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A Dangerous Woman Reviews

Debra Winger's acting career continues to follow a problematic path in this ambitious but unsatisfying drama about a mentally and emotionally dysfunctional woman who exposes smalltown hypocrisy through her child-like inability to tell lies. Winger plays Martha Horgan, who lives with her wealthy widowed Aunt Frances (Barbara Hershey) on a ranch outside a small town in California. To help the outcast Martha become more sociable, Frances pays local dry cleaner owner John (Richard Riehle) to employ Martha as a clerk/cashier. Martha's only friend is fellow worker Birdie (Chloe Webb), who is involved with unscrupulous redneck Getso (David Strathairn). Martha brings grief to everyone at the cleaners with her compulsive honesty: she accidentally rips a man's sport coat while accusing John in front of the customer of overcharging for work not done. She also catches Getso stealing from the till and cheating on Birdie. Finally John fires Martha when Getso accuses her of the thefts, and Martha loses Birdie's friendship when she tries to make her face Getso's infidelity with a fellow worker. Frances meanwhile is having a frustrating affair of her own with Steve Bell (John Terry), a local lawyer running for political office, who can't bring himself to divorce his alcoholic wife Anita (Laurie Metcalf). While Steve and Frances are working on his campaign one night, a drunken Anita drives up to the ranch house and plows her car into the front porch. To repair the damage, Frances hires itinerant handyman Mackey (Gabriel Byrne), who seduces both aunt and niece in vulnerable moments, leaving Martha pregnant. Making one last attempt at a reconciliation with Birdie, Martha goes to her house and instead runs into Getso, whom she stabs and kills in a moment of panic. During Martha's trial, Steve tries to persuade Martha to accuse Getso of raping her and making her pregnant to effect a plea of self defense, which Martha refuses to do, although she pledges to Mackey that she will never reveal his fatherhood of her baby. While Martha serves her prison sentence, Frances and Mackey come together to help raise the child. In adapting the novel by Mary McGarry Morris, writer/producer Naomi Foner (writer of RUNNING ON EMPTY and wife of director Stephen Gyllenhaal) never really finds a consistent tone for this story that defies genre classification but runs a gamut from drama to satire to Faulknerian fable built around a character that seems intended to be a female equivalent to Dustin Hoffman's RAINMAN. Winger's performance is as uncompromising as her character, yet the character never comes into real focus. As was the case in the novel, the nature of Martha's problem is unexplained. Though in the novel Frances makes some token attempts to obtain professional treatment for Martha, the issue is never raised in the movie. Instead, Frances explains in a voiceover that her family had given up when doctors were unable to define Martha's illness in childhood. The fact that Frances narrates much of the film (causing problems of point-of-view logic, as her character is not present during many of the film's key scenes, including Martha's killing of Getso) suggests that Frances' voiceovers may have been added after the fact to rein in the film's wandering narrative. In fact, throughout the film, Frances' own character remains almost as remote and inaccessible as Martha herself. The only character who makes a perceptible change over the course of the film is Mackey, a love 'em-and-leave 'em drifter who is so moved by Martha's honesty and loyalty to him that he drops his plans to abandon her to stay and raise their child. However, the film's focus remains on Martha, whose murder of Getso makes her a problematic heroine at best. Stephen (WATERLAND) Gyllenhaal's direction proceeds by fits and starts, beginning with an effective moment of high drama and low comedy--Anita's auto attack on Frances' porch. But this momentum is not sustained in a movie filled with similarly fine scenes that never add up to a coherent or satisfying whole. (Adult situations, sexual situations, nudity, violence.)