Bridges of Madison County, The

Rating:

Two Psychopaths Go Round and Round

Main cast: Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood

Director: Clint Eastwood

You ever find yourself wondering what if Ed Gein had written Fatal Attraction? Wonder no more. The Bridges of Madison County is the answer.

Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood, Rawhide) is a master manipulator. He waits until Francesca Johnson’s family is away for four days before just “stumbling” upon her farm to ask directions under the guise of being a photojournalist on assignment with NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. He’s got a specific bridge in mind he’s supposed to photograph, but can’t find it. Francesca (Meryl Streep, She-Devil) gives Robert directions, but he’s an old hat at this game and easily convinces her he doesn’t understand. Perhaps it would be best if she go with him, he mentally communicates to her, convincing Francesca the idea was all hers.

Once at the bridge, though, Francesca reveals she’s not exactly a mousy farmwife, going almost directly into full-blown stalker mode, staring at Robert through the cracks in the boards as he pretends to set up his camera and get some preliminary shots. Not the ACTUAL shots, of course, because then his work would be done and he’d have to move on. No, he says, this is going to take a few days. Isn’t that convenient? That’s just how long her family will be gone.

The next few days are a game of cat and mouse between stalker and stalkee, with the audience never really being sure which is which because Robert is obviously using all of his mojo to brainwash the unsuspecting woman into believing she should abandon her family and run off with him, most likely ending up in a bowl of stew over some campfire somewhere while Robert plots his next conquest, while Francesca is stealing peeks at him every chance she gets, through windows (in a terrifying scene where Robert takes off his shirt and reveals his true form to an unsuspecting world!), through the old boards of the bridge, through heavy-lidded lashes as she slowly succumbs to his machinations. She leaves a note for him on the bridge late one night, inviting him over for dinner the next day and I just have to say “CREEPER!”

I mean, sure, she doesn’t know he’s a raving lunatic who probably plans to make a camera case out of her skin, but even if he was just a regular Joe out on assignment, she shows up at his WORK and is leaving him notes? Someone in the Johnson household needs a hobby that doesn’t include binoculars and shame.

Robert seduces Francesca while the Iowa housewife puts on a fake Italian accent in hopes of seeming more exotic to her prey, then they swap stories about being in Italy, both in hopes of convincing the other they were really there at one point when it’s obvious they’re both lying through their teeth and are only trying to further their individual games.

The tension is ramped up even further when Robert drives her to a bar out of town “where no one will see them”. That doesn’t sound shady at all! I kept waiting for the Rohypnol sneak into her beer bottle, but Robert is a master at this game and knows just when to pick his moments. He waits another day, back at Francesca’s house, which is conveniently isolated, and his truck is parked out back so no one happening by will notice anything amiss–I tell you, this character is a professional!–to use his wiles and make Francesca think that leaving with this maniac will be good for her. And as the first inklings of doubt begin to creep in, Robert then tries to use his mental powers to psychically push her, urging her and urging her until the veins in his head look like he’s about the burst. But in the end, Francesca’s own mental instability and obsessive nature are too strong and she prevails, convincing the man that their love is ill-fated and relegated only to sad memories and hidden trinkets, stolen glances and bad dreams.

Time passes and we don’t see much of Robert over the years. Francesca claims, in a letter to her children, that after her own husband was euthanized, she tried to find Robert again, but obviously that’s her own bad memory playing tricks on her. The reason no one could track him down was because she had already, years earlier, cooked and eaten him (poetic justice?) and dumped his ashes over the side of the bridge where they had their first “date”. This explains, to her now-grown children, why their mother has insisted in her will that she be cremated and her ashes scattered from the bridge. Because even in death, Francesca’s obsession with this man is relentless.

Eastwood and Streep turn in solid performances. I totally believed Eastwood was a creepy old rapist/cannibal and Streep was the epitome of stalker. Every other performance suffered, having blown most of the budget on the two leads, leaving little behind for other actors, which meant the others either didn’t appear in any scenes or the ones they did were terribly acted and unconvincing. Annie Corley as Francesca’s grown up daughter would later go on to delight on The Killing, but Victor Slezak–playing the grown up son–would find most of his success as either “One-Star General” in Angelina Jolie’s Salt or as Silas Whitman in As the World Turns. You decide which is the bigger role.

Eastwood also took on directing duties, leading me to believe everyone knew the project was doomed from the start and someone needed to step in after Alan Smithee left the project. I’m not sure how much of it Eastwood directed, but I have to assume it was all of the shots he was in because his mug got an awful lot of screen time.

Now, I can’t say The Bridges of Madison County is the MOST suspenseful movie of this genre I’ve ever seen. It certainly makes In the Cut looks even worse than In the Cut made itself look, but is it better than other classics like Fatal Attraction or the even more disturbing Frankie and Johnny? That’s not for me to say. But as a study of this kind of behavior, I think this movie definitely shines a light on some pretty heavy topics, and attempts to answer the big questions. How well do we really know the people we meet? Is it socially acceptable to offer to help someone cook and then, only minutes later, excuse yourself from that work by offering to get the beer out of your truck? How does Eastwood shave his face without lopping off that growth above his mouth?

Okay, it doesn’t answer that last question, but I would have dug this movie a lot more if it HAD, because I’ve always wondered.

In the end, I can’t fault The Bridges of Madison County for trying. It made a valiant effort. But as a thriller, I just don’t know. It lacks something I can’t put my finger on. It’s a fine enough movie, sure. The plot is solid, characters are well-developed, acting by the leads is on point, as expected. I just think it could have used a little MORE suspense. I never really felt that sense of dread I expect from a thriller. The only really tense scene, for me, was Streep in the truck near the end, rain pouring outside and a choice on her mind. Will she, won’t she? We can only watch and find out. DUN DUN DUNNNN!!! But other than, not a whole lot of suspense going on here.

Maybe Eastwood was hoping to save that for the sequel, as The Bridges of Madison County has franchise written all over it. I mean, it’s even in the female lead character’s name, somewhat. How much more transparent could they be???

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