This World, Then the Fireworks

on July 11, 1997 by Kim Williamson
   "God rigged it, we take the hits" is the weltanschauung of this modestly convincing adaptation of a 1955 Jim Thompson short story (not published until 1983) about two troubled grifters. Born twins, Marty and Carol Lakewood ("The Phantom's" Billy Zane and "Bound's" Gina Gershon) while still children in 1926 saw their father, caught naked in bed with a neighbor's wife by an outraged husband, shotgun the man, their little faces sprayed by blood. "They were naked, and it was funny," in voiceover recalls the grown Marty, now in 1956 a muckraking journalist equally interested in roiling life's muck and in raking transgressors on to their eternal unreward, often while quoting biblical derangements. He and his sister have always had a special bond, a we-against-the-world attitude that has as its domestic target their good-willed but emotionally twisted mother ("Out to Sea's" Rue McClanahan). Fate brings the dark-hearted duo together again as Marty and Carol, now a well-upholstered prostitute, ID a second mark: an apparently repressed and lonely patrolwoman, Lois Archer ("Bliss'" Sheryl Lee), who owns beachfront property. Machination and murder follow.
   "This World, Then the Fireworks" has almost as many problems as its leads. Right from the opening credits, a wildly overdone jazz score (sounding only like a bad '50s TV theme) announces the filmmakers' too-hip-for-the-house approach to Thompson's work; they go in with cigarettes dangling from their lips, and the smoke seems to blind them to their real job of getting at these two lost souls' humanity. There are elemental errors in characterization: Just after the audience is told early on of the tight mental link Marty and Carol share, in a flashback a young Carol being raped must scream out to alert an oblivious Marty to her plight; more damaging, a ways from the story's close Carol disappears from the narrative, the throughline evaporating. Most damaging, the two children during the opening shotgun scene are both already laughing, meaning that this Largo production can't be a story of two good people changed by a terrible world; they were loony to begin with, which leaves the tale's redemption/damnation theme hanging from a noose.
   Although debut director's Michael Oblowitz helming and Larry Gross' scripting are overbaked outside yet uncongealed inside, the work of Zane, Gershon and Lee could hardly be better. All three have shown in their past film choices an eagerness for on-the-edge projects, and they deliver here. Each of their three characters is a misfit built of conflicting emotions and desires (case in point: a shot of Lee's face that shows her Lois transforming from sex subjugate to wanton woman), and it's a delight to watch the performers' faces handle the challenge. And the fast-fuse story is unrelenting; although it, despite a craving to shock, pulls a key punch (except for one breast caress, a sexual relationship between Marty and Carol is never shown or even admitted, only asserted and condemned by others), "This World, Then the Fireworks" has a disturbing impact that will stay with audiences beyond movie's close. Starring Billy Zane, Gina Gershon, Sheryl Lee and Rue McClanahan. Directed by Michael Oblowitz. Written by Larry Gross. Produced by Chris Hanley, Brad Wyman and Larry Gross. An Orion Classics release. Drama. Rated R for strong violence, sexuality and language. Running time: 99 min
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