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The instinct is to be more basic

Stars together
Stars together
Getty Images, Cannes

Basic Instinct


Thrillers capture the essence of charm and mystery when it comes to adapting cinema to an audience level. They stir the imagination and challenge the senses. Intrigue falls in the plot and it can evolve in various directions. At one time, the thriller genre was a way to produce fear. As time has gone on, the thriller genre has magnified into a space for action and excitement.

The decade of the 1990’s was a period in motion picture history where films were pushing the boundaries of censorship to the limit. No more of a better example of this was Basic Instinct, which had appeared to the screen in 1992. It was provocative and haunting in thematic content, with raw and sensual components to the visual content itself. The film is known for a brazen, sexually-laced detective story, but the time passed has allowed it to take a place amongst the film noir classics that inspired its creation.

Work behind the curtain of this film was as detailed as it was creative in construct. Paul Verhoeven is a Dutch director who took the reigns of Basic Instinct and brought it out into vivid screen life. He was already known in Hollywood circles and created remarkable successes with Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990). He would later go on to make Starship Troopers (1997). Joe Eszterhas is a Hungarian screenwriter who produced the tantalizing and challenging script of Basic Instinct. He gained acclaim for diverse writing such as the projects known as: Flashdance (1983) and Jagged Edge (1985). He would later go on to construct Sliver (1993) and Showgirls (1995).

Work in front of the camera required dynamic and dominant personalities of acting men and women. Michael Douglas was the first cast member to become a part of the project. Some recognize him as the son of famous actor, Kirk Douglas. Others note him for bold performances in many films, such as: Wall Street (1987), Falling Down (1993), Disclosure (1994) and Traffic (2000). The female lead role would go to Sharon Stone. She was unknown at the time due to having starred in minor roles with: King Solomon’s Mines (1985), Above the Law (1988), Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold (1987). However, her role in Total Recall (1990) allowed her to work with Verhoeven and ultimately bring her career to light with Basic Instinct. Jeanne Tripplehorn was the supporting female lead and her career took a large leap after this film with appearances in: The Firm (1993), Waterworld (1995) and the HBO TV-series, Big Love. George Dzundza was the wise-cracking foil to the dark Douglas character and was noted for playing roles in: The Deer Hunter (1978), Crimson Tide (1995), Dangerous Minds (1995) and White Hunter Black Heart (1990).

The plot of Basic Instinct is ominous and dramatic from the moment it opens. Events begin with a horrific murder that captures an essence of terror and helplessness. Retired rock star, Johnny Boz, is in the throes of passion with a blonde whose face is not seen. She pulls out an ice pick and stabs him repeatedly after tying his arms to the bedpost with a scarf. Police are called to the scene of Boz’s house right after. Homicide detective, Nick Curran (played with edge and fierceness by Douglas), and his partner, Gus Moran (played with intensity and comic relief by Dzundza) investigate the evidence and compile theories together. They decide to speak with Ms. Catherine Tramell because she was the last person to be seen with Boz on the night of his murder. Tramell is a wealthy heiress who has made her wild reputation known for being a crime novelist. The two officers reach her house but instead are confronted by her girlfriend, Roxy (played with a seductive and mysterious persona by Leilani Sarelle), who states that her beloved is innocent. The two leave in order to talk with Catherine herself. The author is sitting by herself and gazing at the ocean of her beach house when the cops arrive. Catherine (played with enormous charisma by Stone) smiles and tells Nick that she knows who he is. She has little reaction to the death of Johnny Boz, but states she is not guilty of her past lover’s murder.

The case appears elusive to pursue until the authorities make a shocking discovery: Catherine had once written a book about the murder of a retired rock and roll star. Details of the murder in the text match exactly what has happened to Boz. Nick and Gus believe they have the right suspect and go to speak with her again. Catherine is calm and asks the two if they have a warrant. She is just being asked to answer more questions and has the opportunity to bring an attorney. Tramell declines and goes with them right away. What follows is a memorable and controversial scene in motion picture history. Catherine deflects all questions and turns defiant. She refuses to put out her cigarette and uncrosses her legs at one point to reveal she is not wearing underwear. All are surprised when she successfully passes the lie detector test. Nick is the lone voice in saying that Catherine is a liar and he believes that she is the killer.

Meanwhile, Nick turns his attentions to the police psychologist; Dr. Beth Garner (played with gentleness yet mysteriousness by Tripplehorn). They rekindle their relationship through a brief fling, and afterwards the doctor suggests that Catherine could be trouble. At the same time, an adversary stands in the way of Nick’s mental heal: Lieutenant Marty Nilsen. Nilsen is an internal affairs investigator who resents Nick for being able to walk away unscathed from an incident years in which he shot two tourists. Nilsen goes up to Beth privately and warns her that he can find a way to get Nick discharged. She gives in to pressure by relinquishing his personal file from their counseling sessions.

Nick visits with Catherine to follow up from her police station visit. It is there that she turns the tables and presents taunting info to the cop about his role in the shootings and possible use of cocaine at the time. Nick is thunderstruck and feels betrayed. In a tense and dramatic scene, Douglas portrays the cop with ferocity as he charges after Nilsen at the police station. He accuses his foe of leaking the details to Catherine. Nilsen promptly orders the cop out of the scene and says he is going to be fired over this. The IA officer later turns up dead. Authorities find him shot in the head inside his own vehicle. Nick, who was fast asleep in his own home, is the prime suspect.

Basic Instinct reaches high stakes in action as Nick and Catherine become romantically involved. He insists that he is not deterred in his course of seeking to pin the truth of the rock star’s murder on him. She declares she is writing a new book that will be modeled after him as the lead. Gus reminds his best friend and colleague that a book of similar proportions was penned by Catherine and led to the gruesome murder of Johnny Boz. Nick insists that he has this situation under control and knows what he is doing. Tension heightens as both Gus and Beth see the cop slip further away from reality and rationality by descending into the wild world of Catherine Tramell. Catherine has a female lover named Roxy who disagrees on her relationship with Nick. She later threatens the cop and warns him to leave her beloved alone. After a meal with Gus, Nick takes off for a walk on the San Francisco streets. It is there that a car he recognizes as Catherine’s starts chasing him. He gets hit but manages to escape into his car and chase after the would-be assailant. It turns out the driver was Roxy and Nick is disappointed that he didn’t catch his intended killer in the act itself. The subsequent investigation determines that Roxy had murdered her two younger siblings in her teenage years. This prompts Gus to warn his partner that Catherine is dangerous and likes to hang around dangerous people. Nick, for the first time in the film, suggests that Catherine may be innocent and that somebody else has used the fabric of her novels to frame her.

Catherine feels lost and hurt over the death of Roxy. In a particularly haunting scene portrayed with deep emotion by Stone, the author confides to the cop that she keeps losing the people she cares about. She then details a story in which she had an affair with a girl in college who became obsessed with her. As a result, the writer had to seek out a restraining order. Nick pulls some strings and is able to unearth the shocking mystery behind the long-ago affair: the girl that Catherine slept with was Dr. Beth Garner. He is shocked and furious at the same time. Tripplehorn displays the confrontation with inner turmoil and outward frustration. She admits to the affair and said she kept the whole matter quiet because she was embarrassed over it. Her story is the exact reverse of Tramell’s by saying that it was the accused murderess instead who was following her around. Nick leaves without sure proof of either story.

The film veers toward the conclusion as Nick and Catherine encounter a falling out in their personal relationship. The cop has been staying in control of his faculties, but has fallen hard for the tempting and alluring heiress. She appears to be taking a different interest in him, but that slow pace is quickly altered when she finishes up the new novel. She invites Nick over and tells him that they will not see each other anymore now that her writing is complete. Nick is at first confused and then explodes in anger. Douglas commands the scene with raw energy. He agrees to leave, but not before discovering in the final copy of the writing that the fictional detective’s partner is found dead inside an elevator. Curran puts the pieces together and determines that the life of Gus is in danger.

Gus, meanwhile, is on a mission to get to the true facts surrounding Beth and Catherine. He received a call from a mutual college friend and prepares to meet her at her apartment. Nick is racing to reach him in time before he heads over. Eerie and dramatic instrumental music plays in the background as the camera makes quick cuts. The cop is too late as he stumbles upon the murdered body of his friend. Only seconds before Gus was slashed in the elevator by a hooded female carrying an ice pick. The ice pick was the same weapon used in the murder of Johnny Boz alongside the fictional accounts in the books of Catherine Tramell. Nick is about to take off for help when he runs into a nervous Beth in the hallway. She is looking both frazzled and uncertain. She claims she got a message to meet Gus here. Nick doesn’t believe her and starts shouting with his gun drawn. He orders his ex-lover to empty the pockets of the trench coat she has on. She does not respond at first and instead asks her ex-lover what is wrong with him. The scene ends with a shocking draw of fire in which Nick kills Beth. He runs over to her body and she declares her love for him before passing out. He is crushed when he goes inside her pockets and only finds car keys.

Basic Instinct reaches the final scene when the police authorities determine evidence that Beth is the killer in all of this drama. They find the hooded outfit, which turns out to be a police jacket, and a blond wig only a few yards away from Gus. The gun used to shoot Nilsen is hidden at her apartment as well as several Catherine Tramell novels. Nick is grieving but also shattered inside because he knows he read clue’s to Gus’s murder at inside the sheets of Catherine’s book. He goes to see the woman one final time. She appears fragile and downbeat. She states that she can’t truly commit to any relationship but has found it hard to forget him. The two have sex and discuss a possible future afterwards. Nick would like children, but Catherine thinks it would be better to keep their boundaries limited to sex only. Verhoeven keeps the last moments glowing with minimal lighting and tight shots between Douglas and Stone. The last revelation about the circumstances is shown to the audience with an ice pick sitting underneath the bed. The film ends with all viewers and characters wondering if jealous Beth was the killer or manipulative Catherine was guilty all along.

Basic Instinct broke many boundaries in the cinema world. It displayed rampant sexuality and violence mixed together. It featured powerful performances by veteran actors and actresses. Through it all, there was a complicated and intellectual suspense storyline going on. In that case, it will be remembered as a controversial task that succeeded in the end. The film performed enormously at the box office and all cast members involved were complimented for their work.

Movie: Basic Instinct
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, Jeanne Tripplehorn, George Dzundza
Studio: TriStar Pictures
Rating: R
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Brian's Rating: 5-of-5 stars

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