Single White Female is entertaining claptrap. Watching this clever, by-the-numbers gothic thriller about a young Manhattan woman and the clinging, duplicitous psycho roommate who turns her life into a nightmare, you’re never in doubt that each twist is going to lock into place with the assembly-line precision that has marked such recent jacked-up thrillers as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Unlawful Entry. Yet Single White Female has some good, perverse touches (it’s time someone finally used a five-inch high heel as a murder weapon), and the picture is exceedingly well acted. The director, Barbet Schroeder, who made the witty and brilliant Claus von Bulow docudrama, Reversal of Fortune (1990), has a gift for drawing out the most intimate sides of performers. If he doesn’t exactly transform this skeletal thriller—the bones keep poking through—he at least succeeds in slapping some flesh on it.
The roommate, Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is an earnest, bedraggled loner with the tentative smile of a depressed high school sophomore. Hedy is the sort of person who gets swallowed up by New York City. She’s convinced, though, that she has found a spiritual sister in Allie (Bridget Fonda), a no-nonsense software designer who agrees to let her share her oversize flat on the Upper West Side. Allie has broken up with her fiance and is feeling isolated; she wants a friendly presence around. The trouble is, Hedy likes her too much. She idolizes her and wishes she could become her. By the time she refashions her hangdog locks into a facsimile of Allie’s chic, redheaded ‘do, it’s clear something is amiss.
Most of Single White Female unfolds within the two women’s grandly dilapidated apartment building, where the ancient elevators, cavernous rooms, and ornate, rotting corridors—photographed through a late-afternoon maze of light and shadow —evoke Roman Polanski’s dreamy trilogy of apartment-house thrillers (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant). Polanski was tapping a new strain of domestic urban dread. Single White Female doesn’t tickle our anxieties in the same way. As Hedy mounts her crazed campaign to become Allie’s one true friend, her behavior becomes an aggressive series of lies, games, and manipulations; she is transformed from wallflower to demanding demoness. She steals letters and erases messages on the answering machine. She gets the apartment a puppy, and the puppy falls victim to a little ”accident.” And so on. The movie offers a glib, synthetic update of Polanski’s elegant foreboding.
Yet the cat-and-mouse structure remains fun, and Schroeder, by letting the scenes play at a lifelike tempo, gives the actresses room to create detailed characters. This, I think, will turn out to be Jennifer Jason Leigh’s breakthrough performance, and not just because she has the showy, vengeful role. As Hedy, she offers the most convincing portrayal of a psychotic in recent films. Leigh isn’t just playing a cartoon schizoid. She makes Hedy seem emotionally wayward, out there, floating in some weird space between neediness and anger. Hedy thinks she’s unattractive and worthless; she’s a woman who has never really stopped being a girl. Beneath her sheepish manner, though, she’s one pleading demand after another. It takes Allie a while to realize that when you befriend a person like this, you can’t get away. It’s like trying to shake a leech. Leigh captures and makes funny the way that insecure, compulsively ”giving” people can actually be driven by monstrous egos.
As the smart, overly in-control yuppie achiever, Fonda has the tougher role—mostly because she has less to do—but she gives a vibrant performance. Her Allie is sensual, wary, and direct, always sizing people up; you can see her feelers at work. Fonda helps give this overheated movie a cool center.
There’s one moment of true bonding between the two women. When Allie returns from an encounter with a sleazy client (Stephen Tobolowsky) who has tried to attack her sexually, Hedy knows exactly what to do: In a funny and satisfying scene, she grabs the phone and blackmails him. Hedy the loner wants nothing to do with men, and this gives her a neurotic strength that Allie lacks. If the movie had shown us more of Allie responding to Hedy’s hostile feminism, the relationship might have had greater resonance. As it is, there’s just enough going on between the two women to give the movie a Fatal Attraction-style antifeminist subtext: Allie, having taken back her fiance, must now escape the clutches of Hedy, the symbolic separatist.
Speaking of Fatal Attraction, is anyone under the delusion that a thriller about a psycho roommate could possibly end without a farfetched roller-coaster climax? No such luck. This one, I admit, is rather fun. There’s a good bit with Fonda taped to a chair, and characters keep getting knocked off in surprisingly vicious ways. But still! As I sat through the last half hour of Single White Female, I had a vision of Schroeder waking up in a sweat and thinking, ”Gee, unless I abandon all shame and make a character you thought was dead come back to life, I’ll never work in this town again!” Not to worry, Barbet. If the finale of Single White Female is any indication, you’ll work for a good long time.