|Written by Bill Warren|
|Wednesday, 05 August 1998|
It's not necessary to notice that 'Palmetto' is based on a James Hadley Chase novel entitled "Just Another Sucker." All we need to do is watch flawed hero Harry Barber (Woody Harrelson) in action for a minute or two to guess which way the wind will blow. Despite this, the film succeeds in orffering a couple of genuinely startling plot twists, along with some good laughs. The problem here is that director Volker Schlondorff and screenwriter E. Max Frye don't entirely have a handle on how to maintain the bemused tone they occasionally succeed in setting. Sometimes the tone becomes so dark that it curdles the intended levity; in other sequences, would-be suspenseful action is played so broadly that it becomes comical.
Newly sprung from jail, Harry means to avoid his old stomping grounds of Palmetto, Florida, but fate--and a few of the townsfolk--have other ideas. Harry's inability to get a job and financial dependence on his gorgeous girlfriend Nina (Gina Gershon) make him surly and self-pitying. When an alluring blonde woman, Rhea (Elisabeth Shue), approaches Harry in a bar with a proposition involving a fake kidnapping scheme, lust and a need for quick cash override common sense. Before you can say "film noir," Harry is in way over his head.
The cinematography by Thomas Kloss provides rich colors throughout, and the sound is uniformly good, albeit without any exceptional moments. There's a bout of wall-pounding sex between Harrelson and Shue in Chapter 7 that will strike some viewers as reason enough to watch 'Palmetto.' For those who find Shue's vamping a bit over the top but appreciate a well-structured thriller, we get plot developments that are startling yet wholly logical within the story's complex set-up.
The movie has a fair amount of sharp dialogue and finds a good running gag in Harry's klutziness, which manages to invert some cliches without turning into outright slapstick. However, at least one plot development is too grim to support the continued comedic tone; when 'Palmetto' tries to lighten up afterwards, it can't fully recover its momentum.
Other problems include a character who leaps to a correct, but unlikely conclusion so quickly as to be jarring and a key plot point that is dealt with in a way that makes it look as though there's been an error in continuity. Still Schlondorff and Frye know how to spin a yarn and keep us guessing as to what will happen next. They, along with Harrelson, do a particularly good job of creating multiple layers for Harry, a man who knows better but just can't stop himself from doing the wrong thing. Their sense of style extends right to the start of the closing credits, displaying a whimsy that would be more winning if it didn't seem to negate (as opposed to overcoming) the events that have preceded it.