Add up a woman scorned, an amnesiac seeking the truth, an erotic affair (and a thoroughly tepid one), plus a near fatal car wreck and you have Wolfgang Petersen’s American debut, Shattered (1991), a classic case of misdirection both in front of and behind the camera. A competent thriller consistently drops clues like a trail of breadcrumbs to eventually lead the more assiduous members of the audience to its finite resolution. But Shattered isn’t competent – just convoluted; a colossal in-joke, perpetuated by Petersen with little jabs of pleasure – and the occasional bit of comedy – applied along the way. Tom Berenger, fast approaching the end of his prime as amiable cinema beefcake, herein is cast as affluent land developer, Dan Merrick. Or is he? Who can say? Not Dan, who vaguely recalls driving off a perilous cliff after a New Year’s Eve party; his wife, Judith (Greta Scacchi, doing nine minutes as a sex kitten cum psychotic Sharon Stone knock-off) escaping with barely a scratch, to resurrect her near-comatose hubby like Lazarus from the dead, employing an army of brilliant plastic surgeons to reconstruct his bashed-in face. After watching Shattered a second time, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, I can honestly say I feel like I’m the one with selective amnesia. The pieces simply do not fit, despite Wolfgang Petersen’s most ambitious efforts to distort a basically simple ‘who done it?’ into an erotically charged Hitchcockian thriller, though without Hitchcock’s penchant for deriving such perverse satisfactions.
Based on Richard Neely’s novel, The Plastic Nightmare, Shattered is a movie so implausibly structured, so utterly – and occasionally frustratingly – offbeat and bewildering, it leaves the viewer doubting virtually everything witnessed and heard. It is as though the central protagonists are all talking Bizarro-land gibberish through heavy gauze, swallowing the beginning and end of their sentences and/or trailing off into the ether, with Petersen contributing to this malaise by frequently fading to black or cutting away to indeterminate moments in the natural time frame when he can think of no other way to link the cause and effect of his vignettes. Remember, these are supposed to make sense, except that the screenplay (also by Petersen) has forgotten what is to be done with all the dangling participles that precede and follow. Scacchi’s she-wolf in sheep’s clothing is the femme fatale of the piece; nutty, swooning, not above dressing in drag or pulling a gun on P.I. Gus Klein (Bob Hoskins); spinning her lies, or merely her bottom, having multiple orgasms with a newly minted husband experiencing tormented flashbacks that, at one point, cause him to take his cane to the bedroom mirror. What is Dan hiding? The ‘big reveal’ is, of course, as shocking as it proves idiotically turbo-charged to be uber-clever. Dan isn’t hiding anything. How could he when he isn’t even Dan Merrick, but Jack Stanton – the guy who witnessed Judith put a bullet into the real Dan after returning home from the New Year’s Eve gala at the Hacienda Hotel.
Oh darn, now I’ve given away the goods. The point is, without doing so, there is very little to discuss about Shattered that would make even its basic premise seem anything more or better than superficially silly. Personally, I don’t mind having my nose infrequently shoved into a pile of celluloid manure; particularly if the film maker is engaging me in other ways and/or the stars working the piece know precisely how to sell their exoticisms as legit. No such luck with Shattered. The bulk of the movie’s run time is spent misdirecting the audience to believe Dan Merrick did not die at the beginning of our story. In fact, he died even before the opening credits rolled, murdered by a vengeful wife – nee viperous vixen – in the upstairs bedroom of their fashionable country mansion after he discovered she was polishing the brass and knob of the real Jack Stanton (Scott Getlin). Having disposed of Dan’s body inside the half sunken hull of a mortally wounded freighter moored near Golden Gate Park, Jack and Judith were presumably returning to the scene of the crime when he informed her he wanted no part in her twisted plan of elopement. Either deliberately, or by accident, Judith drove their car over a cliff, leaping to safety while Jack bounced around its crumpling interior like a rag doll, his head eventually smashing through the windshield. Okay, I am no expert – but even at the start of Shattered, as Jack slips in and out of consciousness, one can clearly see the man on whom mountains of cosmetic surgery is to be performed is Tom Berenger – not Scott Getlin – wearing prosthetic rubber applications to imply deformed/swollen flesh.
Whether we realize it or not - and, of course director, Petersen is sincerely hoping we do not - Shattered has already put up the first of many signposts to send its audience on a wild goose chase. The real schlepping is left to flatfoot, Gus Klein, who gave up peeping through keyholes for his bread and butter, mostly to placate an aging ticker. He now runs a rather seedy pet shop in San Francisco where the animals roam free and poop at will – sort of like the creatures populating this well-heeled revue. Two more MacGuffins confuse the audience further as Shattered gathers more moss than steam in its middle act: first, the real Dan Merrick was sweating up the sheets with Jenny Scott (Joanne Whalley), the neurotic wife of his gung-ho business partner, Jeb (Corbin Bernsen) who is completely oblivious to their affair; second, the real Dan is long since dead, perfectly preserved and resting comfortably with a bullet through his brain in a vat of liquid formaldehyde. Petersen denies us the right to know these facts until the last fifteen minutes. Alright – fair enough. If we knew at the start what we discover near the finale there would be no point at all to having our fannies go collectively numb inside a darkened theater. Alas, it is the other lump, three feet above the tuckus, never quite stimulated to make a difference one way or the other.
I am still trying to make up my mind whether I sincerely liked or innately detested Shattered. As a noir-styled thriller, it is a dud; the acting – bad; the subplots, an endless barrage of deliberate and mostly contrived dead ends – some sillier than others (like Judith wearing a black-wig, leather jacket and pants disguise in public to pretend she is Jack, leading the real Jack and Gus – who still thinks Jack is Dan (as Jack continues to think of as himself) – on a harrowing car chase down a narrow forested path in Jack’s blazing red Porsche (the status symbol for all corrupt movie-land villains), firing a few shots into Gus’ beat-up 1969 rust bucket before driving off in a Dukes of Hazzard-styled cloud of dust, leaving the boys superficially stranded. What was the point to any of this except, in retrospect, to illustrate the first of Wolfgang Petersen’s penchants for indulging in some truly mindless and overwrought action? Besides, Judith has already convinced Jack he is Dan. Does she really need to perpetuate the charade Jack is still alive (which, of course he is) for Dan’s sake? No – and not even for the police who are a nonentity in this thriller. I mean, given the hellacious carnage of the wreck itself, no one even bothers to investigate the circumstance behind it. After the chips fall into place, Judith carefully covers up her own complicity in her husband’s murder, blaming Jack for Dan’s death; a struggle for the gun and Jack’s ill-advised decision to help his one-time paramour dump the body inside the hulking freighter moored under the bridge, destined to be sunk off the coast to make way for Dan and Jeb’s new marina development project – Greenpeacers be damned!
Shattered opens with the ill-fated car wreck – the moment where Jack’s head smashes through the windshield, interminably repeated throughout the story whenever Jack begins to suffer from amnesia-ridden nightmares. It seems Judith has survived this brutal smashup with only minor bruises. Miraculously, no red flags are raised, except by Jenny who harbors an unnatural jealousy toward Judith. After weeks of recovery and multiple plastic surgeries, Jack is released from hospital, looking like a reasonable facsimile of Dan Merrick, but suffering from ‘selective amnesia’. He is taken into Judith’s care. She feigns the perfect marriage at home, complete with a sweat-soaked passionate reunion, rather skillfully photographed by László Kovács to keep the nudity at bay. A flash of nipple here and there is about all we get. All seems bright until Jack discovers a roll of film hidden inside a tobacco canister in Dan’s study. On it are successive stills of a flagrante delicto between his former self (which he does not recognize as such) and Judith. The real question ought to have been what such a roll was doing hidden in Dan’s office. But Jack is more interested in tracking down the man who took the pictures, rather than the stud depicted in them.
This leads Jack to Dan’s day planner, discovering the last name ‘Klein’ and a phone number scratched inside. Jack telephones Gus’ pet shop. Gus barely recognizes Dan at first, but then explains that his wife paid the outstanding balance on his private investigatory fees in full – a hefty $7000.00. Odd, Judith should pay off the guy who exposed her secret. Odder still, Gus should encourage Jack to forget all about it entirely. After all, the car crash made the couple realize how much they really mean to one another…didn’t it? But only a short while later, Gus has seconds thoughts and barges into Dan’s office to suggest there are certain aspects of Judith’s official story that do not gel. For starters, Judith claims Dan was driving. But Gus’ investigative skills reason Dan could not have shattered his face so severely had he been seated in front of the steering wheel. Gus also tells Jack, Judith checked out of the hospital mere hours after the crash. Given the intensity of the wreck, amazingly no one insisted she remain at least overnight for observation. But leaving could have given Judith plenty of time to cover up valuable clues about a crime – if, in fact, one has been committed.
We segue into misdirection number two: Jack follows Judith to an abandoned pier at the foot of Golden Gate Park; the shape of a beleaguered freighter, listing to one side, suddenly materializing from a very intense fog. Jack observes as Judith makes her way into its slightly capsized hull. He attempts to follow her on foot, but becomes lost in these cavernous, half sunken spaces. Sometime later, Jack asks his secretary, Nancy Meyers (Debi A. Monahan) if he and she ever had a fling. She assures him the answer is an unequivocal ‘no’! Now, Gus informs Dan that Judith and Jack used to rendezvous at the Hacienda Hotel. Jack goes there first and alone, and, looking the part, he is mistaken for Dan Merrick by the hotel’s manager, Rudy Costa (Bert Rosario). Dan shows Rudy a photo of Judith and asks if he knew her. For a bribe of several hundred dollars, Rudy does indeed remember Judith and Jack’s frequent get-togethers. However, at the end of this revelation, Rudy casually tells Jack to say hello to ‘his wife’. Jack begins to realize Dan may not have been the innocent in this equation; a valid assumption bearing more truth than anticipated when Jenny reveals to Jack (whom she too assumes is Dan) she and he were having a passionate affair at the Hacienda right under Jeb’s nose.
Confronting Judith with his suspicions, she instead weaves a tale as improbably shocking as any fanciful yarn yet spun from a mystery writer’s word processor: Dan murdered Jack in cold blood after discovering their affair. Judith agreed to help Dan dispose of the body inside the hull of the freighter. The two were returning home to finish covering up the evidence when Dan accidentally drove their car over the cliff in a heavy fog. Judith further claims to have signed herself out of the hospital to return to the house to clean up the murder scene. She then went to Dan’s downtown office and sent a cryptic fax, presumably from Jack, meant to cover up Jack’s disappearance, should the police desire to speak to him to glean some corroborating evidence. Since Jack’s presumed death, Judith has kept him alive by impersonating him around town and making other cryptic phone calls in the middle of the night, meant to throw everyone off their scent. Now, Judith proposes she and Dan run away to Mexico to escape a police investigation even though no such inquiry is forthcoming. Dan…I mean, Jack, is too confused and angst-ridden to act upon this plan, allowing Gus to come to a similar conclusion the next afternoon in Dan’s office.
Dan is really dead and Jack and Gus both realize now that Jack has assumed Dan’s identity since the crash. As Judith likely knew who was travelling in the car with her before it went over the cliff, it can only mean she helped to perpetuate the lie her husband murdered her lover. In flashback, Jack recalls a frantic phone call made by Judith from the mansion shortly after she and Dan left a lavish New Year’s Eve party at Hacienda. Chivalrously racing to her rescue, Jack was too late to prevent Judith from shooting Dan in cold blood. After disposing of Dan’s body in the freighter, Judith attempted to inveigle Jack in the murder, at which time he absolutely refused to partake. Judith panicked and drove their car over the cliff, leaping to safety while Jack plummeted down the cliff side. After realizing Jack did not perished in the hellish wreck, and, further informed by the kindly, Dr. Berkus (Theodore Bikel), in all likelihood, Dan would never regain his memory, Judith had a small army of plastic surgeons cobble together Jack’s bashed in visage to resemble the contents of her late husband. At some point, one simply has to run with the inconceivableness of this sinful ruse and cover up. What? Nobody compared dental records, hair fibers or eye color to prove Jack was not Dan before the surgeries progressed?
Meanwhile, Jack receives a very threatening phone call from Jenny. She wants him to meet her at the seaside mansion where they once shared happier times or face some very cryptic consequences. Unable to placate her over the telephone, Jack races to the house, only to discover Jenny fatally shot and lying dead on the living room floor. Holding Jack at gunpoint, Gus is encouraged by Jack’s sincerity to get to the bottom of things. He is, after all, legitimately suffering from selective amnesia. He really doesn’t know if Judith’s story is the truth, although he is damn sure he did not murder Jenny. Endeavoring to find out who did, Jack leads Gus to the freighter; the two skulking deep inside its half-submerged bowels until Jack suddenly recalls from one of his reoccurring nightmares, a cargo hold marked ‘toxic’ and ‘danger’. Prying open the hatch, inside he and Gus discover a body submerged in a vat of formaldehyde. But the joke is on them as Jack raises the corpse up and out of this slippery solution, only to discover he is staring back at a likeness of himself – or rather, Dan Merrick.
Elated to know he had nothing to do with the real Dan Merrick’s murder, Jack is all set to tell the police everything – except that Judith has followed the men into the freighter with a pistol. Without hesitation, she puts a pair of bullets into Gus, who slumps into the half-submersed mire, escaping her wrath by surviving on the inhaler he uses for his frequent asthma attacks. Judith takes Jack hostage at gunpoint, still believing they can be happy together on the lam in Mexico. Alas, her wicked little escape is not to be as a police helicopter steadily approaches their car, attempting to force Judith off the road. In a reverse repeat of the movie’s opener, Jack attempts to take hold of the wheel, but is instead thrown from the car moments before it careens over the edge of another steep precipice. Judith dies in a hellish ball of flames as the car impacts with the beach far below. The helicopter lands in front of Jack, the pilot hurrying over to inquire whether or not ‘Dan’ is alright. Bewildered at how the pilot knows this name, Jack is relieved to see Gus, his arm in a sling with blood seeping from a superficial shoulder wound. He has survived the ordeal but keeping Jack’s secret, giving Jack a new lease on life as Dan Merrick. What was it they used to say about paybacks being a bitch?
Shattered is an impossibly plotted thriller for which no explanation will suffice. And yet, it has both its qualities and its moments. László Kovács’ cinematography transforms the moneyed playgrounds of the uber-wealthy into a noir-styled fantasia. Wolfgang Petersen’s script could use at least another half hour to reason out some of the dangling subplots, although I suspect Petersen would have simply used this excess run time to invest in more hairpin plot twists and turns. I am not entirely certain what became of Tom Berenger’s acting in this piffle of a story. Arguably, he was never a stellar talent – his turn in Platoon (1986) aside. But in Shattered he performs as though suffering from the impediment of having a pole chronically inserted into an orifice I would rather not discuss any further herein. When Berenger’s pseudo-amnesiac is not busy skulking about and piecing together the truth behind the mystery and/or sweating up the sheets with the woman who clearly loves his alter-ego more, he makes the least of his opportunities to hold our attention; ditto for Greta Scacchi, whose doe-eyed glances and glimmers of wickedness trickle and coagulate into a sort of inconstantly fumbling and clumsy eroticism. This leaves the heavy lifting to Bob Hoskins; an actor more than up to the challenge, and the only one in this cast undeniably having a good time playing the majestically obtuse seeker of truth. Watching Hoskins formulate the fragmented history of Dan Merrick is like observing Peter Falk’s Colombo go to work. It remains the singular joy in Shattered. Hoskins is so good in fact, he can even sell the ridiculous notion his character has survived two gunshots and a near-fatal drowning by sucking back on his asthma puffer. Shattered is not a great thriller, although, in retrospect, it is an affecting and effective mood piece. That has its’ place, though hardly its purpose. So, draw your own conclusions about where its greatness – or lack thereof – lies. As far as I am concerned, Shattered was a passable diversion with a surprise ending that hooked me once. I make no illusions it could repeat this experience successfully a second time.
Kino Lorber, the custodians of a good many MGM/Fox catalog titles has inherited Shattered as part of their distribution agreement. The image looks no worse and no better than the rest of the catalog being piped out via third party distributors, which isn’t saying much. The executive mentality behind putting out catalog releases with minimal to no clean-up is, at least in my not so humble opinion, a colossal waste of time and a real detriment to the format. I can understand when the layman says “I don’t see the difference between Blu-ray and DVD”. The differences between this hi-def incarnation of Shattered and the wretched DVD release via MGM Home Video proper from some years ago are negligible at best. While the image does marginally tighten up thanks to the higher resolution, color fidelity is still an issue; flesh tones veering into orangey-brown territory. Overall, the palette is slightly muddy. Nothing pops as it should. The night sequences have a heavier patina of grain unnaturally digitized and gritty. Fine details get lost during these scenes – a shame, since a lot of Shattered is photographed under the cover of night. Age-related artifacts are present throughout and occasionally distract. Overall, this is a middling effort at best and one which mostly defiles László Kovács’ moodily lit cinematography. I cannot state that I expected more from Kino Lorber, a company which has, in more recent times, become a veritable dumping ground for late 80’s/early 90’s MGM/Orion and UA product.
The audio is DTS 5.1 with an aggressive slant towards Alan Silvestri’s queerly pleasant underscore. But dialogue can occasionally sound quite muffled and contrasty out of sorts with SFX outbursts overtaking and overpowering everything else. I found myself toggling back the volume during the chase sequences and pushing the dial back up – considerably – in order to strain to hear the brief verbal exchanges between characters. Not good. The only extra is a junket assembled at the time the movie was being made, erroneously labeled as a ‘making of’ when it really plays like an extended movie trailer. We also get the original theatrical trailer minus the voiceover narration and another trailer for what is likely Tom Berenger’s worst movie to date: 1990’s Love at Large. Bottom line: you could do worse. On the flipside, you could also do a lot better!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)