This movie takes a familiar premise and makes the most of it, doing a pretty darn good job in the process. David Duchovny stars as Brian, a guy writing a book on serial killers who wants to take a cross-country tour of historic murder sites with his girlfriend phtographer, Carrie (Michelle Forbes). To share expenses on the trip and liven things up, they take along a trailer trash couple named Early (Brad Pitt) and Adele (Juliette Lewis). Unfortunately for all involved, Early is a serial murderer himself.
There's a lot going for this movie, particularly the performances by Pitt and Lewis. They get so immersed in their characters, you can almost smell them. Pitt is outstanding. He ain't just a pretty face (in this movie, he's nearly unrecognizable); he acts the hell out of his role. Some critics might say it doesn't take a lot of talent to play a moronic dirtbag, but check out all the nuances Pitt gives Early, and you'll disagree. It's easily one of the best performances of his career, and certainly the most disturbing.
Lewis, for her part, is often accused of "always playing the same character," but this is not true. For all her childlike foolishness and pitiful gazes, Adele is a sad, complex creature who becomes the movie's emotional core. Indeed, Adele would have a major struggle on her hands just trying to complete the first grade, and her voice and behavior might annoy the socks off of us (not to mention Brian and Carrie), but are there people in the world like her? Yes. They put us in the awkward position of earning our sympathy while making us uncomfortable. Then we feel guilty that we're uncomfortable. Courage and independence come easily to some people, just as lies and deceit are the natural tools of others. But Adele posesses none of the above. She is simply an innocent, dealt a rotten hand in life, and Lewis's ability to make this clear proves her acting talent. It's a tricky role, but she pulls it off beautifully. There's a world of difference between Adele and the character Lewis plays in "Cape Fear."
Duchovny (who, with his dry monotone and sparse facial expressions, has always been an acquired taste) does well in the role of Brian. He is repelled by Early and Adele, but won't admit it. He also makes the mistake of regarding them as an amusing curiosity. Forbes does a good job too, but with the marathon of excellent acting going on around her, she won't be the character you'll remember the most.
Thematically, some might find the movie a little shaky. Suffice to say, it's violent enough to put off many potential viewers, but that's not what I mean. Some have criticized Pitt's portrayal of Early as not in-depth enough, that is, why is Early a serial killer? Do we get "inside his head"? Is it enough to justify his crimes simply because we need them for the plot? Let me tell you what I think. Early kills for two reasons: opportunistic impulse, or to escape capture. Technically, this makes him NOT a serial killer. He's more like Charles Starkweather, not Jeffrey Dahmer. It's rather fitting that Brian, after all his theorizing about "the minds of serial killers" and preaching about "treatment, not punishment", should be faced with someone who kills out of small-minded necessity, not sadism or sexual desire.
All in all, a very good movie, if you can stomach the violence. It gives you a lot to think about, as well as a couple of significantly underappreciated performances to amaze you.