Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal
Screenplay by Naomi Foner, based on the novel by Mary McGarry Morris
Music by Carter Burwell
Amblin Entertainment, 1993
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Debra Winger, Barbara Hershey, David Strathairn, Laurie Metcalf
Rotten Tomatoes score of 67% = FRESH!
The story of a woman no one noticed until it was too late.
The truth hurts. But a lie can kill.
Debra Winger’s performance as a slow, mentally disturbed woman in A Dangerous Woman, raises the film far above its conventional, violence-ridden plot. Winger plays Martha, a quiet, lonely woman who has adjusted to a life without a man as she toils away at her small job at a dry cleaners in a small town. She lives in the guest cottage of the home of relative Frances (Barbara Hershey). Frances is a single woman who takes up with a variety of men as a cover for her loneliness and insecurity. When Anita (Laurie Metcalf) barrels her car into Frances’ porch (thinking, correctly, that her husband is inside Frances’ house), alcoholic handyman Mackey (Gabriel Byrne) appears on the scene and offers to fix Frances’ porch. As Mackey works on the porch, Mackey becomes involved with both Frances and Martha. Into this melodramatic brew is added Getso (David Strathairn), a petty crook who works with Martha at the dry cleaners. When the four principles interact with each other, the disturbing results include an unwanted pregnancy, a murder, and some unsparing violence. ~ Paul Brenner, Rovi
More screencaps by Lozzie are in the Gallery.
Voiceover at the beginning of the film:
By the night Anita Bell came, I had given up hope that anything good would ever happen for Martha and me. But sometimes the best things come disguised and you can’t recognize them, until a long time later.
Mackey: Jump in. I’ll give you a lift.
Martha: No thanks.
Mackey: Come on. Jump in. I’m not gonna eat you.
Mackey [stumbling about in Martha’s apartment, drunk]: I’m getting too old for this shit. I get hangovers now before I’m finished drinking.
Mackey: You a Catholic, Martha? Doesn’t matter ’cause you don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about anyway.
Mackey: Bless me, Martha, for I have sinned. Cheated. Stolen things. I have fornicated. I’ve been slothful. Sweet Jesus, I’ve never even voted. Give me absolution. Give me absolution, Martha. Give me absolution. Martha, you’re a wonder. You’re like a primitive thing that’s never been spoiled. You might as well live in a glass cocoon. I want you to tell me things, okay? I want you to stay up all night and talk to me.
Mackey: That was lousy. You’re never gonna get what you want talking to her like that. Did it ever occur to you that what she needs is maybe a little kindness?
Frances: Did it ever occur to you that you don’t know what you’re talking about?
Mackey: It occurs to me just about all the time.
Mackey: I got you something. Go ahead. Open it. Open it, open it!
[Martha opens a shopping bag to discover Tupperware]
Mackey: The deluxe set.
Martha: Thank you. Thank you. It’s wonderful and I like green so much.
Mackey: Like your eyes.
Martha: My eyes are blue.
Mackey: No, they’re not.
Martha: Well, yeah, they are. I think I should know. They’re blue.
Mackey: All this time you thought your eyes were blue. Here, let me see.
[He removes her glasses and looks into her eyes]
Mackey: Green. They’re green. You know, I been thinking about you all night. You been thinking about me?
Mackey [after embracing Martha and touching her]: Oh, God. I’m a professional asshole. I gotta find a new line of work. This is taking its toll.
Frances: I was drunk.
Mackey: It’s a pity. You were pretty wonderful like that.
Frances: I mistook you.
Mackey: Don’t ever do it again. And my name isn’t Steve Bell, either, so whatever you’ve got saved up for him, don’t lay it on me. I was wondering about my pay.
Frances: Why? Are you leaving?
Mackey: I was thinking about getting drunk.
Mackey: If there’s a god up there, he’s gotta be laughing. We’re out here and you’re in there. I should have left when I said I was going to leave. None of this would have happened. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. And I just came to tell you I’m leaving because that’s what I always do.
Martha: No, you can’t go. No.
By contrast, Byrne brings his meaty Black Irish authority to the role of Mackey, a screw-up who’s no better off for knowing he’s a screw-up. Mackey’s sensitive, he’s smart, he drinks too much — in other words, he’s a walking cliché — but Byrne finds the man’s heart. And Gyllenhaal finds surprising eroticism in Mackey’s seduction of Martha, a queasily touching scene in which explicitness for once feels earned.
Winger is just fine as a plain-looking soul who is afraid of most everyone but fearless about the truth. But to view “A Dangerous Woman” as merely Winger’s film is to miss much of the film’s excellence. Barbara Hershey also is good as Winger’s bored aunt, who has casual affairs, including one with an itinerant handyman, richly played by Gabriel Byrne. Hershey’s emotional wanderlust and Byrne’s drunken self-loathing are impressive in this convoluted story, which is less satisfying than its parts. One more pass through the word processor might be just what this script needed.
Eventually Mackey will become involved with both women. But it is not as simple as it might sound, because he isn’t bad – none of these people are bad – and in the loneliness and desperation of these lives many things can happen. His moral carelessness is fueled by alcoholism, which he acknowledges, although the movie in general doesn’t take it very seriously…
The handyman character is well-played by Byrne, and surprisingly sympathetic, considering he sometimes behaves in an unprincipled way.
None of the three have any idea of the slowly mounting tragedy they are setting themselves up for, really, and by the end of the film, the walls have come down and the unspeakable has already occurred. A Dangerous Woman is an odd film — half Southern Gothic, half silly melodrama — that never manages to fall flat on its face despite numerous warning signs to the contrary. Much of the film’s charismatic solidity comes from its three leads, who turn in excellent, finely nuanced performances with nary a flaw among them.
Also on hand, in the story’s sudsiest role, is Gabriel Byrne as Mackey, the handsome, hard-drinking carpenter who shows up to fix Frances’s porch and manages to romance Martha along the way. Although played with a robust physicality by Mr. Byrne, Mackey is also the most literary conceit in this story, which has been adapted by Naomi Foner from the novel by Mary McGarry Morris. The scene that has him making a simulated confession, with Martha enlisted to play priest, makes it clear that “A Dangerous Woman” has its origins on the page rather than on screen.
Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal both appeared in this film, which was directed by their father, Stephen Gyllenhaal, who has this to say about acting:
It’s like the hardware business. It’s important to understand there’s an awful lot about movie-making that is craft. It’s very hard work. But it feels quite normal. The only thing that feels strange about the movie business is the celebrity element of it, which always takes me by surprise. I think movies are no less valuable and no more valuable than any other profession. The actual craft of the movie — I’m delighted that my kids did it, my ex-wife did it, my wife did it. It’s a cool profession but it should not be over-romantized.–Yale Daily News, Sept. 23, 2011
Sheila Schoonmaker’s Blog: A Dangerous Woman (this website is no longer available)
Back in January of 1995, while searching for a movie to rent in a local video rental store (before I knew about Aspergers), I prayed for God to show me what He would like me to experience watching. Minutes later, I found the movie “A Dangerous Woman” on the shelf. On the back of the box, it said, “Martha Horgan has always been ‘different’. Slow, awkward, and hopelessly out of sync, she is incapable of telling a lie.” It described her as, “A fragile, childlike spirit in a grown woman’s body, Martha lives in the guest house…” The words “incapable of telling a lie” kept haunting me. I am incapable of telling a lie. I have always been ‘different.’ People think I am ‘slow’. I have always felt hopelessly out of sync, but never gave it much thought…
A great compilation video from ADWBYGB
The book upon which the film is based is also entitled A Dangerous Woman, by Mary McGarry Morris, re-issued in 1997. It is available at Amazon US in hardback, paperback, and Audible.
Synopsis: Martha Horgan is not like other women. She stares. She has violent crushes on people. She can’t stop telling the truth. Martha craves love, independence, and companionship, but her relentless honesty makes her painfully vulnerable to those around her: Frances, her wealthy aunt and begrudging guardian; Birdy, who befriends her, then cruelly rejects her; and Colin Mackey, the seductive man who preys on her desires. Confused and bitter, distrusting even those with her best interests at heart, Martha is propelled into a desperate attempt to gain control over her own life.
A novel of unnerving suspense and terrifying insight into the perversities of passion, A Dangerous Woman is as devastatingly honest as Martha herself.
Chosen as one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review and the American Library Association Library Journal.
“One of the best novels of the year.” —Time Magazine
Many thanks to Lozzie for her lovely screencaps!