Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 8 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Sensuality, and for Drug Use and Language
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Written by: Joe Eszterhas
Starring: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Denis Arndt & Leilani Sarelle
Paul Verhoeven has made a name for himself by directing three well-known sci-fi blockbusters (ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS), but he also has a penchant for thrillers. The most famous of these is BASIC INSTINCT, an erotic mystery that has generated controversy over the years and earned a notorious reputation for its graphic sex and violence. Two decades have done little to damper this film from being a bloody, sexy thriller that’s well worth the time of anyone who enjoys a dark neo-noir.
A famous rock star has been murdered in the middle of a sexual encounter. Nick, a detective with a troubling cocaine habit and a loose trigger finger, has been assigned to the investigation. The hardened cop suspects that the victim’s girlfriend, author Catherine Tramell, might be the murderess. His suspicions are only heightened when he finds that Catherine’s friends have a nasty habit of dying, which she promptly uses for material in her best-selling novels. To try to catch her in the act and gain potential evidence, Nick begins an affair with Catherine. However, he’s wading into very dangerous waters as he’s become the main character in Catherine’s latest book.
Though Verhoeven has a few thrillers in his filmography, BASIC INSTINCT seems like an erotic throwback to the films of Hitchcock and early De Palma (who was echoing Hitchcock). Unlike those early classics and 70’s thrillers, Verhoeven is able to get away with an insane amount of sensuous sex and graphic violence. The opening scene immediately sets the tone as we see the rock star in a rousing moment that ends with a shocking stabbing. I’m sure this scene got a lot of gasps and shocked reactions upon its initial release and it’s just as effective today. The murderess is kept in a dim-light so we don’t fully know if Catherine is the killer. In this way, Verhoeven doesn’t reveal his cards all at once and leaves a numerous twists for the viewer. This isn’t a simple cut-and-dried mystery that you can completely predict as other suspects and clues do pop up throughout. One revelation midway through surprised the hell out of me.
As far as characters go, Michael Douglas could have been a completely unlikable prick in the wrong hands. Through some filmmaking magic, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and director Paul Verhoeven make Nick into a sympathetic detective with huge problems. Douglas plays Nick as a damaged protagonist who is trying to do the right thing. In this case, that involves solving a grisly mystery and getting romantically involved with the main suspect. As the potential murderess in question, Sharon Stone shines as Catherine. She perfectly blends sexy and danger into a single character. This is probably one of my favorite femme fatales to ever grace the big screen. You never really know about her, but you have sneaking suspicions of what she might be capable of. The only way to find out if she’s a manipulative psycho is to watch the film until the very last shot.
To finally address the elephant in the room, BASIC INSTINCT has some of the best sex scenes to ever see the light of day in any mainstream movie. What’s great about these moments is that they’re not meant to be purely sensuous. They don’t only exist for eye candy, but have a lurking suspense hovering over them. The opening scene graphically showed us what this movie is capable of in the heat of the moment. As a result, I was half expecting a gruesome murder to take place in any number of these sex scenes (one of which had me on the edge of my seat multiple times). The body count in this movie is not limited to one person either and the bloody violence is executed in a way that’s reminiscent of Del Palma. Verhoeven knows when to show murder and when to merely hint at it for a better shock.
The plot of BASIC INSTINCT is not perfect as one scene near the climax relies on the viewer suspending their disbelief for a few minutes. The conclusion that follows this minor plot hole made me ignore it as a minor complaint. Containing two great characters and a memorable story that keeps you on the edge of your seat, this is one of the best thrillers to come out of the 90’s. BASIC INSTINCT is as erotic as a passionate kiss and as sharp as the tip of an ice pick.