Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: It’s the final week of the year, so we’re dispensing with themes and just recommending some movies we love.
Normal Life (1996)
John McNaughton’s Normal Life tells the story of a foregone conclusion. The movie begins at the end, with the mustached man in the camouflage-colored clothes (Luke Perry) getting mauled by FBI agents while the girl wearing a dark wig and red lipstick (Ashley Judd) tries to outrun police sedans in a fat, blue Dodge Ram. These two will fall in love (they share a kiss before the authorities intervene) and enter into a life of crime (their confident demeanor implies a well-worn routine), but—as the handcuffs around his wrists and the Dodge-Ram-directed gunfire echoing through the cop-car radio can attest—they will not make it. The camera plants itself in close-up on the man’s face as he listens to the sounds of his lover’s violent demise, and then McNaughton (Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer) falls into a flashback to the start of the relationship “two years earlier.”
In a bar, a rookie cop named Chris (Perry) sees a girl named Pam (Judd) explode at her male companion (“You never cared about me! Fuck you!”) and break a glass in her hand. Chris kneels next to her, drops some cold water on her bleeding palm, and wraps the wound in a damp napkin. Jim Tullio’s “I Found Love” comes on the bar’s speakers, and he asks her to dance. During a couple of initial dates, the two get to know each other: He’s a committed, by-the-book cop who likes to let off steam at shooting ranges; she’s an astronomy enthusiast who enjoys getting high and reading A Brief History Of Time in between her thankless shifts at a factory. Pam exhibits mental imbalance and disturbing behavior—after Chris’ father dies, she shows up to the wake in rollerblades and sweats—but Chris is a goner. When the couple becomes embroiled in severe debt due to Pam’s impulsive spending, Chris’ response is not to leave her, but to jeopardize his job on the force and, eventually, start robbing banks to keep her satisfied.
This sets the stage for McNaughton’s low-budget, Midwestern take on the Bonnie And Clyde template. The basic concept is eerie and sad: a lovers-on-the-run tale dumped into the heart of the Chicago suburbs, with the couple’s robberies taking place next to boring strip malls and empty parking lots. (The opening-credits sequence—all depopulated shots of vacant fields, chain stores, and identical homes—lends the suburban locales a haunting, even ghostly air.) McNaughton’s disregard for conventional taste leads to some of the movie’s greatest moments: It’s hard to think of another director who’d follow through on an outdoor, under-the-stars sex scene in which Ashley Judd theorizes about black holes while mounting her partner and telling him, “No touching.” The raw commitment of the actors helps catapult Normal Life to extraordinary, close-to-the-bone dramatic heights. Perry, using a sandpapery voice and adopting a bookish intensity, makes Chris’ profound infatuation plausible without sacrificing the character’s intelligence. And Judd reveals genuine fearlessness in developing Pam’s chaotic, captivating fatalism, as in the two-minute solo scene, set to Sixteen Deluxe’s “Fetus,” in which she weeps uncontrollably while rubbing a handgun all over her body.
Availability: Normal Life is available on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, and possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.