Ratchet

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: John Johnson

REVIEWED: 08-03-98

This latter-day film noir set on the sandy beach fronts of Nantucket is as convoluted as the kelp beds that bob listlessly in its high-tide pools, though not nearly as enticing. Tangled plot lines and enervated direction by Johnson make this 1996 seaside tale of plagiarism and revenge a "who cares?" exercise in pointless filmmaking, despite a few crisp, edgy characterizations and some nifty driftwood scenery. Gilroy, in full Cassavetes mode, plays screenwriter and director Elliot Callahan. As Ratchet opens, Callahan is sent from New York City to Nantucket by his panicky agent; Callahan has been suffering through a dry spell of late, and the studio for which he helmed his last big sex and violence aria is champing at the bit for new material. Aboard the commuter plane out to the island, Callahan engages in idle chit-chat with a fellow passenger who sardonically notes that the director's last big hit bears a suspicious resemblance to an old Hong Kong shoot-'em-up, which sets the tone for Callahan's next few days. It's a thinly cloaked reference to Tarantino's City on Fire/Reservoir Dogs debacle a few years back, and a clever in-joke. Once on the island, Callahan runs afoul of local screenwriter wannabe (Dixon), who begs the auteur to check out his new script. Callahan grudgingly agrees, finds a diamond in the rough, and hastily appropriates the story for his own use. This in turn leads to a spear-gun murder, a vanished corpse, a liaison with an old competitor's wife (Welsh), a liaison with a flaky New England sculptor (Koppel), and much ado about god knows what. It's almost as if Johnson penned the script using some arcane Wheel o' Noir, cutting and pasting in the requisite elements in a spasm of unoriginality. Really, it's all too much. This cobbled-together feel isn't helped any by the film's choppy editing, which bounces around from scene to scene with little rhyme and even less reason. What, you ask yourself, is going on here? Only Johnson knows, and he's not telling. To be fair, Gilroy is an engaging enough protagonist. He manages to give Callahan a beleaguered, bewildered air, while at the same time making him an easy mark for the lunatic machinations that swirl around him. Welsh, as the sultry blond real estate agent with a past, also scores high marks for her part, but the maddeningly enigmatic storyline and Johnson's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink plotting sinks even the best performance in a murky, unknowable fog. It's less suspense than pretense, ratcheting up the tedium to a level of exquisite ennui, and ought to avoided by all but the most insensate noir fanatics.

--Marc Savlov

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Picnic at Hanging Rock

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