First Degree

2002, Movie, NR, 84 mins

Review

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Though not as sophisticated as it fancies it is, this cynical scramble makes good use of time-splintering flashbacks to flesh out motivations and build tension. After Californian yuppies Quinn (James Wilder) and Lara Torris (Kimberley Kates) invite their bosom buddies to a cookout, their idyllic lifestyle implodes. Quinn quickly regrets having invited volatile new Techworks co-worker Barry (Jack Scalia), whom he included at the behest of Jude (Karen Black), whose late husband, Techworks' CEO Paul Curtis (Robert Fields) was murdered by kidnappers. Quinn's best friend, Evan (C. Thomas Howell), and Evan's girlfriend, Monica (Erika Eleniak), remain outside the fray. In deference to Jude's widowhood, Quinn treats her with kid gloves and has little patience left for his grumbling neighbor, Max Targenville (James Russo), who grouses about the noise and wafting barbecue smoke. When someone orders a tow-truck to remove Lara's car, the Max is the first suspect. Barry retaliates against Max, at which point Jude takes her leave and advises Evan and Monica to do likewise. Busy boy Barry manages to attack Max in his home and have time left to bed promiscuous Lara, right under Quinn's nose. Evan subsequently learns a terrible secret about Barry's relationship with Quinn and the slaying of Paul Curtis. Then, Max winds up with an arrow in him, and Barry wounds Evan with a gun. As the violence escalates, Lara, Quinn and Barry turn on each other. However, who orchestrated the unraveling of this unholy alliance? The Neil LaBute-for-beginners screenplay astutely lambastes middle-class American Dreams, and while the film's complicated structure undermines the suspense, its critique of "gimme-gimme" couples living outside their means is sharp. leave a comment --Robert Pardi

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