“Nice place to be homeless,” says Knox Bannett (Todd Grinnell), just after he has handed over a fiver to mendicant war veteran Rodney (Scott Anthony Leet) at the beginning of Martin Guigui’s Paradise Cove. The ‘nice place’ is Malibu, California, famed for its its extended coastal strip, its sun and its surf. Knox has arrived with his wife Tracey (Mena Suvari) to fix and flip the oceanfront property – with its private beach and “$6 million view” – of Knox’s estranged and recently deceased mother Patricia. The contrast between the haves and the have-nots established in that opening exchange with Rodney – a contrast all too visible in Los Angeles County today – will settle in when Knox and Tracey discover that they are sharing their new temporary home at the exclusive Paradise Cove address with a vagrant woman who is squatting in the space beneath the floors, and who has no desire, intention or even willingness to move on.
A middle-aged hippy-ish ex-model beloved by the locals, Bree (Kristin Bauer van Straten) has been living in the area for a long time – indeed, she once owned the house itself before Knox’s mother cheated her of the title. As someone who has suffered her own fair share of losses in life, she is extremely articulate, even poetic, on the ephemeral nature of property (especially property so exposed to shifting sands, eroding waters and corroding weather), bringing Sherry Klein’s script to life – but she also harbours a dark, vicious streak and some murderous secrets. So, as Knox and Tracey struggle both to refurbish the place, and to start a family of their own, Bree engages in a homewrecking campaign, part seductive, part vindictive, which comes with a body count.
Films about obsessive stalker types have a long history, including Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me (1971), Edward Bianchi’s The Fan (1981) and Eckhart Schmidt’s similarly titled Der Fan (1982) – but thanks to the success of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987), the late Eighties and early Nineties featured a seeming endless series of films in which characters saw the precarity of their comfortable, middle-class existence exposed by an outsider – typically female – determined to have what is theirs, and coded as a psychopath. At first these interlopers might be sympathetic figures, even wronged parties, but eventually they showed their nasty side, bunnies got boiled, and bourgeois order could be restored only after the devil had been defeated. It was a pattern seen in, for example, Katt Shea’s Poison Ivy (1992), Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female (1992), Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992) and Alan Shapiro’s The Crush (1993), and subverted in Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) – where the killer not only survives, but is triumphant, in a world of weak, easily manipulated men. Even Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1992), though a remake of J. Lee Thompson’s film from 1962, aligned itself closely to the Fatal Attraction template.
So Paradise Cove presents itself as something of a throwback, conforming closely to the beats of this once popular film type, and in particular to John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights (1990) with its similar focus on real estate and unwanted residents. The moment we see Tracey’s love for her pet poodle Gary, we just know that the pooch will come to a sticky end. The moment the couple’s foreman Griff (Eddie Goines) stops being polite to his old friend Bree, we know his days are numbered. And the moment Knox first lays his eyes on Bree, naked under an outdoor shower, we just know that these two will soon be brought together in sex as well as in violence. These, after all, are the rules of the subgenre.
What is interesting here, though, is just how morally compromised the Bannetts are as characters. Their claim to the house is dubious in various ways: it is an undeserved inheritance from a mother whom Knox had long since abandoned; and even her acquisition of the house deeds was rooted in fraud. What is more, Knox wilfully continues to defy zoning laws, dividing the house more saleably into two bedrooms when there is permission for only one – and it is the secrecy of this illicit building project which makes him reluctant to call the police when things first start going south. Where Bree has a strong emotional bond to the place and does not mind the conditions in which she is living so long as she can stay where she raised her own (late) son, Knox’s interest in the house is confined to its potential for bringing him profit – and he will do anything to maximise that profit, even prioritising the construction work over his wife’s fertility treatment and their ebbing hopes for a child of their own.
The thesis of Paradise Cove is that all property is theft – although that message is, by the end, softened into the more conservative notion that family is our only bedrock in an otherwise unpredictable world. While friction between Knox and Tracey perhaps serves to drive the plot (and helps let Bree in), Grinnell and Suvari’s lack of chemistry makes it hard to engage with, or care much about, their characters’ predicament. Meanwhile Bree proves – and proves quickly – too outright unhinged to keep us on side. Tension can always be generated by dividing the viewer’s allegiances between different parties, but here any allegiance is worn down fast, leaving only a void where our sympathies should be. Even the two homeless vets, Rodney and his friend Justin (Javier Calderon), are eventually reduced to PTSD-afflicted maniacs who just want to water-board innocent women. What remains is an ugly, uncomfortable portrait of a polarised America on the edge, caught not just between the movable boundaries of earth and ocean, and between the conflicting elements of water and fire, but between the ever-warring demands of need and greed (turned into an explicit dilemma by the post-credits coda). And if here the overlooked underclass is ultimately undermined and demonised, at least, for a brief moment, it is given an eloquent voice.
© Anton Bitel