we could tell him. Show him. So he could see how wonderful it is.” She thinks she’s being windswept and romantic, but all Nick—and we—can think is, yikes.

Both Olmos and Alonso turn in sterling performances here. You’d never know from her former solid, unspectacular work (or from her dumb-as-dirt workout tape—don’t ask) that Alonso could inhabit such a touching, terrifying prism of fears and desires. Betty is a cunning need machine whose impulses are so infantile and deep-set even she can’t make sense of them—half-knowing she’s drawn to her sexy lodger, she lingers in his (her son’s) closet while Nick showers, her face slathered unattractively with cold cream.

Freed from his noble but tiresome spokesman-of-his-people act, Olmos is heartbreaking as a contented man in the process of ruination. Joe does all the things he thinks he’s supposed to, but he also genuinely enjoys doing them—jogging alongside the river for his tricky ticker; lovingly probing a filleted shad to prove what he already knows, that he hasn’t left a single bone inside; haggling over merchandise at the Fulton Fish Market, his eyes gleaming with the joy of a shrewd businessman—or a businessman who thinks he’s shrewd—in his element. As Nick contemplates the doom his genial, passive presence has wrought, he gasps, “You were good to me, Joe. You were good to me.”

Just as Betty unleashes the worst kind of menace from indulging her every flighty whim, Joe conjures the magnificence of ordinary virtues. In spite of the last-minute spilling of blood, Caught’s chill factor lies in its eye-level view of the goodness that can be sacrificed at the expense of everyday human desire.CP