It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct, but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it.
Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare (Clear and Present Danger, Salt) also adept at “smart” smaller pictures (Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American). Occasionally, he’s gone completely nose-up (The Bone Collector) but few of his movies are devoid of any merit. Even Sliver, for all its terminal incompetence as either a Hitchcockian thriller or a piece dissecting the lurking voyeur within us all, has very, very nice cinematography (courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the greats). So much so, I was probably unduly forgiving of the picture the last time I saw it, which was on its cinema release.
Esterhaz’s contributions to the thriller genre worked by diminish returns. His ’80s work shows versatility within the context of the did-they-didn’t-they thriller that takes in Jagged Edge (a superior version of the later Basic Instinct, just with reversed genders not as much sexiness) and Music Box (Jessica Lange thinks daddy might be a Nazi). Basic Instinct unfortunately was his undoing, leading to a run of erotic thrillers or simple debacles (Showgirls, An Alan Smithee Film, leading to his premature retirement). Here, he adapts Ira Levin’s novel about goings on in a sliver apartment block, where publishing editor Carly Norris (Stone) moves into no sooner has her apartment’s lookalike previous occupant (very Vertigo) plunged to her death at the hands of an unknown intruder.
Levin’s novels/plays have formed the basis for a few good movies (Rosemary’s Baby, Deathtrap) and a few less than masterful ones (The Boys from Brazil, The Stepford Wives). Sliver was published in 1991, and Robert Evans, attempting a career revival, persuaded a reluctant Levin (disenchanted at the results with some previous adaptations) that he would nurse it to screen with due diligence. Yes…
Carly is almost instantly propositioned by residents/potential suspects; William Baldwin’s Zeke (who turns out to be the owner, a younger man with a worrying predilection for pouring over his tenants’ every action on giant banks of TV monitors; he has cameras installed in every apartment) and Tom Berenger’s Jack Landsford (an insufferably self-regarding tool and writer of crappy murder fiction; they say the writer always puts themselves in their work, so I don’t know if Esterhaz was attempting to have fun here). There’s also a smattering of potential victims, who duly buy the farm as the picture progresses, or rather stumbles along (Polly Walker’s Vida, Keene Curtis’ Gus).
What follows is a lot of steamy surveillance of Shazza showering, masturbating, and generally being tastefully and delectably shot in a manner Verhoeven would never have countenanced. Stone looks stunning throughout, of course; Carly is immaculately coiffeured and costumed, an uncostumed, and with Zsigmond’s photography the picture is never less than lustrous-looking. It’s just a shame that’s all it has going for it.
The problem is – and it’s a problem endemic of the Hollywood erotic thriller genre – that no one’s having fun here. This genre is essentially ludicrous, so it tends to need someone with Verhoeven’s pervasive sense of humour and facility for the absurd to bring out its best qualities. Noyce, for all his good qualities, has little in the way of a funny bone, and it leads to an almost entirely po-faced and dreary picture. There are other problems too. It just isn’t thrilling; the mystery isn’t compelling and we aren’t invested in the characters (is that all?) If not Verhoeven, someone like Brian De Palma would have been perfect for this kind of fare, and might even have made its unwieldy plotting a plus point.
To be fair to Berenger, he does a bang-up job playing a complete prick, but he so obviously serves the classic red herring function that, when it’s revealed he is the murderer, it’s not only anti-climactic but nonsensical (are we really supposed to believe Zeke had that particularly well-paused tape stowed away and never got to the murder bit?) Of course, Jack isn’t the murderer; it’s Zeke (who killed the original tenant Naomi Singer – and the maintenance man who discovers monitoring equipment in the original opening – and Gus, the former because she knew about the cameras and latter for convoluted reasons to do with recognising equipment in Japan that would expose Zeke; Vida could link Zeke to Naomi).
Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is that you need to be very confident of your casting if your going to attempt to bring your audience along through a narrative potentially putting you morally at odds with your protagonist. Hitchcock knew this in Rear Window, Suspicion and Vertigo, that’s why he cast likeables like James Stewart and Cary Grant. To put it mildly, Billy Baldwin doesn’t have the quality, and his presence is, more than any other, responsible for sinking any interest in the picture beyond its narrative limitations.
Sure, he’s a natural at playing a sleazy creep and if you’ve been in search of a prolific slice of hairy Baldwin butt you’re quids-in, but the character of Zeke needs to be essentially personable for us to give his multitudinous flaws a free pass. As it is, Zeke is only ever a dodgy onanist so morally compromised he’s willing to watch child abuse and assault and battery habitually on his monitors and only do anything about it to impress the girl. Even with the ending we get (“Get a life”; Esterhaz has recanted for writing it) is scarcely any kind of reckoning or recognition of the kind of guy he is.
And that’s also key to the decision to rejig the ending. It’s no wonder test audiences couldn’t get behind Carly getting together with Zeke and marrying him (while knowing he’s a murderer) and then telling him she knows what he did as they’re about to fly into a volcano on their honeymoon (I know). We need to be able to find some reason for Carly seeing something in Zeke. All Baldwin exudes is essential untrustworthiness, a capacity for taking Shazza from behind against a conveniently placed pillar and a desire to watch home-made porn in her company. Even Cary Grant might have had a hard time pulling that off.
There also needs to be some measure of believability that Carly would turn to the dark side. Her character is barely etched out in any kind of psychologically comprehensible way. She’s coming from a bad relationship, she gets a frisson from watching other couples going at it (“Will you look at her? She’s a voyeur! She can’t get enough!” exclaims Jack when Carly spies a couple rutting through a telescope Zeke has anonymously given her), and she’s quickly obsessed with the cornucopia of footage laid out before here when Zeke invites her to his inner sanctum. But we don’t have a clue why she’d condone murder or Zeke’s most anti-social activities. Or why she wouldn’t call the police as soon as she finds Jack lurking in her apartment, come to that.
It isn’t surprising Baldwin and Stone didn’t get on, as there’s zero chemistry between them. This makes the steamy interludes an additional chore (it’s never easy in a traditional narrative movie to make sex scenes actually purposeful, but it at least helps if you’re remotely invested in the characters being together) and the interplay tiresome (the restaurant scene where Zeke asks to see the panties he has bought for Carla, leading to laborious cutting to titillated patrons and waiters as she whips them off). The MPAA originally gave the film an NC-17 (quite why I don’t know, although they’re notoriously prudish when it comes to sex while happy to show all manner of grisliness in a PG-13), but the notion that this caused extensive reshoots seems to be a confusion with test screening reactions to the ending.
One might have thought the age of the Internet (which actually appears in the movie!) and the proliferation of porn would have announced the end of the softcore Hollywood thriller, but it’s alive and well with Fifty Shades of Grey. Sliver is a reminder of more “innocent” times, when the habitual masturbator has to make do with grainy old videotapes (I was going to say VHS, but they’re presumably NTSC, unless he wanted his tapes in superior quality; thinking about it, wouldn’t someone with Zeke’s resources have invested in laserdisc?) It’s a period when anyone looking up an old case had to nip down to the local library and check out the microfiche.
Esterhaz and Noyce singularly fail to etch out anything new with the old voyeurism angle either. There might have been potential with Esterhaz’s original twist, but he hasn’t worked the characters enough to sell it (compare this to the layered interactions between Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges in Jagged Edge). One thing I will say for the picture, though – besides the cinematography – it has a very decent contemporary soundtrack, dating the picture in a complimentary way, making good use of Massive Attack, Enigma, The Verve, Fluke and… Shaggy!
Sliver’s failure (It made Number One on its opening weekend, three weeks prior to the arrival of Jurassic Park, but proceeded to drop like a stone, Sharon) did nothing to dent Noyce’s standing, sandwiched as it was between two Jack Ryan sequels, although the rest of the ’90s would be patchier for him (the troubled big screen The Saint, and the aforementioned The Bone Collector). Esterhaz had Showgirls to look forward to, while Baldwin made it clear to any doubters (post-Backdraft) that no one was interested in him as a leading man (something compounded by Fair Game with Cindy Crawford a couple of years later).
Stone’s an actress I’ve always found quite watchable, despite her limitations, but she’s all-at-sea in Sliver, attempting to play vulnerable, which doesn’t really suit her. She’d carry on being a star, but a star without a fan base; no one went to see her lead vehicles, although she fared better in ensembles (Casino, Sphere, bagging an Oscar nom for the former). Unwisely sharing the screen with fading leading men (Intersection, The Specialist) didn’t help her prospects, nor did doing a “for your consideration” role (Last Dance). There were nevertheless a few bright spots subsequently – the future-stars-packed The Quick and the Dead, Casino – and she continued to obligatorily shed her clothes for a couple of years, reluctantly recognising her essential lustre, which eventually led to the least-wise decision to go back to an empty well for Basic Instinct 2.