"The Gingerbread Man" isn't any more profound than other thrillers, but the distinctive talents of director Robert Altman make it a lot more potent. From the opening aerial shots, which zoom over Georgia's Outer Islands while Mark Isham's percussive, discordant score plays ominously on the soundtrack, "The Gingerbread Man" feels like a promise of bad news. John Grisham's pseudonymous screenplay drags out the old clichi of an oncoming storm that arrives right on schedule at the climax; Altman brews up his own strange weather. The air of "The Gingerbread Man" is heavy and fetid with corruption. Altman and his cinematographer, Changwei Gu, capture a sense of something sinister and perverse beneath Savannah's picturesque fagade, a thriving rot. Spanish moss that hangs down from trees might be a mass of cobwebs, or a shroud.
During the first half-hour, you recognize Altman's manner of telling a story without resorting to conventional movie storytelling: the overlapping dialogue, the restless, prowling camera movement, the way characters aren't so much introduced as they are simply part of what's going on. And because Altman doesn't rely on any of the usual methods of building suspense, by the time Kenneth Branagh's lawyer-hero finds himself in a pickle, his situation is frighteningly plausible.
Branagh's Rick Magruder is a lawyer with a string of acquittals and no compunction about doing what he has to do to win them. When the movie opens, he's celebrating his latest victory at a catered party and winds up giving one of the waitresses, Mallory (Embeth Davidtz), a lift home after her car is stolen. When they pull up to her place, the stolen car is parked outside, and Mallory explains that the culprit was probably her father, Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall), a mean old eccentric who periodically hassles her when he's not hanging out with the other members of what appears to be a ragtag cult. Rick and Mallory wind up in bed, and the next day, after Dixon does something horribly violent, she winds up at Rick's office seeking his help in having the old coot committed.
"The Gingerbread Man" is a chance for Altman to have fun, to bring something original to a suspenser that trades in conventions like lost wills and double-crosses, and he evokes genuine creepiness from the well-worn atmospherics of Southern Gothic. His camera work is full of sly, subtle tricks. During one especially tense sequence when Rick stops at a roadside gas station, Altman makes us jump every time a truck zooms by on the highway and blocks our view. Each time you fall for it, it's as if he were chuckling, "Gotcha!" When Rick and Mallory take refuge at a friend's place, the camera stays outside watching them through the windows as if something else were outside watching, too. After Dixon is committed and his oddball buddies show up under cover of darkness to bust him out, Altman includes a shot of them disappearing among the gravestones of a cemetery, like spooks evaporating into the night.
Altman doesn't handle some of the other thriller elements quite as deftly. One scene includes a view of a dead cat that's far too prolonged and drains all the shock. At the picture's climax, the action isn't as clear as it might be. Maybe because it's the most conventional part of the film, Altman's attention flagged there. The picture's only serious stumbling block, though, can be laid at Grisham's leaden feet.
Grisham's screenplay is credited to "Al Hayes," reportedly because Grisham didn't like the bad language Altman added. (Though anyone who's been to the movies in, say, the last 30 years might wonder, "What bad language?") The prudish part of the screenplay that Altman can't change is the suggestion that Rick's predicament is a punishment for getting guilty clients off. It's possible that's what Grisham intended in the scene when Rick, his kids having been threatened, goes to the police and finds them unwilling to help. They're angry over a case in which Rick punched holes in the testimony of a 20-year veteran who'd claimed he shot a suspect in self-defense. From the way the scene is written, Grisham appears to side with the cops. (And why not? He seems to think a lawyer who does his job successfully deserves to be taught a lesson.) But Altman reverses Grisham's intentions. He gets at the way cops resent anyone or anything -- even the law -- that dares to question them. Unfortunately, he can't work a similar reversal in the final scene, when Rick accepts his comeuppance and the whole thing deflates.
Playing an American in "The Gingerbread Man," as he did in his own "Dead Again," Kenneth Branagh is both energized and disarmingly casual. Rick is an opportunist, and the red vest he wears in court could stand for the cockiness he manages to keep in check. He isn't sleazy, but he's completely unapologetic about his own wiles. Branagh is appealing here in the way we remember from movie heroes of the '30s: cynical, wisecracking and wised-up. As Rick gets further into a hole, Branagh makes you sweat along with him -- especially in the scene where he frantically tries to remove his kids from school to protect them. You can see he's letting himself in for a world of trouble, but his desperation is so convincing, there doesn't seem to be any other choice.
As usual, Altman is a whiz with actors. There are good bits from Tom Berenger as Davidtz's ex-husband, and from Daryl Hannah (at first unrecognizable with her dark hair and glasses) as Branagh's assistant, a crisp professional able to spot her boss's bullshit coming from a mile away. As Mallory, Davidtz is nothing like either the concentration-camp inmate Ralph Fiennes took for a servant in "Schindler's List" or the schoolteacher in the wonderful "Matilda." Her Mallory seems untrustworthy and unguarded in equal measure, nonchalantly stealing an ashtray from Rick's office one minute and just as casually pulling it out of her bag to use a few minutes later, in full view of him.
In the role of Dixon, Mallory's father, Duvall gives a small marvel of a performance. There may be no other movie actor who plays possum with the orneriness Duvall displays here. At first glance, he seems to be a hillbilly locked in his own backward existence, but when we see him in court, we realize that this is a man who takes in everything around him like a hawk. Duvall is only on-screen for a few minutes, but Altman takes care to make Dixon a full-bodied presence. And as Clyde Dell, a private investigator who does leg work for Rick, Robert Downey Jr. is immediately likable. Try to imagine Perry Mason's pal Paul Drake played as a boozing hipster ladies' man, and you've got an idea of what Downey does here.
At the screening I attended, the press laughed at Clyde's drinking as if what Downey was doing didn't require any acting. That's a cheap, smug response. Nobody achieves the relaxed ease Downey shows here by merely trading on their off-screen persona. And no actor who has such huge liquid eyes is able to escape at least some trace of vulnerability. Downey takes an unremarkable sidekick role and creates a wholly unique character. We're so used to seeing tough-guy movie detectives who know how to take care of themselves. Downey's Clyde suggests a man drawn to the risks of his job because he's never quite learned how to protect himself. Whatever hell Downey may be going through in his own life only makes this performance more poignant.
"The Gingerbread Man" has been playing in New York since January but is only now opening around the country. Part of the reason for the delay may have to do with the movie's history. After Altman's cut of the film scored low in test screenings, Polygram took it from him and recut it, prompting Altman to have his name removed from the credits. But after Polygram's recut version didn't score any better, Altman's cut was restored and the film opened in New York to uniformly good reviews. For a while, it looked dubious that the movie would open anywhere else.
No studio ever likes being told by critics that it screwed up, and the good reviews must have sent a message to Polygram that they had done just that. It's wonderful to know that even in the course of making an entertainment, Altman, who just turned 73, can still piss off the money men. That's why it's fitting that he shows special respect for Duvall's Dixon Doss. Altman can respect a cussed old character who goes his own way, never tips his hand and shows up any son-of-a-bitch who claims he doesn't know what he's doing.