How to ruin your own movie: The Victim Edition

Michael Biehn made a movie! He wrote it and directed and starred in it, then cast his wife as the female lead, because hey - he's the one making the movie. That alone makes giving it a look, since it's fairly common for a character actor stalwart to produce a film they're passionate about appearing in, they almost never just go ahead and write/direct them as well. The main character is even named Kyle, because Michael obviously wants us all to know that he knows why we're watching the movie, and he's okay with that.

It's not a bad premise for a movie, either. Biehn plays a loner who lives in a cabin in the woods, assiduously keeping to himself, and attempting some personal improvement with the assistance of self-help tapes. His life is turned upside down when a woman in tattered clothes shows up at his door armed with a horrifying story - her best friend has just been brutally murdered by a corrupt, drug-snorting cop, and now that cop and his partner are out to silence her for good! Hell, Michael Biehn's probably in danger just for hearing the story. If that weren't bad enough, when the cops turn up looking for the woman, they have a very different version of events, in which she's a dangerous criminal on the run from the authorities. Also, apropos of nothing, there's a serial killer on the loose in the area.

As anyone can see, this is a potent formula for drama. Who is on whose side? What dangerous secrets are people hiding away? With everyone's life on the line, who can be trusted? Michael Biehn certainly built himself a potent starring vehicle - except for one fatal flaw.

Essentially all of the film's secrets are revealed in the opening scene.

That's the corrupt cop having sex with the woman's friend. We see him accidentally kill her when she insults him.

Because this scene is shown from no one's perspective, it's not couched in the point of view of a possibly-unreliable narrator. This means that the audience knows, right off, that everything Mrs. Biehn says to her husband is the truth. Hell, the murderer even has a cop mustache-

-so we instinctively believe that part of her story as well.

Right away, Biehn has tossed out all higher-level tension from the film, stripping out all conflict other than 'will they survive the siege of corrupt cops?' This could have been so much more of a thrilling film with just a little bit of restructuring - want that sex/death scene in there? Show it as a visualization of Mrs. Biehn telling her husband what happened a little later in the film. That way you get the scene you wanted, but the audience can still question whether it's the whole truth. It's not like Biehn leaves it there, either - he subsequently cuts to flashbacks of Mrs. Biehn and the first victim hanging out in their apartment before the events of the film. Again, these aren't stories being told, they're omniscient flashbacks that serve only two purposes: 1 - To let us know that Mrs. Biehn is on the level. 2 - To remind us, through convenient news broadcasts, that there's a serial killer on the loose, who has no other bearing on the plot.

So right there Biehn has foiled himself, giving the audience more information than the characters have in a way that doesn't just diminish tension - it evaporates it. What's worse, the constant reminders that there's a serial killer running around leave us anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop in re: why Michael Biehn lives all alone, out in the woods. And drop it does, right at the end of the movie, when Biehn reveals what everyone guessed over an hour earlier, that he's the mysterious serial killer whose existence has had no impact on the plot up until that last ten seconds.

It's all a pretty muddled mess, and the only logical reason I can come up with for the drama-sucking cutaways and flashbacks is that Biehn was struggling to get the film up to feature length - right now the film is 78 minutes when the end credits roll, cut out the opening credits and you're left with a trim 75. So I understand the motive, but he should have found some way to stretch things out without compromising his story, because as it is, he's left with a potentially thrilling story told in the worst possible way.

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