Jim Thompson wrote twenty-nine lean and lowdown novels before his death in 1977. Two of these memorably warped potboilers — The Getaway and The Killer Inside Me — have been turned into disappointingly conventional Hollywood movies. This year we’ll see three more film adaptations of Thompson’s work — The Grifters, The Kill-Off and, first on deck, After Dark, My Sweet, which was published in 1955 but updated to the present for the screen. Directed by James Foley (“At Close Range”), who co-wrote the script with producer Robert Redlin, the film is a hot-wired crime thriller that captures Thompson’s flair for hard action, malicious wit and fevered eroticism.
The plot centers on the boxer Kevin “Collie” Collins, played by Jason Patric (The Beast). Ever since he killed an opponent in the ring, the punchy Collie has been going to seed in mental institutions. But now he’s escaped. At a bar on the fringes of the California desert, he picks a fight with the bartender and picks up Fay (Rachel Ward), a leggy widow who claims that her husband is not only dead but “gone to hell.”
Beautiful and damned in the best Thompson tradition, Fay involves Collie in the kidnapping of a rich man’s young son (James Cotton). The scheme is engineered by an ex-cop Fay calls Uncle Bud. Bruce Dern plays the role as an amalgam of fox and fool, and he’s never been better. Soon Collie is calling the shots, though Fay’s sexual ardor for him cools when she learns his mental history from Doc Goldman (George Dickerson, in a spectacularly creepy performance).
With the invaluable help of cinematographer Mark Plummer, Foley puts these ripe losers out to rot in the desert sun. There’s mordant humor in watching them try to double-cross one another. But the film moves to a tragic conclusion as Collie strains to find something meaningful and redeeming in his love for Fay.
Patric is sensational as Collie; the pretty-boy actor, best remembered as the teenager pursued by vampires in “The Last Boys,” is unrecognizable behind Collie’s coarse stubble, slack jaw and haunted stare. Patric occupies a complex character with mesmerizing conviction. Like Thompson’s prose, his performance is both repellent and fascinating.