Friday, January 25, 2013

She Made Them Do It (Front Street/Lifetime, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a film I recorded off Lifetime a couple of weeks ago: She Made Them Do It, a pretty clinical and game-giving-away title for what turned out to be an unusually good thriller, supposedly based on a true story, in which the “she” of the title is Sarah Ponder (Jenna Dewan-Tatum). At the start of the movie Sarah is touring the campus of Purdue University with her boyfriend Rick (the very hot-looking Greyston Holt). She had to drop out earlier but is planning to re-enroll there in the fall with the $2,500 in cash she’s saved up from the drug-dealing she and Rick have been doing — though it’s made clear in the opening that Rick is the drug user in the couple and Sarah the brains of the operation. Only Rick has opened their home to some ne’er-do-well house guests, a man and a woman who have stolen Sarah’s $2,500 and used it to buy cocaine, which they were planning to sell but in the great tradition of bad drug stories (both fictional and real-life) are using themselves. Furious, Sarah demands that Rick do something about the pair who’ve ripped her off — and he does so by getting a shotgun Sarah bought him the day before and offing them. Writer Gary Tieche and director Grant Harvey show a couple of alternate versions of this incident later on in the movie — including one at the end that shows Sarah actually wielding the gun herself — but it’s hard to take that seriously given that in the next two hours (less commercials) Sarah’s usual modus operandi is to (as the title suggests) get other people to commit crimes for her rather than to do anything illegal by her own hand. Sarah and Rick make an inept attempt to flee but they’re caught after Rick makes the rookie mistake of renting a motel room for them with his credit card — he’s supposed to be the one with the criminal record but it’s Sarah who’s convicted of the killings (Rick maintains he shot the pair in self-defense but the cops don’t believe that, mainly because they didn’t report the crime immediately and tried to run away instead) after the bodies of the dead pair are found in a nearby dumpster (where Rick threw them away surprisingly easily given how heavy a dead human really is and how hard one is to lift).

Sarah gets a 50-year sentence for killing the male half of the couple and a consecutive 60-year sentence for killing the woman — and she stays in touch with Jamie (Mackenzie Phillips), whom she met in jail while awaiting trial and with whom she had a Lesbian affair. Then in prison — this is in Indiana, by the way — she romances not only one of her fellow female inmates but also a male guard, Spitler (Nels Lennarson), whom she literally seduces into helping her escape after her appeals are exhausted. Once she’s out she goes through all her prison acquaintances — including Farrell (Lisa Marie Caruk), a young mother of two whose aunt and uncle, who were taking care of her kids during her incarceration, whose parole she jeopardizes by coming to their place and asking to stay there; and also Cheryl (Bethany Brown), a butch Black woman who also looked like one of Sarah’s jailhouse flames. Jamie and Spitler eventually ended up serving time themselves for helping Sarah break out of prison, but none of the other people were prosecuted — apparently U.S. marshal Jeff Harlan (who’s not identified on the page for the movie or on Lifetime’s official site for it even though he’s the principal character in the second half of the movie) didn’t let up and pursued Sarah with a Javert-like (or Ahab-like) persistence and ultimately got her case featured regularly on America’s Most Wanted, which eventually got her turned in by Bob (Andrew Airlie), a wealthy paper manufacturer who met up with Sarah when she turned up at the strip club where Jamie worked, looking for a rich pigeon she could seduce, and at one point Bob set her up in an apartment and it looked like she was going to be his long-term mistress until he got tired of her, realized how having her around could jeopardize his marriage — to which she responded by going onto his computer and looking up undetectable poisons on the Web (“Is she going to go Double Indemnity on us?” I started to wonder) — and though it’s not spelled out in Tieche’s script it’s pretty clear we’re meant to think that Bob was the anonymous tipster who called the law on her and gave up her whereabouts in order to save his marriage from both a messy divorce and a psycho mistress who wanted to do his wife in and replace her.

So far there are no comments on the movie from the site but on Lifetime’s site for the movie there are several, including some defending Sarah. One of them was from Jamie’s husband (depicted in the film as a fat, grey-haired slob who stole the money Jamie was holding for Sarah — she had an underground business selling prescription drugs inside the prison but needed a “banker” to hold the proceeds for her outside — to buy a Jacuzzi; judging from what happened the last time someone stole a large sum of money from Sarah, he should have been watching his back!), who wrote, “I can honestly say that I saw very little truth or facts in most of this great work of fiction. This movie … is based on a few far-stretched facts and the writer’s imagination. The truth will come out when Sarah is vindicated and we’ll see if they want to make a movie out of the REAL story and how the system failed Sarah and continues to fail others in the Indiana Judicial system. The acting was good and so was the story, it’s just sad it was nowhere near the truth.” At least two other posters expressed similar sentiments (including one claiming that Sarah’s original prosecutor has switched sides and is now on her defense team) — quite a surprise given that when Lifetime usually does a true-crime dramatization involving a woman culprit they’re generally criticized the other way by people who say they’re whitewashing the female and making her look less guilty than she really was.

Be that as it may — and I say this as someone who knows nothing about the real case — She Made Them Do It is quite a good movie, not a deathless classic but several cuts above the Lifetime norm, made great (or at least greater than usual) by Harvey’s relentless, fast-moving direction and, above all, by Jenna Dewan-Tatum’s performance in the lead. Recognizing that an all-out bravura femme fatale performance like Barbara Stanwyck’s in Double Indemnity, Mary Beth Hughes’ in The Great Flamarion or Ann Savage’s in Detour would just be laughed off the screen today, Dewan-Tatum plays Sarah with a kind of relentless, demented perkiness that probably gave Mackenzie Phillips some uncomfortable flashbacks to the way Valerie Bertinelli played off her in the 1970’s sitcom One Day at a Time and eclipsed both her and the actress playing their mom. At one point Harlan complains that he can’t get a handle on Sarah’s shifting identities — “She’s Manson, she’s Gandhi, she’s Gay, she’s straight” — in other words, she’s whatever she has to be to survive and maintain herself in the circumstances in which she finds herself. She Made Them Do It doesn’t try to offer any more than the most obvious insights into What Made Sarah Run (in both senses of the word!) but it’s still a fun and gripping movie, even though that out-of-character flashback showing her actually shooting two people (a version of the crime which Sarah’s defenders on the Lifetime comments page say no one, not even people who were convinced she was guilty, say happened — whatever her culpability, it’s clear Rick actually pulled the trigger) ends the movie on a weird and gratuitously violent note. Still, it’s a good thriller and especially convincing in depicting the sexual thrall with which Sarah holds her seducees of both genders and gets them to do her bidding.