This World, Then the Fireworks (1997): Oblowitz Version of Jim Thompson’s Story

Sundance Film Festival–

In the hands of filmmaker Michael Oblowitz, favorite crime novelist Jim Thompson’s story, This World, Then the Fireworks, gets an elegantly stylish, highly erotic, intentionally over-the-top rendition.

Centering on a perversely bizarre romantic triangle–and overtly dealing with incest–this pulpish yarn should satisfy fans of the cult writer as well as aficionados of film noir, though pic might not have a broader appeal beyond these circles due to its dark humor and uncompromisingly handling of tough material.

This World, Then the Fireworks
This World Then The Fireworks film poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Thompson wrote the controversial story in l955, but he couldn’t get it into print in his lifetime; it got published posthumously in l983, six years after his death. As usual, Thompson takes classic elements of the noir genre–a love-triangle murder, a fugitive hero, immoral characters on both sides of the law, deadly con games–and then twists and transcends them in unpredictable but totally satisfying ways.

As children, Marty and Carol Lakewood saw their father commit a love-triangle killing with a violent shotgun blast that left physical as well as emotional scars on their mother. Following this attention-grabbing flashback, tale jumps ahead 30 years, to Chicago circa 1956, and finds Marty (Billy Zane) and Carol (Gina Gershon) living in a small California coastal town. Over the years, the siblings have devotedly protected each other from the dangers of what Marty describes in his cool narration, “a broken world.” Marty and Carol are not only partners in grifting, their mutual devotion has turned incestuously erotic.

The siblings’ behavior–in and outside the bedroom–is a continuous embarrassment to their decrepit, Bible-thumping, constantly nagging mother (Rue McClanahan). Maintaining an apple-pie facade, big mama still hopes her children will get jobs, settle down with the right mates, and fully live the American Dream. However, the protagonists–and the audience–know better, and it becomes a matter of time until the mother “disappears,” dying in her own bed of a sedative overdose.

Meanwhile, the charmingly skillful, dangerously volatile Bill engages in lethal con games, which put the police on his tail. Stunningly beautiful, Carol makes a living as a staunchly “independent” prostitute. In truly peculiar circumstances, one of her clients dies during intercourse and, with a ruthless ex-husband who’s tired of paying alimony, she’s desperate to get her brother’s support. Indeed, when Billy realizes that Carol is followed by a private eye, in a state of rage, “he takes him off the case,” to use his lingo.

As if the duo are not in enough trouble, a repressed police officer named Lois Archer (Sheryl Lee) becomes enamored of Bill. With a steady income and a nice beach house, Lois seems to be the Lakewood’s ticket out of their money-scrounging life. But, as always with Thompson’s yarns, nothing is as simple as it appears to be. Hence Lois’ hidden qualities not only complicate the tale, but also propel it out of control until it reaches its sardonic ending.

For connoisseurs of the genre, This World offers the requisite thrills and frills of a traditional crime thriller. But there’s something new in this adaptation that distinguishes it from other renditions of Thompson’s work. Scripter Gross audaciously brings the incest element to the surface–reportedly, in the 1970s, even Playboy magazine refused to publish the story–and he treats the material in a detached, nonchalant, humorous way that underlines its immoral as well as amoral tone.

In what’s probably his most impressive and demanding role to date–one that brings to minds the psychotic killer he played in Dead Calm rather than the old-fashioned hero in The Phantom–Zane projects the image of a con man who’s aware of his sex appeal but is not as smart as he thinks he is. His sexual and emotional interactions with the two women in his life highlight the disturbing duality of his personality, which reflects the duality of the 1950s as a decade both conservative and hypocritical, conformist as well containing the first seeds of cultural rebellion. Almost every character in the story is two-faced, ambiguous and full of contradictions.

Gershon and Lee are also well cast as the femme fatales, made to look like the era’s movie icons, Ava Gardner and Kim Novak respectively. Gershon embodies a problematic woman who makes a living as a hooker and grifter, yet deep down still believes in the validity of family values. Coming off a string of disappointing roles, Lee has some excellent moments as a femme who on the surface is controlled and repressed, yet under Marty’s encouragement reveals herself as a passionate, lust-driven creature with more than a slight penchant for masochism. TV’s “Golden Girls”‘ McClanahan also excels as the pitifully deluded widow, bringing pathos to her role as a mom who knows all too well that her kids are no good.

Director Oblowitz, whose background is in art and music videos, shows a good understanding of the inherently fragmented and twisted narrative. Helmer has made a moody, often surreal, exquisitely looking film noir, a product of his able artistic team, most notably lenser Tom Priestley Jr. and production designer Maia Javan. Though transitions from past to present are made smooth through Emma E. Hicox’s seamless editing, some viewers might still object to the excessive use of voice-over narration and the quirky tone in depicting the film’s obsessive characters and outlandishly grotesque events.