When it originally came out in 1992, ‘Basic Instinct’ introduced a unique mix of neo-noir and erotica to the mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. It took notes from the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles and added layers of complexity by overtly exploring human sexuality, sadomasochism, nymphomania, voyeurism, and exhibitionism. The film has come to be viewed as one of the most important entries in the annals of cinematic history. Like any other significant work of art, the film’s influence on culture, creativity, and society as a whole is still being discussed, with brand-new groups of film lovers discovering the movie every year. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Basic Instinct Plot Synopsis
Directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on a script by Joe Eszterhas, ‘Basic Instinct’ opens with the murder of the retired rock star Johnny Bozby by a mysterious blonde woman with an ice pick at the time of a mutual orgasm. Troubled detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and his partner Gus Moran (George Dzundza) are involved in the subsequent investigation. One of their prime suspects is Johnny’s sex partner Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), who writes crime novels under the pseudonym, Catherine Woolf.
The detectives discover that she has previously written a book in which an erstwhile rock star dies exactly like Johnny, but they know that they can’t arrest her just because of it. As Nick says to Catherine, “Writing a book about it gives you an alibi for not killing him.” Nick has led a turbulent life. He used to be an undercover narcotics detective and killed a pair of tourists while having a cocaine-induced delirium. His wife has committed suicide. In the early part of the film, he has quit smoking, drinking, and cocaine.
Nick is even maintaining distance from his on-again, off-again sexual partner Dr. Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who is also the psychiatrist at the police department. Soon, Nick finds out that Katherine is basing her next protagonist on him. They begin a torrid affair, all the while he continues to suspect her for Johnny’s murder. However, as the film progresses, he doubts her guilt and starts developing genuine feelings for Catherine. His rapid descent is noted by Gus and Beth, both of whom caution him against Catherine’s manipulation.
The film cleverly subverts the traditional murder tropes in classic mystery films by placing the victim and the killer face to face. In the opening scenes, while the act of murder still comes as a surprise for the victim, he is very much aware of the perpetrator’s presence, unlike Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho.’ Jan de Bont’s camerawork feels almost intrusive and voyeuristic in how the first murder is depicted in the film. The brutality and inhumaneness of the act make the scene highly effective. The director doesn’t replicate its inherent violence until the end when the ice pick killer murders Gus.
The Femme Fatale
Catherine Tramell is the quintessential femme fatale, the ultimate black widow. Although the film maintains a flicker of ambiguity at the end and doesn’t exclusively declare her as the murderer, it’s the only logical conclusion, especially because of the scene with the ice pick under her bed as the closing shot. Katherine’s life has been shaped by a constant need for thrill and her natural ability to manipulate people. It is heavily hinted that she caused her parents’ death not only because of the inheritance but also because she simply wanted to see if she could successfully evade suspicion and arrest afterward.
In the years leading up to the time when the film begins, she has also murdered her and Beth’s old professor Noah Goldstein and even Beth’s husband, Joseph. Catherine uses sex as a potent and dangerous weapon, and it’s not always as blatantly obvious as it’s during Johnny’s murder. An ice pick is just a tool to conclude the act physically. There is a sense of omniscience about her that has become quite prevalent in similar characters. John Doe (Kevin Spacey) from ‘Seven’ and Hannibal Lecter are also great examples of this.
Their actions are often governed by a deeper understanding of their circumstances than any other character, including the respective protagonists. To maintain that aura of mystery, they are rarely depicted as point-of-view characters. In ‘Basic Instinct,’ Verhoeven, de Bont, and editor Frank J. Urioste don’t allow a single shot in which other characters are not looking at Catherine. They purposefully keep her inaccessible for the audience, which, in turn, helps them retain the same level of suspense throughout the film. Like Lector, she has an incredible ability to control any given situation.
From the famous leg-crossing scene during her police interrogation to every time she is with Nick, she is the one who dictates which way the interactions will go. Even sex for her is an extension of this. The only time she seems to be genuinely affected is when Roxy (Leilani Sarelle) is killed. If part of it stems from her genuine grief over losing a romantic partner and friend, it is also possibly driven by her frustration that she had no control over it. Roxy’s attempt on Nick’s life has been the culmination of her jealousy over the relationship between him and Catherine. It does not have a place in Catherine’s ultimate goal.
A Fatal Obsession
In the final act of the film, a long history is discovered between Beth and Catherine. Although each person accuses the other one of being the stalker and the master manipulator, we can safely say that Beth is the one who is telling the truth. But this leads to a swathe of other possibilities. Knowing that Catherine bribes IA lieutenant Marty Nielsen for information on Nick, she is possibly aware of the somewhat volatile relationship that exists between Nick and Beth.
Still obsessing over Beth’s rejection, she sets up an elaborate plan to destroy her. She begins it by developing a sexual relationship with Johnny, who knew Beth, as it is later shown in the movie. Catherine kills him, knowing that Nick may get involved in the case. Catherine doesn’t kill indiscriminately. Each of the murders she commits before and during the film serves an overarching purpose. She kills Nielson not just because Nick may get implicated for it, but because he may suspect Beth of committing the act.
She murders Gus in the same way she describes it in the manuscript, but Nick doesn’t stop wondering how Beth could possibly have known about it. After Gus’ murder, he shoots Beth dead after mistakenly believing that she is pulling out a gun from her pocket. Later, pieces of evidence are found in her home that neatly tie her with all the recent murders. Nick and Catherine get back together, and she seems to have postponed killing him. But considering that he has already served his purpose, his chances of a long life, as long as Catherine is part of it, is slim.
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