by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Yesterday morning I ran a TV-movie I’d recently recorded off Lifetime, with the awkward title Sex and Lies in Sin City: The Ted Binion Story. It was supposedly based on a true story and was directed by Peter Medak from a script by Teena Booth based on a book on the case with the somewhat more reasonable title Murder in Sin City. Casino owner Ted Binion (Matthew Modine), whose father founded the legendary Horseshoe gambling establishment (a place so retro in the Vegas scheme of things that its outside sign still said “gambling” instead of the more common modern euphemism, “gaming”) and who ran it from the time his father died until about seven months before the story begins (though there’s a lot of flashing back and Medak doesn’t always make it clear when we are, despite his annoying habit of having the image go from color to black-and-white and back to indicate that a particular cut has either pulled us forward or pushed us backwards in time), when the Nevada State Gaming Commission pulled his casino license because of his heavy drug habit (mainly smoking black-tar heroin and also ingesting prescription Xanax to prolong the “high” from the heroin) and his friendship with at least one known Mafia boss.
The film then flashes back about three years to Sandy Murphy (Mena Suvari), who loses everything at a casino during what she intended as a Vegas vacation, gets a job at a Cheetahs strip club to earn the money to go home, then gets sidetrack when she attracts Ted Binion’s attentions and ultimately moves in with him. Binion’s drug-fueled paranoia gets to such a point that he decides to withdraw his earnings from the Horseshoe and have them turned into metallic silver and cast in bars, which he intends to bury in an underground vault on the property. To build the vault, Binion hires a contractor named Rick Tabish (Johnathon Schaech), and before you can say “adulterous affair” Tabish (who’s married) and Sandy are having one under Binion’s nose. Eventually he catches them and he’s about to write her out of his will when he conveniently overdoses on drugs and dies — but was it an accident, or did Sandy and Tabish decide to hurry him along, either by forcing him to ingest more than his usual dose and then smothering him when the drugs alone didn’t kill him (the theory of the prosecution in their eventual trial) or simply by neglecting him and not giving him medical attention or calling 911 when he needed it à la The Little Foxes.
Sandy and Tabish are convicted — much to the joy of Binion’s sister Becky (Marcia Gay Harden, in by far the best performance in this little non-epic), who it turns out paid all the prosecution witnesses. The Nevada Supreme Court throws out the convictions and orders a new trial, and in the meantime Sandy has got an even richer sugar daddy — an old man who owns most of the mines in Nevada — and he underwrites a first-rate legal team for her headed by attorney Tony Serra (Dan Gerrity). In the new trial, Sandy and Tabish are convicted of trying to steal Binion’s silver horde but acquitted of the murder after 19 hired medical experts (paid for by the mine owner’s money) all insist Ted Binion died of a normal overdose.
The basic story seems to be a perfect illustration of Raymond Chandler’s famous aphorism, “The law is where you buy it and what you pay for it,” but the movie as told offers almost none of that and instead goes for a straightforward thriller redeemed by some fairly good acting — Suvari is more than acceptable as the bimbo, Modine has just the right handsome-man-gone-to-seed look for the part but his Southern accent starts to grate after a while, Schaech isn’t much of an actor but for the first half of the movie we see him almost exclusively in blue jeans and his basket is a thing of wonder and a joy to behold, and the movie is really stolen by Harden, whose performance is so ferocious that for much of the movie I was expecting a denouement in which it would turn out that she actually offed her brother and framed his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s boyfriend for the crime.