Saturday, November 7, 2009

Murder on Her Mind (Lifetime, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a surprisingly good movie I recorded from Lifetime: Murder on Her Mind, which despite the generic title, the rather bland casting (the only genuinely cute male in the film gets himself killed in the opening scene, though he’s seen in flashbacks thereafter) and the two sappy soft-rock songs heard towards the end, turned out to be a powerful thriller with a message. It’s basically the coming-together of two women’s lives and their discovery that they had a great deal in common despite the vast difference in how they ended up. The film starts in 2008, the year it was made, with Sally Linden (Annabeth Gish — nice to know she still got to keep working after her Mystic Pizza co-star Julia Roberts became a superstar and she didn’t), wife of a successful novelist (Callum Keith Rennie) and with an unsuccessful book of her own published, is packing her daughter Aimée (Kristen Hager) off to college when she finds a yellow notebook.

The film then flashes back to 1993 in Hawai’i, when Sally was married to her first husband Danny (Gabriel Hogan), a small-time crook promoting real-estate scams and draining the family bank account (such as it was) for seed money, and Aimée was just a little girl (and played as such by Isabella Magalhaes). Sally took the notes in the book while on the jury in the murder trial of Theresa Nichol (Chandra West), who like Sally herself grew up in a respectable and affluent family and threw it all away to marry a scapegrace crook. Her husband Vincent (Hugh Dillon) had worked out a scheme by which Sally would go up to men in bars, cruise them, offer to help them get drugs and then Vincent, posing as her brother, would come on the scene, they’d get in the victim’s car and then Vincent would hold a gun on the victim and force him to drive to a secluded spot on the beach, where Vincent and Theresa would tie up the victim and steal his money. Only in the case of this victim, Bobby Gordon (David West Read — the cute one), for some reason the script never quite makes clear (possibly disappointment that he only had $40 on him) Vincent shot and killed him. (We see this happen in a “teaser” shot at the very beginning and again several times over in the course of the film, which is probably what earned it a TV PG-V rating.)

Vincent and Theresa then fled to California, where they pulled the same scam and again Vincent killed the victim; they were arrested and extradited to Hawai’i, whereupon Vincent decided to cut a deal and turn state’s evidence, saying it was Theresa who killed the victim. Theresa ends up serving her sentence in the women’s wing at Chino (the script by Semi Chellas — which if this movie weren’t as good as it is would probably lead me to a Medved brothers’-style joke that if his older brother Fully Chellas had written it, it would have been better — never quite bothers to explain how the jurisdictional snarls of two people committing similar crimes in different states got resolved; as it is, she’s shown having been arrested in California, convicted in Hawai’i and imprisoned in California again), where Sally visits her and expresses her belief in Theresa’s innocence even though the jury found her guilty. You see, on the last day of the trial Sally had a fight with David and took her daughter Aimée with her after David refused to remain home and baby-sit Aimée for her — Sally arrived at the courthouse five minutes late and the judge immediately threw her off the jury and installed an alternate, much to the disappointment of Theresa’s lawyer, who was counting on Sally either to persuade the rest of the jurors to acquit, Twelve Angry Men-style, or at least to hang the jury.

The incident encouraged Sally to wire her mother for the money to come home, break up with David and eventually meet Leonard (who agreed to raise Aimée as his own — it’s not until the flashbacks start that we realize she isn’t Leonard’s natural daughter), while Theresa paid the price for having let her own no-goodnick husband draw her into a life of crime. Sally gets on the case and investigates it herself, partly because she sees the opportunity to write a book about it and partly because she comes to identify with Theresa on a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I basis — and ultimately she gets an attorney on her case, gets Theresa’s Hawai’i conviction expunged and finally sees her paroled for her California crime. The film also touches on how laws differ from state to state — the law in Hawai’i that spouses could not testify against each other was repealed just a few months before the original murder, and under Hawai’ian law the only party to an incident like this who was considered guilty of murder was the one who actually shot the victim, whereas in California if two people are involved in a crime together and one of them commits murder during the course of it, both are legally considered murderers.

But the main meat of the film, ably communicated in Chellas’s script and David Wellington’s restrained, understated direction, is the connection between the two women and the similarities in their life situations even though one of them got out of her destructive relationship in time and the other did not. Wellington also deserves credit for making the characters who appear in both 1993 and 2008 sequences appear 15 years older without slathering makeup on them or otherwise artificially aging the actors; he’s able to get the actors to play older by moving more slowly and changing their postures. A movie like Murder on Her Mind is the sort of experience every regular Lifetime watcher hopes for: a diamond in the rough that makes up for all the dull, slovenly, ill-told stories that clutter up the network.