Sunday, October 17, 2010

Take Three: Deborah Kara Unger

Craig with this week's Take Three

Take One: (Fear) X marks the...Game

‘A lone man searching for answers to a troubling mystery – assisted by a mysterious and wilfully tricksy woman – whilst on the run from a seemingly shadowy organisation’. This could well describe, in loose terms, the basic plot of two higher profile Unger films: The Game (1997) and, to a lesser extent, Fear X (2003). Both feature Unger as everyday femme fatales. She’s mysterious and ordinary at the same time: unheimlich with a handbag. Both characters – waitress Christine in the former, housewife Kate in the latter – are channelled via Unger’s almost otherworldly ability to remain glacially poised on demand.

Two-player game: Unger desperately tries to ignore Douglas in The Game

In The Game – straight after Crash playing another strange woman for another strange David (Fincher) – she accompanied Michael Douglas on his mad dash around town – helping him find out whether his life was in danger or just a load of game play. Unger’s made to look rather dowdy in the role: a waitress who’s somehow caught up in “the Game”. Her look may be Ken Loach Kafka, but in the crepuscular light of Harris Savides’ astonishing photography she beams an insidious smile for the baffled Douglas that hits the mark time and again: so does her remarkably involving yet closed-book performance. She’s so good that many of the film’s surprising narrative twists are due to just how good she can bluff. And she bluffs good. Game over for her competition.

Xtreme emotion: Unger as the mysterious Kate in Fear X

For Nicolas Winding Refn’s under praised and indecipherably austere Fear X Unger’s first seen as a slowly-developing face on a mysterious roll of film John Turturro discovers in his investigation of his wife’s murder. Unger later turns up to dubiously, and remotely, guide him through a red-halled labyrinth of disquieting wrongness. Fear X is entirely perplexing: the three times I’ve seen it have almost given me a bald patch where I’ve scratched my noggin over its twisty-turny plot tumbles. One thing I do know is that Unger gives a great, albeit scary and resolutely nonliteral, turn. I never knew quite where I was when she was on screen. But with Fear X that's a good thing.

Take Two: Runnin' up that (Silent) Hill, with no problem...

I’m clearly constantly drawn toward actresses who consistently alternate “proper” films with genre flicks. Or even videogame adaptations: I lavished no small adoration upon Rosamund Pike for Doom (yes, Doom) a month or so ago, and brought on the love for killer croc-of-shit flick Rogue for Radha Mitchell’s Take Three earlier still. Mitchell heads up Silent Hill (2006) but supporting actress du jour Unger backs her up twice as nice: first in wanton old crone mode; second as a dubiously immoral flame-haired mother. They’re both the same person: Dahlia Gillespie, bum mum extraordinaire. (Ranked 42nd on the top 47 list of the most diabolical video game villains ever, apparently.) Both walk the foggy dimension of hell that is Silent Hill. But due to the freakish, otherworldly and, to be quite honest, downright confusing (well, it is for me, who only has a surface, barely-working knowledge of the game world) gubbins-and-doin’s in the titular town of terror we only find that out later.

CroneUnger pointing the way (to hell, probably) in Silent Hill

That’s after CroneUnger has indirectly summoned up a host of charred children, contortionists in condoms and some folded-over-backwards bloke who’s in dire need of some kind of medical assistance (all strangely well-choreographed). To be exact it’s right when she’s usurped by the mini-pyramid-headed guy who likes to rip people’s skin off outside churches. But no matter. FlamyhairUnger appears in flashbacks that look like a Ken Russell film gone wrong (and filmed in the kind of wobbly, scratchy Super-8 that only try-hard horror movies achieve). We’re told FlamyhairUnger did bad things and paid for her sins by having to dress in rags and play an old crone early on in the film. Social services would be on to her if they could only find the damn place; even the main character stumbles upon it by accident – as did many disgruntled cinema-goers, no doubt. But despite all the dank kerfuffle, and many misgivings, I quite liked Silent Hill. It’s one of only a few ‘00s horrors where the women do all the work, Unger especially: whether flamy-hairy or old ‘n’ croney.

Speaking of Croney...

Take Three: Crash, bang, trollop?

For reasons only known only to himself, David Cronenberg visually correlates Deborah Kara Unger’s streamlined body to that of a light aircraft in the opening moments of Crash (1996). He was goading us, titillating us with the curvature of her curves to enhance, in his own way, the sex + cars = sexycars argument intrinsic to J.G. Ballard’s controversial novel. He’s a crafty one, that Croney. But he did have a point. Unger was the icy icon of audience identification for all the saucy flesh-meets-metal shenanigans on offer in Crash. She was the film’s unofficial figurehead: first onscreen, last woman standing. Well, lying: she’s last seen getting bleeped from behind by James Spader on a grassy verge after he shunts her silver Miata into a ditch. In between all this rumpy-bumper action she added a singularly sinuous and spiky class to Croney’s pole position polemic.

Roadside or bedside, Unger doesn't care – she's always 'up for it' in Crash

Was she not the perfect Catherine Ballard though? If a smart Holly Hunter was a surprise choice for Helen, and Rosanna Arquette a delightfully grungy cyborg-amputee, then Unger – with her felid looks and near-continuous pout – was the appropriately cold slinky vixen; a modern wife lusting after the mod cons in not quite the intended way. (After all, Unger descends from a nuclear disposal specialist mother and a gynaecologist father – how Cronenbergian is that?) She delivers her deliberately ill-paced, spaced-out dialogue with the slow relish of a particularly somnambulant Stepford wife. She does it brilliantly; gets it spot on. It’s purely in keeping with the overall ridiculous, distant tone of the book, film and overall idea of preferring to fuck something that has four wheels and doesn’t speak.

The result of Unger always being 'up for it' in Crash

Whether she’s standing on her condo balcony dreaming of a three-way by the freeway, opting for extra bodywork mid-carwash, or simply getting bonked against a balustrade, Unger distills sex sex sex in Crash in a curiously frosty, frolicsome and, arguably, forward-thinking manner. Would any other contemporary actress have dared to reveal so much whilst giving away so little? Good on ya, Debs.

Three more key films for the taking: Keys to Tulsa (1996), The Hurricane (1999), Thirteen (2003)

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