Carol (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight) is a deeply troubled young woman. For most of her life, she's suffered from nervous breakdowns and paranoid delusions. She sees visions of strange, unsettling things, she experiences vivid hallucinations of personal trauma and she struggles to distinguish the line between reality and dreams. The fact that she has such a turbulent relationship with her mother (Brenda Vaccaro, Midnight Cowboy) only makes things worse.
Eventually, fate hands Carol an opportunity to move out and make a fresh start. She inherits an old abandoned nightclub from her recently-deceased Uncle Fletcher, and decides to that she'll take up residence there and work on tidying the place up. As she digs through the records of the club's past, she makes a shocking discovery: the building used to be a brothel that catered to some particularly unsavory fetishes. She begins experiencing more visions and hallucinations, imaging the moans of pleasure and pain that once filled the rooms of her new home.
One night, Carol is raped by a trio of burglars who break into her club. She reports the incident to the police, but the authorities are skeptical due to Carol's well-documented psychological history. The whole affair sends Carol into an even deeper mental tailspin, and a police detective (Peter Coyote, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) begins investigating the matter in an attempt to determine what's what.
Heart of Midnight is an odd movie, and not an easy one to categorize. It looks and sounds vaguely like an erotic thriller, but contains neither eroticism nor thrills. There are times when it feels like we're wandering through a dark Lynchian dreamscape, but the imagery and tone don't have the hypnotic power that Lynch brings to the table. The fact that Carol suffers from hallucinations on a regular basis casts doubt on all of the crazy things she experiences, removing a lot of the tension from much of what we're seeing. There's no way to know whether or not Carol is actually in any danger, so we're simply forced to sit back and let the unsavory imagery wash over us until the film reaches its (contrived, unsatisfying) ending and supplies some answers.
The supporting characters are largely dull, and sometimes there's a disconnect between the way they're written and the way they're played. For instance, Frank Stallone (Barfly) – playing a stubborn cop – plays his character as a world-weary, seen-it-all type, while the character's actions suggest that he is a self-absorbed dimwit who couldn't see evidence if it were dangling in front of his face. The film is also hampered by a fairly irritating score from Yanni (doing the only big-screen scoring work of his career), who offers a fusion of limp new age melodies and ineffective suspense material.
Under most circumstances, it'd be tempting to shrug the film off as a failed experiment and leave it at that, but Jennifer Jason Leigh does her damndest to turn a bad film into a good one. Her performance is a fascinating portrait of a woman constantly shifting between various stages of paranoia, and the way she manages to suggest her frenzied despair without ever going over the top is the sort of thing that ought to be studied in acting school. It's a shame that she's doing such rich work in a film that feels like a C-grade remake of Repulsion.
Heart of Midnight
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Year: 1988