Basic Instinct (1992)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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After a former rock star is murdered in his bed while he is having sex, Det. Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) questions the woman he believes was the man's girlfriend, a millionaire writer of crime novels named Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). Although Nick suspects that the aggressive, bisexual Catherine may be responsible for the man's murder, especially when he learns that she wrote a book describing a virtually identical crime, he finds her so fascinating that he initiates a relationship with her while he continues his investigation.

Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct is a stylish, well-made, but ultimately mediocre thriller that, while engaging, is not likely to awe the moviegoer.


Although the film does have its limitations, it is always slick, sexy, and exhilarating. Nick's interactions with Catherine burn with a ferocious lust and are tinged with an enticing sense of danger. Thanks to such qualities, the viewer is likely to be caught up in the excitement of their relationship and to experience its tense vibrancy. The director's depictions of Catherine's bold, cunning dealings with the police are also well realized and substantially add to the film's air of deadly intrigue. These feelings of threatening violence, daring assertiveness, and uninhibited sexuality, as well as various characters' hidden motives and the movie's countless uncertainties, are consistently able to keep the viewer involved with the tale he is being told.

Such virtues, however, are never completely satisfying as a result of Basic Instinct's weaknesses. Throughout the story he is telling, for example, the director strives to mislead the viewer, to trick him into believing that one or another of his characters may be guilty of the film's murders only to throw suspicion onto someone else later. Regrettably, the devices Verhoeven has used to do so, though sometimes intriguing, are so predictable and hackneyed that he never completely achieves the effect for which he is aiming. In the place of a genuinely complex tale, the director has merely cobbled together a number of trite, overused scenarios. His narrative is not, therefore, likely to surprise very many persons.

Even if he is able to overlook such flaws, the viewer will still probably be bothered by the plethora of convenient coincidences and plot holes included in the film. Some of the vagueness such developments give Basic Instinct is clearly meant to lend the movie a sense of ambiguity, but the uncertainty aroused is never really captivating. Rather than being torn by doubt, the viewer is left wondering how the events he has witnessed make sense. They often simply do not add up.

What is more, while the director has actually included amidst all this dull content a number of details which do lend his story a modicum of ambiguity, he insists upon revealing his narrative's most important secret at the end of the movie. Verhoeven thereby removes any doubts the viewer may have had and so prevents him from relishing a profound, disturbing uncertainty.

Sadly, the film's characters are just as flawed but never as interesting as is its narrative. Nick is a stereotypically rough, troubled cop. His partner is a plump, earthy individual, and his superiors are, without exception, nasty and spiteful. Even the suspects he is investigating are not especially well crafted. Catherine, in particular, is more of a fantasy figure than an engaging character. Not only is she stylish and beautiful, but she speaks very bluntly and has the same casual, free attitudes about her sexual relations that many men do. Just to make her conform more closely to male fantasies, she even enjoys having sex with other beautiful women.

Finally, I should add that the quality of the acting is generally acceptable. The two leads are decent, if unmemorable. Stone's character is overdone, but the actress acquits herself well in the role. Michael Douglas, as always, plays Michael Douglas, but his performance is certainly never inept. Some of the supporting players, however, are far less impressive. George Dzundza is utterly hammy as Nick's partner Gus, and Jeanne Tripplehorn is alternately wooden and histrionic as his psychiatrist and former lover.

Basic Instinct is a fun detective story. It is overwrought, clumsy, and prosaic, but watching it is not a bad way to spend a quiet afternoon.

Review by Keith Allen

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