Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Good Mistress (Lighthouse Pictures/Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a Lifetime movie from my backlog of these productions: The Good Mistress, which I’d recorded back during its “world premiere” on February 14. The Good Mistress has a whopping misnomer of a title — one might expect a story about a woman who falls in love with a man, not knowing he’s married, and sees him for a while until she finds out he has a wife, whereupon she does the beautiful and noble thing and arranges a reconciliation between them. The woman who falls in love (or at least lust) with a man who’s married, but she doesn’t know that, appears in this plot line, but she’s not really a mistress (they only have sex once, though at least director Terry Ingram gives us a lovely soft-core porn scene between them, shot in deliciously atmospheric half-light — for a while Lifetime cut way back on the soft-core porn but now they’re bringing it back, which is a good thing). The woman is Sandy (Annie Heise), a recovering alcoholic whose drinking and partying hyped into overdrive following the death of her parents in a car accident until, driving while several sheets to the wind from her latest drinking session, she hit a young boy riding a bicycle and crippled him for life. For this she got five years’ probation and court-ordered rehab — her probation officer is a nerdy guy named Howard and both he and her landlord turn up in her life at the most awkward moments — and after she completes the rehab she moves to a small town called Sweet Meadow or something like that, where her girlhood friend Karen (Kendra Anderson) has arranged for her to work as a paralegal for the local law firm. During one of her lunch breaks she runs into a tall, lanky, dark-haired and not bad-looking but not drop-dead gorgeous either man named David Waterford (Antonio Cupo), who gives her a phone number and the name “Sam” and invites her to a dinner date.

The date is at a bar on the outskirts of town called Kenny’s — “Sam” told her it was a barbecue restaurant but there’s no indication it serves anything but alcoholic potables  — where she’s hit on by a self-proclaimed “barfly” who says it’s his birthday and he wants to buy her a drink in honor of that. “It was your ‘birthday’ last month!” says the bartender — who turns out to be Kenny, the place’s owner and proprietor — and Sandy sees “Sam” arrive for their date and demands to leave immediately. Eventually they have their one-night’s tumble and Sandy thinks she’s in heaven — until “Sam” turns up at the lawyer’s office where both Sandy and Karen work, and Karen introduces him: “This is David, my husband.” It gets even weirder than that; as part of her job, Sandy has to visit the family of a young woman who disappeared two months earlier and whose body has just been found (in a preposterously obvious-looking amateur grave one wouldn’t think it would have taken the authorities two months to notice); the woman’s mother has kept a photo of her daughter and a card given her by her boyfriend reading, “A perfect rose for a perfect lady.” Sandy instantly recognizes the handwriting as David’s and concludes that David was the young woman’s mysterious boyfriend and he killed her — though she can’t tell either Karen or the police because David invited her to Kenny’s bar to set her up: all he has to do is report to the authorities that she was at the bar, itself a violation of her probation, and he can get her sent to prison any time. What’s more, David is running for county supervisor and the town sheriff, Grady Williams (Jeremy Guilbaut), is a close friend and strong political supporter of his, so the authorities are going to laugh at anyone who accuses him of murder.

Eventually Sandy becomes convinced that David not only killed the girl but is about to murder his wife as well as Sandy herself — her car crashed when someone cut her brake lines — and though the police have a suspect in the girl’s disappearance (the “barfly” from Kenny’s is found in the bar’s parking lot, having apparently committed suicide by running a hose from his exhaust pipe and filling the car with carbon monoxide), Sandy is convinced David killed him, too, faked it to look like suicide and dropped a false clue (a memory card from a digital camera filled with photos of the murdered girl) to frame the “barfly.” All the principals converge on the Waterfords’ isolated mountain cabin, and the big switcheroo occurs: the killer isn’t David but his wife Karen. Reflecting the same indomitable will towards pushing her weakling husband’s political career that Barbara Stanwyck showed towards Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (a film I suspect writers Ron Oliver and James Shavick have seen), Karen says to Sandy that she’s devoted a lot of energy to “cleaning up his messes,” including knocking off any other women he’s involved with and using his connections with the local sheriff to cover it up. Eventually the sheriff finally figures it all out — he sees a reflection of Karen’s face on one of the photos of the girl from the memory card that was supposed to implicate the “barfly” — and arrives at the cabin to shoot down Karen just when Karen is about to stab Sandy to death. The Good Mistress is pretty preposterous, and like a lot of Lifetime movies the opening is pretty dull as it sets up the exposition, but once the first of the two big reveals kicks in the movie becomes a pretty good thriller, effectively directed by Ingram with a flair for atmosphere and suspense far beyond what we usually get from Lifetime directors. It’s also decently acted — at least to the extent that anybody could make these far-fetched (to say the least!) situations believable — and yet more evidence that the producers, directors and writers of Lifetime movies have so internalized Christine Conradt’s formulae that even ones she had nothing to do with end up playing pretty much like the ones she did write.