Fatal Attraction has become the granddaddy of the erotic thriller genre for good reason. It’s slick enough that it distinguishes itself from the genre’s trashier entries, and it’s convincingly performed by a trio of A-listers who elevate the material. It’s an imperfect work, straying too far from its conceit during the final 20 minutes, but it’s given a likability because it so ardently commits to a lean, economical structure.
The film stars Michael Douglas as Dan Gallagher, a successful lawyer in a happy marriage for nine years. He adores his wife, Beth (Anne Archer), and his six-year-old daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen), and has no strong misgivings about either of them on the night he meets an attractive, mysterious woman named Alex (Glenn Close) at a business party. The two converse, and one weekend when Dan’s wife and daughter are out of town, he invites her out to dinner.
So, they enjoy a fine meal and have passionate sex everywhere from the freight elevator at Alex’s apartment to her kitchen sink. They spend the remainder of the weekend at the park and taking walks. Dan makes it clear that he has no intentions of divorce and that he sees this affair as “two adults who saw an opportunity and took advantage of it.” Alex sees it differently. Once Beth and Ellen return, and Dan tries to assimilate back into “normal,” married life, she begins calling persistently. She turns obsessive: phoning Dan’s house in the middle of the night, showing up at his office unannounced, and at one point, attempting suicide.
Fatal Attraction‘s signature quality — the one that has made it so endeared, I feel — is its commitment to plot. At two hours long, there’s not a shred of fat on it. James Dearden’s dialog is precise and mostly realistic, written to serve a story that becomes increasingly more believable as a simple affair segues dangerously into a cat-and-mouse game. No scene feels unnecessary. The opening, for instance, details Dan’s busy household. He can’t find his blue suit, which is hanging right where Beth said it was. Beth is rushing to get ready for the aforementioned business party; her friend phones to confirm they’re not going to wear the same color. Ellen, on the other hand, messes with mommy’s makeup and repeats a dirty four-letter word she heard Beth utter under her breath.
We know all we need to know about Dan’s homelife in those couple of minutes. It’s a busy existence, but not an unviable one. Coupled with his work, it’s just hectic enough to see why he’d want to slow life down and go on a lunch-date with another woman. He proceeds to let down his guard long enough to make an entirely regrettable decision.
Director Adrian Lyne grants Dearden’s dialog a respectable platform with an equally economical style. His frames show us all we need, with very little flair. Cozy, illuminated interiors show us the characters’ contrasting private spaces. Dan’s home is indicative of a married household with a toddler in that it’s messy yet homey. Alex’s home is more barren, with exposed brick and bare minimum essentials suggesting a very limited personal life. Together, Lyne and Dearden are harmonious in giving Fatal Attraction what it needs to be effective.
That is to say that things take a turn for the worse in the final act, as Dearden skirts the possibility of diving deep into the psychological undertones of Close’s Alex in favor of a slasher-style confrontation. Alex becomes a monster that needs to be killed, and the movie pulls a very hokey trope at the tail-end I was audibly asking it to avoid. What starts as a grounded and believable narrative becomes the exact sort of pulpiness that would carry over into future erotic thrillers, which sidestepped commentary in favor of theatrics.
Fatal Attraction is probably one of a handful of classics that could justify a contemporary remake with a more humanized depiction of Alex and a more developed Beth. Despite the confines, Close is able to shine in a role that’s both sexy and terrifying. Archer is by default second banana, yet she has her moments, specifically when Alex drops by Dan’s house, pretending to be a stranger interested in buying their home. For a thriller, it too must be said that the characters consistently make logical decisions as opposed to foolish ones in order to advance the plot in outlandish ways.
This level of attentiveness, mainly from Dearden’s script, is what makes Fatal Attraction entertaining no matter how groan-inducing that finale might be.
OTHER REVIEWS OF ADRIAN LYNE FILMS:
My review of Deep Water
My review of Flashdance
My review of Foxes
My review of Indecent Proposal
My review of Jacob’s Ladder
My review of Lolita (1997)
My review of Nine ½ Weeks
My review of Unfaithful
Starring: Michael Douglas, Glenn Close, Anne Archer, and Ellen Hamilton Latzen. Directed by: Adrian Lyne.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!