by JAMES BRIGHAM
Apparently, Sliver is the kind of movie that finds its way into the DVD player when I’m lazy enough to avoid working on grad school applications, but not energetic enough to call up my buddies and go out to a bar. This happened to me on a recent Saturday night when, rather than firmly committing to one choice over the other, I decided to plunge straight down the middle between active diversion and dedicated toil. In other words, I chose lethargy. And let me tell you, dear reader, nothing goes better with a single bottle of Rolling Rock and a night alone plopped on a couch than Sliver, the everyman’s erotic thriller.
It’s the kind of movie that routinely appears on late-night cable, paid and basic. Mindless channel flipping is temporarily halted by the appearance of Sharon Stone engaged in a bit of sexually charged wordplay with a Baldwin brother. The electronica music thumps invitingly as you’re pulled into scene after scene of passable intrigue. Tom Berenger (Yes, the Sniper himself) swaggers into frame. A half-dozen plot hooks are casually tossed in front of you, the movie seemingly uncaring about whether they’re picked up or not. ‘What’s this?’ you think. ‘A suicide?’
‘Nope,’ Sliver casually replies. ‘A murder.’
You look at the VCR clock and realize it’s approximately 1:00 AM and that you’re not going anywhere. You curse yourself briefly and then swig some beer. ‘Fine, Sliver. Tell me more,’ you declare begrudgingly.
I suspect that the reason this movie was produced is due to (in no small part) Basic Instinct. That adult targeted mystery penned by Joe Eszterhas made Stone a household name and simultaneously titillated and terrified the movie going audience, particularly the male viewers. Say what you will about Basic Instinct’s ultimate merit when compared to the legacy of film as an art form; it was a slickly made exercise in big budget sexploitation that managed to keep me engaged through its entirety. Sliver, on the other hand, seems like the product of a writer content to stay just above water and make a buck doing the bare minimum. Eszterhas’ script for Sliver isn’t akin to the jackpot puzzler he wrote for Basic Instinct, but neither is it in the realm of unmitigated trash like his screenplay for Showgirls. It dwells in the vast filmic wilderness between oasis and wasteland, like so many other movies that have come before it.
It makes me wonder about how good the movie could have been. Sliver is an adaptation of the novel by Ira Levin, whose work has been turned into great screenplays before (Deathtrap, Rosemary’s Baby). Its story covers important topics like the fascination with voyeurism and the intrusion of monitoring technology into public and private space. It’s also brazenly pro-sexual, refusing to cast its characters in a negative light for fascination with and exploration of the erotic. Where it fails is the anvil-over-the-head approach it uses in exposing the dangers of a world caught in the eye of a lens. Sliver also fumbles with its dynamic between Stone and Baldwin, leaving Stone’s character to waffle between sheltered, reserved professional and cheeky, scandalous temptress. Both these problems are epitomized in a scene where Stone’s character holds a dinner party at her apartment with a telescope prominently displayed in front of one of the enormous windows that faces the skyscraper across the street (See? We’re all watching or being watched!). Never mind the fact that she’s previously been shown as a pedestrian businesswoman inclined to embarrassment when sex is brought up.
In fact, reports of a radical retooling of the ending of the film make me wonder if it was ever meant to carry such heavy thriller overtones. Given more screen time, Stone might have made the character’s transition from wet blanket to freewheeler a bit more plausible. Sure, it’s possible for a person to exist in both the world of buttoned-up, bourgeois, corporate America while also skulking about in a night realm of shadowy, liberated passion. I just never felt like her work or play interests fell naturally into a visible and understandable natural expansion of character. Each aspect of her personality was dampened or heightened as it benefited the plot without regard to building her up as a three-dimensional main character with a powerful arc for the viewer to follow. Imagine how experimental Sliver might have been if it maintained itself as a straight-up character study and minimized the thriller aspects.
Sharon Stone will likely forever be remembered for her role in Basic Instinct and the numerous variations she played on the icy, remote blond (see Basic Instinct 2, The Specialist, and the remake of Diabolique). This perception is largely due to her choice of such roles and partially due to audience misperception. How many other actors found themselves typecast over and over after playing a role that caught fire in the public consciousness? For Stone, this phenomena works to the detriment of the hard work she’s done in expanding her range by appearing in films like The Mighty, The Muse, and Casino. It’s a shame that Stone and the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, didn’t work in Hollywood during the same time. Hitchock’s predilection for casting statuesque blonds in tightly woven tales of obsession, terror, and/or fetish would have melded perfectly with Stone’s glamor and often-distant onscreen presence. In this hypothetical scenario, Sliver might truly have been a film for the ages, suitable for more than apathetic viewing by bored, twenty-something night owls.