Persistence Of Vision #1
After Dark, My Sweet (1990)
Kevin Collins is an open book. Wild-haired, hunched over; a flinching, shuffling mess of nerves and uncontrolled responses, he’s easy to read: worn-down drifter, cowering dog. He’s good-looking and amiable, but he’s off, slow on the uptake. His attempts at camaraderie are met with fierce rejection, even violence.
Kevin Collins, played by Jason Patric in another fine underrated performance, is easy prey for exploitation, and friends come quickly in the brokedown desolation of the inhabited southern California desert. In After Dark, My Sweet, James Foley’s film of Jim Thompson’s hardboiled pulp novel, the desert is felt in every scene.
This is film noir invaded by an oppressive sun. Nothing happens in the dark: cantina rendezvous, lovemaking, and crimes all occur in the blistering light of day. Even when it is night, the characters are lit by harsh fluorescent lamps.
The effects of this pervasive sun are felt in the characters. Slow, idle, inert, they find themselves in an inhospitable terrain and respond by turning into the lizards and tortoises who survive there. Even Kevin, who needs to keep moving, has developed his stooped, doddering gait almost as a reaction to the withering sun.
There are other reasons for Kevin’s abnormality. An ex-boxer escaped from a mental institution, the film lets you choose whether he’s permanently punchdrunk or broken by misguided doctors. As the original novel was written in 1955, in an era consumed by its quest for absolute normalcy, it’s not hard to imagine Kevin’s raging pugilist having been subjected to countless shock treatments until he emerged the shivering sketch of normality he is in the film.
The film has its heart in Kevin’s tragedy: he is a stock pulp character, all the time fighting his destiny as a patsy or useful corpse. All characters underestimate him; he retains his intelligence if not his ability to communicate it quickly or artfully. He is conscious of his place within a fiction and hasn’t the capacity to break free. He’ll ride it out to the end.
A reason for that is Fay Anderson, a lost and wasted widow drinking her days away under the blasted date palms of her late husband’s bungalow estate. Mildly British and possessing of a still-sexy body, which she dresses without care in jean shorts and loose tees, Fay was disappointed by her shot at normalcy. It landed her in the desert, alone, surrounded by more wastrel lizards who offer her neither love nor fun, but only an occasional break in the never-ending days. If there is a light in Fay’s future, she can’t see it for the blinding sun.
Doomed Fay (Rachel Ward) invites Kevin to her home for reasons not immediately apparent. The film makes its characters hard to read. Motives can be guessed but never known, and even in the end, we are left wondering who was telling the truth. This is effective in making us sympathetic to Kevin, who struggles to find someone he can trust.
In Fay, Kevin sees a woman in need, broken down to nearly his level, and an opportunity for the normalcy that evades him. As their relationship develops, and she allows a moment of sweetness instead of her constant and confounding barrage of insults, Kevin grabs onto it—and her—and all of a sudden their utter need is evident. He offers her love and a future (and at the same time asks for as much) and she plays with the idea, asking, “Do you think we could really do that, Collie?” rejecting his promise while asking for reassurance. Later, they share a quiet love scene that keeps fading to black; they achieve transitory peace when they pretend at love.
But these characters aren’t wired for happiness. Fay’s neighbor, Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern, always irresistible), a ne’er-do-well retired cop, has a plan to kidnap for ransom the child of a rich family. It’s probably for this reason that Fay picked up Kevin, but if it is, she soon had a change of heart, telling him, “His little scheme’s been cooking for months, and if you leave, it’ll go on cooking ‘til it boils away.”
Kevin stays on, believing Fay needs to be protected, and his bid for normalcy relies on his protecting her and their coming out okay. He commits to Uncle Bud’s ill-conceived scheme and does his best to juggle all the disparate elements at play against him: Uncle Bud’s machinations, Fay’s caprices, and the kidnapped boy’s threatened well-being.
Kevin proves himself above his fellows in mind and morality, and though he is constantly underestimated for his seeming dimness, he is nearly always ahead of everyone else. He is a survivor, a product of a cruel natural selection, and they are the sheltered idle and impotent.
Kevin Collins remains remarkably strong in his assertion of himself—gentle, moral—on a corrupt world. He reaches out in need of companionship, love, and normalcy, and in doing so makes himself vulnerable to exploitation. Love takes him to darkness and he goes willingly, because it’s the best chance he’s got. His motivation can best be understood in the scene in which he holds Fay in the dimming light and says, “You feel good.” It’s a comment on both the pleasure of physical touch and her moral potential. His love will deliver them both from their perpetual hells.