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With: Ashley Judd, Samuel L. Jackson, Andy Garcia, David Strathairn, Russell Wong, Mark Pellegrino, Camryn Manheim
Written by: Sarah Thorp
Directed by: Philip Kaufman
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language & sexuality
Running Time: 97
Date: 02/23/2004

Twisted (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

San Francisco Treat

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Years from now some enterprising college student will craft a thesis on "Ashley Judd's Thrillers," beginning with 1995's Kiss the Girls -- or possibly Michael Mann's Heat from the same year -- and focusing on psychological violence as it affects women, or San Francisco as a milieu, or what have you. But it's fairly clear even now that Philip Kaufman's new film Twisted will be the richest and most interesting from among the candidates.

Kaufman is probably best known for his "sex" movies The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June and Quills, and for his thrillers Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Rising Sun. His greatest attribute is that he excels at both, effortlessly matching the pace of the film to the subject matter; he's equally comfortable racing and sauntering.

Twisted cleverly straddles both ends of the spectrum, and while it may seem like a routine thriller, it's also a distinctively Kaufman-esque achievement. Who else could have made a film that opens at Tosca's and includes a stop at Red's Java House?

Cop Jessica Shepard (Judd) has just been promoted to Homicide Detective and celebrates with her friends at Tosca's, the famed North Beach hangout. Afterwards, she slinks off to a sleazier establishment, picks up a willing guy, has violent sex, goes home and slugs glasses of wine until she blacks out.

It's a great character, desperate, lost, tense and sad, not unlike Meg Ryan's character in Jane Campion's underrated In the Cut. It's the deepest Judd has ventured in years.

The film adds another layer when, as part of her promotion, Shepard must attend meetings with a precinct shrink (David Strathairn). She insists -- and seems to believe -- that she's perfectly normal, despite the fact that 25 years ago her father supposedly went on a killing spree, shot her mother and then himself.

On her first day, her new partner Mike Delmarco (Andy Garcia) finds a body, one of Shepard's one-night stands. She becomes increasingly concerned as more bodies turn up, each with the same mysterious cigarette burn on their hands, and each another of her many anonymous lovers.

Shepard begins to buckle under pressure, not helped by the fact that her legal guardian is also the police commissioner (Samuel L. Jackson), who has strict expectations of her. Plus, she keeps blacking out and can't remember what she might have done during those periods.

It's not easy these days to surprise an audience with the secret identity of a killer, but Kaufman and screenwriter Sarah Thorp do a nice job of throwing in red herrings and keeping us off the scent for a good long while. Virtually every male in the film wallows in his sleazy, creepy side, leering and needy. We don't really trust any of them, which helps build Shepard's severe paranoia as well as our interest in her.

Twisted is also the best film in recent memory shot in San Francisco by a director who actually lives here and knows the lay of the land. (It's his first locally shot film since The Right Stuff in 1983.) When visiting directors make movies here, they invariably commit some amateur mistake. Even the classic 1968 Bullitt cuts a few corners and magically transports its characters all the way across town in a single edit.

Twisted even uses the infamous Pier 39 sea lions as sinister background noise. Plus, how many other movies can boast a character like Camryn Manheim's lab techie, who knows not only to request a dinner at Chez Panisse, but also "downstairs" at Chez Panisse?

Sure, Twisted probably falls too easily into Hollywood thriller formula, and perhaps Jackson and Garcia are too busy acting suspicious to turn in truly intuitive performances. Overall, it maybe doesn't rank with Kaufman's best work.

Happily though, it does nestle in with some of our lesser, but wholly enjoyable San Francisco noirs like Delmer Daves' Dark Passage, Don Siegel's The Lineup and Jules Dassin's Thieves Highway. In other words, the darker the night, the later the hour, and the quieter the moment, the better to watch it. It's perfect for insomniacs and college students.

DVD Details: For the life of me I can't understand why this perfectly likable little film received such venom from the critics. Even White Chicks wound up with a higher rating. Hopefully this excellent DVD from Paramount will change things. Perhaps a new generation of insomniacs will discover it. It includes, among other extras, 16 minutes of outtakes and extended scenes, a director commentary track by Kaufman, and a brief featurette in which Kaufman and his son Peter give us a tour of San Francisco and some of the locations they used.

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