Sunday, October 17, 2010

Take Three: Deborah Kara Unger

Craig with this week's Take Three

Take One: (Fear) X marks the...Game

‘A lone man searching for answers to a troubling mystery – assisted by a mysterious and wilfully tricksy woman – whilst on the run from a seemingly shadowy organisation’. This could well describe, in loose terms, the basic plot of two higher profile Unger films: The Game (1997) and, to a lesser extent, Fear X (2003). Both feature Unger as everyday femme fatales. She’s mysterious and ordinary at the same time: unheimlich with a handbag. Both characters – waitress Christine in the former, housewife Kate in the latter – are channelled via Unger’s almost otherworldly ability to remain glacially poised on demand.

Two-player game: Unger desperately tries to ignore Douglas in The Game

In The Game – straight after Crash playing another strange woman for another strange David (Fincher) – she accompanied Michael Douglas on his mad dash around town – helping him find out whether his life was in danger or just a load of game play. Unger’s made to look rather dowdy in the role: a waitress who’s somehow caught up in “the Game”. Her look may be Ken Loach Kafka, but in the crepuscular light of Harris Savides’ astonishing photography she beams an insidious smile for the baffled Douglas that hits the mark time and again: so does her remarkably involving yet closed-book performance. She’s so good that many of the film’s surprising narrative twists are due to just how good she can bluff. And she bluffs good. Game over for her competition.

Xtreme emotion: Unger as the mysterious Kate in Fear X

For Nicolas Winding Refn’s under praised and indecipherably austere Fear X Unger’s first seen as a slowly-developing face on a mysterious roll of film John Turturro discovers in his investigation of his wife’s murder. Unger later turns up to dubiously, and remotely, guide him through a red-halled labyrinth of disquieting wrongness. Fear X is entirely perplexing: the three times I’ve seen it have almost given me a bald patch where I’ve scratched my noggin over its twisty-turny plot tumbles. One thing I do know is that Unger gives a great, albeit scary and resolutely nonliteral, turn. I never knew quite where I was when she was on screen. But with Fear X that's a good thing.

Take Two: Runnin' up that (Silent) Hill, with no problem...

I’m clearly constantly drawn toward actresses who consistently alternate “proper” films with genre flicks. Or even videogame adaptations: I lavished no small adoration upon Rosamund Pike for Doom (yes, Doom) a month or so ago, and brought on the love for killer croc-of-shit flick Rogue for Radha Mitchell’s Take Three earlier still. Mitchell heads up Silent Hill (2006) but supporting actress du jour Unger backs her up twice as nice: first in wanton old crone mode; second as a dubiously immoral flame-haired mother. They’re both the same person: Dahlia Gillespie, bum mum extraordinaire. (Ranked 42nd on the top 47 list of the most diabolical video game villains ever, apparently.) Both walk the foggy dimension of hell that is Silent Hill. But due to the freakish, otherworldly and, to be quite honest, downright confusing (well, it is for me, who only has a surface, barely-working knowledge of the game world) gubbins-and-doin’s in the titular town of terror we only find that out later.

CroneUnger pointing the way (to hell, probably) in Silent Hill

That’s after CroneUnger has indirectly summoned up a host of charred children, contortionists in condoms and some folded-over-backwards bloke who’s in dire need of some kind of medical assistance (all strangely well-choreographed). To be exact it’s right when she’s usurped by the mini-pyramid-headed guy who likes to rip people’s skin off outside churches. But no matter. FlamyhairUnger appears in flashbacks that look like a Ken Russell film gone wrong (and filmed in the kind of wobbly, scratchy Super-8 that only try-hard horror movies achieve). We’re told FlamyhairUnger did bad things and paid for her sins by having to dress in rags and play an old crone early on in the film. Social services would be on to her if they could only find the damn place; even the main character stumbles upon it by accident – as did many disgruntled cinema-goers, no doubt. But despite all the dank kerfuffle, and many misgivings, I quite liked Silent Hill. It’s one of only a few ‘00s horrors where the women do all the work, Unger especially: whether flamy-hairy or old ‘n’ croney.

Speaking of Croney...

Take Three: Crash, bang, trollop?

For reasons only known only to himself, David Cronenberg visually correlates Deborah Kara Unger’s streamlined body to that of a light aircraft in the opening moments of Crash (1996). He was goading us, titillating us with the curvature of her curves to enhance, in his own way, the sex + cars = sexycars argument intrinsic to J.G. Ballard’s controversial novel. He’s a crafty one, that Croney. But he did have a point. Unger was the icy icon of audience identification for all the saucy flesh-meets-metal shenanigans on offer in Crash. She was the film’s unofficial figurehead: first onscreen, last woman standing. Well, lying: she’s last seen getting bleeped from behind by James Spader on a grassy verge after he shunts her silver Miata into a ditch. In between all this rumpy-bumper action she added a singularly sinuous and spiky class to Croney’s pole position polemic.

Roadside or bedside, Unger doesn't care – she's always 'up for it' in Crash

Was she not the perfect Catherine Ballard though? If a smart Holly Hunter was a surprise choice for Helen, and Rosanna Arquette a delightfully grungy cyborg-amputee, then Unger – with her felid looks and near-continuous pout – was the appropriately cold slinky vixen; a modern wife lusting after the mod cons in not quite the intended way. (After all, Unger descends from a nuclear disposal specialist mother and a gynaecologist father – how Cronenbergian is that?) She delivers her deliberately ill-paced, spaced-out dialogue with the slow relish of a particularly somnambulant Stepford wife. She does it brilliantly; gets it spot on. It’s purely in keeping with the overall ridiculous, distant tone of the book, film and overall idea of preferring to fuck something that has four wheels and doesn’t speak.

The result of Unger always being 'up for it' in Crash

Whether she’s standing on her condo balcony dreaming of a three-way by the freeway, opting for extra bodywork mid-carwash, or simply getting bonked against a balustrade, Unger distills sex sex sex in Crash in a curiously frosty, frolicsome and, arguably, forward-thinking manner. Would any other contemporary actress have dared to reveal so much whilst giving away so little? Good on ya, Debs.

Three more key films for the taking: Keys to Tulsa (1996), The Hurricane (1999), Thirteen (2003)



I rented THE GAME last week and didn't end rewatching it before returning. I have such distant memories of that one (my least favorite Fincher).

but I love Unger in CRASH (Cronenberg version). you're right about the somnabulistic line delivery but so eerily correct for her part. casting is often half the battle but still... she's pretty super in it. I wish Cronenberg would use her again.

NicksFlickPicks said...

In the middle of writing about Cronenberg as we speak and was just thinking again of how fond I am of DKU in this movie. I've just been reading lots of Crash essays, and this one really "gets" Unger the best of anything I've read (or written!). Love this installment.

Mirko said...

Great article! and I'm very glad to read something about Unger, expecially the part regarding CRASH.

I will always regret not having included Deborah in my supporting actress line-up in 1996 (in Italy it opened before than in United States), despite being a great fan of the movie (just the Cronenberg's one!) and having appreciated a lot the last I decided for more traditional performances and today I don't like it at all...

anyway I'm so glad there are several Unger's fans in the net...yes! Cronenber should have used the actress more

Anonymous said...

I cannot stand this woman. I don't know why but she has a screen presence that just makes me cringe.

Anonymous said...

Man, she looks like Diana Krall.


anon 9:37 -- well, she is always playing rather vile characters. maybe that's it?

Craig Bloomfield said...

Nat - Her line delivery is SO monotone that there's something very sinister going on that's hard to define. (She infers more than the already hyped-up surface sexual tension at times!) But she's indeed incredibly good. I do wish she'd receive more acclaim overall though.

Nick - It often seems as if out of the Crash team DKU is the one who gets left out the most, when she deserves her share of the congratulations (everyone risked plenty on the film). I guess part of my MO with the Take 3 column - that seems to be more apparent with each week - is to, if poss., give a tip of the hat to certain underpraised perfs. I'd like to see more written on DKU in general though. Looking forward to your proposed Croney piece! And thank you for the kind words, too.

Mirko - She was really splendid on the sidelines in Crash, but really integral to its structure and - for want of a better word - vibe. A lot of focus goes to the Crash men, but the women make it just as intriguing, if not more so, at times. Thanks for reading - glad you enjoyed it.

Glenn Dunks said...

Having just watched Crash for the first time I was surprised to find myself thinking she gave the strongest performance of the film. Perhaps it was my interpretation of the film though that lent her performance as something brilliant (I didn't exactly take the film as based in "reality" - something her dreamy, almost unrealistic performance, enhanced).

Holly Hunter sure wasn't in it very much, was she?

Craig Bloomfield said...

Glenn - I think she's perfectly in tune with the off-kilter, uneasy tone Cronenberg opts for in Crash. I agree, the unreality of her perf. chimes with the film perfectly well; both things are so very, very wrong that they're so right. I like Elias Koteas a lot in the film too, but Unger gets top vote.