It’s not “Chinatown,” Jake, but “Mulholland Falls” has a brutal power of its own. A Los Angeles-based period thriller strong on amorality and corruption, not to mention sex and violence, “Mulholland Falls” combines a vivid sense of place with a visceral directorial style that fuses controlled fury onto everything it touches.
After only two features, this aesthetic of brutality is becoming a trademark of New Zealand director Lee Tamahori. “Once Were Warriors,” his intense debut film (made after considerable commercial work), was all crude energy and little delicacy. Not surprisingly, “Mulholland” has none of the elegance and sophistication of the Robert Towne/Roman Polanski classic, but Tamahori has his own unrelenting ways of holding an audience’s attention.
For one thing, the director has imposed his sledgehammer technique and pulp sensibility on his players. Stars Nick Nolte, Melanie Griffith, Chazz Palminteri and John Malkovich, plus key supporting actors Jennifer Connelly, Andrew McCarthy and Treat Williams, form an ensemble in sync with the film’s neo-noir sensibility.
Set in the Los Angeles of the early 1950s, “Mulholland” benefits from the expertise of production designer Richard Sylbert and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, two of the best. Working with costume designer Ellen Mirojnick and set decorator Claire Jenora Brown, they’ve created a paradoxical world where venality and sleaze are as stubbornly pervasive as sunshine.
The film’s script, credited to novelist Pete Dexter from a story by Dexter and Floyd Mutrux, plays around with hard-boiled dialogue of the “Who are you?"/"You won’t find out by killing me” variety without calling excessive attention to itself. Its technique is to take simple plot elements and so scramble them in the telling, revealing secrets one tiny glimpse at a time, that the narrative drive doesn’t falter.
Also, in a possible nod to “Kiss Me Deadly,” a key thriller also set in 1950s Los Angeles, “Mulholland Falls” makes use of the atomic bomb the way “Chinatown” used water, as a sinister element whose shadow corrupts everything that crosses its path.
“Mulholland Falls” starts with something more low-tech but also unnerving: the steady click-clack-click of a 16-millimeter projector. Shown under the credits are unsettling fragments of black-and-white film: scenes of a pool party, some images of an Army base and then, should your interest be waning, glimpses of a graphic sexual encounter effectively shot like an upscale stag film.
Once that film ends, the screen is taken over by the Hat Squad (Nolte, Palminteri, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn), four burly Los Angeles Police Department types with soft fedoras and hard attitudes. Driving around the city in a glossy Buick Roadmaster that has more personality than they do, the Hat Squad has carte blanche from the chief to act outside the law and destroy the criminal element in Los Angeles by any means necessary.
Naturally, that often means excessive violence, which as viewers of “Once Were Warriors” remember, director Tamahori knows something about. Bursts of short but explosive savagery, usually in the form of horrific beatings, punctuate “Mulholland Falls,” episodes so furious they keep us on edge even when nothing violent is going on.
Though the Hat Squad is nominally a foursome, only one of the supporting three, Palminteri as the solicitous Coolidge, manages to project an identifiable personality. Most of the focus is on the group’s leader, Lt. Max Hoover (Nolte), an all-business steamroller whose idea of small talk is “I asked you a question.” Though apparently happily married to Katherine (Griffith), Hoover appears to be someone to whom all human feeling is alien.
So it surprises his crew as well as Hoover when the discovery of the body of a young woman named Allison Pond (played with a haunting presence by Jennifer Connelly) seems to unnerve him. The remainder of “Mulholland Falls” is taken up with viewing her life in flashback and investigating why and how she was murdered.
It’s a story that ends up involving photographer Jimmy Fields (Andrew McCarthy), J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, an Army colonel (Treat Williams) and Gen. Thomas Timms (Malkovich), the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and one of the inventors of the atomic bomb.
Not unlike a nuclear weapon, “Mulholland Falls” goes about its business without a trace of finesse. And though it may not leave a great deal behind when its work is finished, it is hard to ignore along the way.
* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality, violence and language. Times guidelines: The violence comes in brief but extremely intense spurts.
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Nick Nolte: Max Hoover
Melanie Griffith: Katherine Hoover
Chazz Palminteri: Ellery Coolidge
Michael Madsen: Eddie Hall
Chris Penn: Arthur Relyea
Treat Williams: Col. Nathan Fitzgerald
Jennifer Connelly: Allison Pond
Daniel Baldwin: FBI Special Agent McCafferty
Andrew McCarthy: Jimmy Fields
John Malkovich: Gen. Thomas Timms
A Largo Entertainment production, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. Director Lee Tamahori. Producers Richard D. Zanuck, Lili Fini Zanuck. Executive producer Mario Iscovich. Screenplay Pete Dexter, story by Pete Dexter and Floyd Mutrux. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Editor Sally Menke. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music Dave Grusin. Production design Richard Sylbert. Art director Gregory William Bolton. Set decorator Claire Jenora Bowin. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.