Sunday, March 1, 2015

Kept Woman (Incendo/Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Kept Woman, whose subject matter I had no idea of and wasn’t able to find out because there wasn’t a clickable link on the title on the Lifetime Web site, though given how many films they’ve been showing lately on the theme of hot young women in more or less exploitative relationships with older and considerably richer men I had assumed the title was “kept” in the Easiest Way sense of a man-mistress relationship. No, it turned out this movie, directed by Michel Poulette (“it was directed by a little chicken?” I couldn’t resist joking) from a script by Doug Barber and James Taylor Phillips, was literally about a woman being “kept” — i.e., kidnapped and held in a crazy man’s basement against her will. The woman is Jessica Crowder (Courtney Ford), who lives with her fiancé Evan (Andrew W. Walker, younger and considerably cuter than the common run of Lifetime leading men) in a New York City apartment until they come home from a night on the town and find their apartment has been burglarized. Worse yet, the burglar (Matt Enos) is still there and forces them at gunpoint to give up the cash they have on hand, the engagement ring Evan gave Jessica and the contents of Jessica’s purse. Feeling so violated she can never be at ease in that apartment again, Jessica insists that she and Evan move — only, this being a Lifetime movie, they’re going from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. The fire is Simon (marvelously portrayed by Shaun Benson, who pulls off the difficult challenge in playing a crazy man to make the audience believes that he thinks he’s not only normal but perfectly sane), the supercilious next-door neighbor who looks harmless enough — he’s a scrawny little thing wearing glasses and a neatly trimmed beard and effecting a milquetoast manner. He says he’s a professor of “men’s studies” at a local university — actually the name of the course he teaches is “Men and Masculinities” (“You mean there’s more than one?” asks the innocent Jessica, obviously not familiar with academic Newspeak) — and he lives alone even though Jessica and/or Evan notice that he’s coming home from the grocery store with enough food for at least two people.

Simon reaches out to Evan and Jessica by presenting them a bottle of wine from his cellar — the label on the bottle is “Chateau Poulette,” an in-joke on the director’s name — and it’s only until half an hour into the movie that his real agenda is revealed. (Actually it’s revealed in the promo they showed just before the movie begins, creating essentially a built-in spoiler.) Simon is a retro guy who believes that a man should be the master of his own house and his women should be subservient to him, and since he can’t get any women to behave that way in 2015 if he meets and courts them in the normal fashion, he’s taken to kidnapping them and holding them in his basement, with a security code on the door (which he changes often) and a full 1950’s décor in the living room and kitchen he’s set up so the women he’s kidnapped can cook for him, fuss over him, dress in 1950’s housewife’s clothes and, of course, give him sex without resistance any time he wants it. He’s got his house wired with state-of-the-art 21st century surveillance cameras but, true to form, he watches the output from these videos on an old-fashioned 1950’s black-and-white TV. He has at least one other victim, Robin Simmons (Rachel Wilson), a former graduate student (Charles wondered why a men’s studies professor would have a female graduate student, and I thought that was a clue Barber and Phillips had planted in his script that would start getting Evan and the other characters wise to Simon when they realized the inconsistency) whom he started an affair with while she was still his student, coaxed into the basement and now has a big-time case of the Stockholm Syndrome, totally identifying with Evan and his needs and coaxing Jessica to accept that from now on Simon and that basement are going to be her life. She even stops Jessica from attacking Simon in one quite well-done and gripping scene. Simon forces Jessica to give him her e-mail address and password so he can write Evan an e-mail, ostensibly from her, stating that she’s found a better man and has left Evan for him — which Evan doesn’t believe because Jessica left without taking her cell phone and she would never leave home voluntarily without her phone.

Evan has help tracing Jessica from two unlikely sources. One is Oscar Garrett (Jesse Camacho), a heavy-set, queeny and gender-ambiguous person with whom Jessica had maintained contact via computer because they were both interested in investigating missing-person cases, and to whom in their last contact Jessica had let slip her suspicions about Simon and his intentions — Oscar offered to investigate Simon for Jessica, but alas she didn’t take him up on it. The other is Tyler Haynes (Troy Blundell), a police officer (in what jurisdiction, one wonders?) who’s a friend of Evan’s (and who’s played by an actor who, to my mind, is even hunkier than Andrew W. Walker — this is certainly the movie to watch if you’re as upset at I am by the deficient beefcake quotas of recent Lifetime films compared to the procession of hot guys they used to show in the 1990’s!), who interviewed Oscar as part of his initial investigation into Jessica’s disappearance and received from Oscar a full dossier on Simon, including that he was fired from a previous teaching job in Connecticut for inappropriate sexual contact with a student but was allowed to resign rather than put the school through the embarrassment of firing him. The student he was fired for having inappropriate sexual contact with was Robin Simmons — and there was an earlier incident in which he also had sex with a student who subsequently disappeared; her name was Megan, and we’ve already been told in previous dialogue between Simon and Jessica that he murdered her when she got out of line. While Jessica is down in the basement with Simon, Robin, who for all her identification with Simon gets downright jealous the first night Simon decides he wants Jessica for sex instead of her, says to him that Jessica is only pretending to be in love with him and she’s really still in love with Evan and anxious to escape. Simon responds by murdering … Robin, whom he’s convinced is lying out of jealousy and he insists he won’t tolerate lies. Officer Tyler comes out to Simon’s case to ask about the items in Oscar’s dossier, and Simon responds by being polite until Tyler turns his back, whereupon Simon clubs him twice with a cast-iron frying pan, killing him.

Then there’s a suspense climax in which Evan breaks into Simon’s house, Jessica figures out the combination to the security lock by seeing Simon’s bloody fingers on certain of the keys, the three of them confront each other in the upstairs part of the house, Jessica raises a fire extinguisher about to club … and then there’s a commercial break, after which we see Jessica in jail and we immediately assume she had genuinely fallen in love with Simon and had killed Evan to stay with him. Only it turns out she’s not an inmate, just a visitor, and she’s there to torment Simon, rubbing it in that because he didn’t get the death penalty he’ll be imprisoned for the rest of his life the way he was hoping to do with her, and also showing her the book she’s just written (called Kept Women — plural) about her experience in his basement. Kept Woman could have been considerably better but even as it is it’s better than the common run of Lifetime movies; director Poulette and editor Benjamin Duffield do some marvelous suspense cutting, and Poulette also gets a marvelous performance out of Shaun Benson as the crazy Simon, properly edgy but also nice enough you can readily understand how he was able to trick those women into coming into his basement, while at the same time his idea of male-female relationships is stuck in the 1950’s and it’s clear that’s why he commits his crimes. I’d still love to see someone make a movie of Emma Donoghue’s Room sometime — it strikes me as the best of these woman-held-captive-by-a-sex-fiend stories and it’s intriguingly told from the point of view of the child she has by her captor, who literally has known no other environment than the room in the shed in which he held them since he was born there (home-delivered by his mom without anyone else’s knowledge or help, since a previous pregnancy ended in disaster when the captor tried to help deliver the baby and failed miserably, causing its death) and has never been outside (and when I looked Donoghue up on Wikipedia I wasn’t at all surprised to find she’s a Lesbian, given the quite sour view of men and heterosexuality in her book) — but Kept Woman is actually a pretty good one, maybe not in absolute standards but quite a bit better than the common run of “pussies-in-peril” movies from Lifetime.