Writer-director Todd Robinson brings a unique perspective to the true-crime story of "Lonely Hearts Killers" Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, whose lurid 1948 rampage inspired Leonard Kastle's black-and-white cult masterpiece THE HONEYMOON KILLERS (1969) and Arturo Ripstein's Mexico-set DARK CRIMSON (1997): Robinson's grandfather, Elmer Robinson, was one of the police detectives who caught them.
Nassau County, New York, 1948: Quietly devastated by his wife's sucide three years earlier, stolid detective Robinson (John Travolta), the single parent of a sullen, troubled teenager, has built a wall around himself. He's dating the loyal Rene (Laura Dern), a squad-room coworker, but insists on keeping their relationship a secret; he's quick to anger and barely marking time at work. Robinson's longtime partner, Charles Hildebrandt (James Gandolfini), is worried, especially when Robinson gets it into his head that what looks like the sad suicide of a war widow is actually murder. But Robinson is right: The dead woman is one of a string of lonely women bilked and murdered by Latin lothario Raymond Fernandez (Jared Leto), a scam artist who specialized in seducing unattractive, lonely women through personals ads and, along with his "sister," Martha Beck (Salma Hayek), robbing them blind. Beck and Fernandez meet when he tries to bilk and abandon her, but she sees through the facade and still wants him; in fact, she wants him so badly she'll do absolutely anything to keep him, including commit murder. Robinson doggedly works the case, eventually picking up the homicidal lovers' trail when a young woman reports that her mother, Janet Long (Alice Krige), has disappeared, and that she suspects Janet's new boyfriend, Ray. Robinson and Hildebrandt eventually follow the homicidal couple all the way to Michigan in a last-ditch effort to stop them before they kill again.
Unlike earlier versions of the Beck/Fernandez story, Robinson's film is divided evenly between the cops and the criminals, with Beck and Fernandez sinking ever deeper into their lethal amour fou and Robinson grimly hauling himself out of the psychological muck. And what it does best is convey the sheer wantonness of the crimes: The murder sequences, like those in Kastle's film, are brief, sudden and incredibly brutal. But overall, the film is undermined by miscasting, an infelicitous blend of fact and fiction and, especially, the tin-eared hardboiled voice-over. Scott Caan is terrific in the minor role of a pugnacious detective who lives to needle Robinson, all pint-sized swagger and snickers. But while Travolta and Gandolfini have the beefy, closed-off look of post-WWII era cops, they never feel: They look like actors playing dress up. Leto overcomes his delicate good looks to embody Fernandez's feral, faintly exotic charm, but Hayek is a standard-issue femme fatale, damaged on the inside but flawless on the surface. The trouble with her Martha Beck isn't just that the real Beck weighed over 200 pounds (and abandoned her two children for Fernandez, a detail that speaks volumes but was omitted from this version); it's that she's a fantasy who has no place in such a sad, sordid story. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh