The late Robert Altman was a director who liked to make movies which had a naturalistic, rather than cinematic, feel. In other words, Altman wanted his audience to feel they were witnessing real-life events rather than simply watching a movie, which is why he was often much more focused on character than story. One of his trademarks included having multiple characters speak at the same time with overlapping dialogue, and many of his scenes would be shot from a distance to make the audience feel like they were an outside observer. While many people loved Altman s style of filmmaking, I’ve always found the director’s filmography to be hit-and-miss. While he has made his fair share of classics, such as Nashville, The Player and Short Cuts, I’ve often found that his naturalistic style generated a feeling of aloofness. It could be difficult to become emotionally invested in his films when you felt like you were watching them from a distance as a detached observer, and the end result was sometimes uninvolving cinema. Because of Altman’s unique style of filmmaking and tendency to work on unconventional projects, most of his work cannot be classified into any specific genre. In fact, when he did make a genre film, such as The Long Goodbye or Gosford Park, he would usually do whatever he could to subvert the genre and turn it on its head. That said, it’s somewhat ironic that one of Altman’s most underrated films may be his most conventional. In 1998, Altman decided to direct thriller called The Gingerbread Man, which was based on a story by John Grisham. This is about as close to a formula genre flick as Robert Altman ever made, yet it’s the director’s stylistic touches that help elevate The Gingerbread Man from being nothing more than a routine thriller.
The Gingerbread Man is set in Savannah, Georgia, and Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) is one of the area’s top criminal defense attorneys. He hasn’t lost a case in eight years and has a gift for getting his clients off, though that hasn’t exactly made him popular amongst the local police. His personal life is also a bit of a mess, as he’s divorced from his wife (Famke Janssen) and often has trouble balancing his work life with spending time with his kids. One night, Rick’s law firm is holding an office party and he has an encounter with a waitress named Mallory (Embeth Davidtz), who has just has her car stolen. While giving her a ride home, Rick learns that she is being stalked and harassed by her mentally unhinged father, Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall). Mallory gets so flustered while talking about him that she undresses in front of Rick without even realizing it and the two of them wind up spending the night together. The next day, Rick convinces Mallory to file suit against her father. With the help of his private investigator friend, Clyde (Robert Downey, Jr.), Rick tracks down Doss and has him brought to trial, where he is committed to a mental institution. However, Doss’ backwoods cronies soon break him out, and it seems like he is going to come after Rick and Mallory to get revenge. Things really get serious when Rick receives a threatening message which implies that Doss is planning to harm his kids. Since Rick has burned his bridges with the police and cannot seek help from them, he is forced to kidnap his own kids from school and flee town in order to keep them safe.
Of course, The Gingerbread Man is one of those film noir stories where nothing is ever as it seems and as the plot starts to unravel, it’s obvious that this is a lot more than a simple case of a deranged old man wanting revenge. There’s a good chance you’ll be able to predict many of the twists that happen in this story, but it’s still very enjoyable to watch it unfold. As I stated earlier, The Gingerbread Man is based on a discarded screenplay by John Grisham and this is a story you’d definitely associate with him rather than Robert Altman. Altman pretty much admitted that his main reason for taking on this project was because he had never directed a straightforward thriller before and wanted to give it a try. Altman did some rewrites on the screenplay and Grisham was so unhappy with some of the changes that the screenwriting credit is listed a pseudonym, “Al Hayes”. The release of The Gingerbread Man was almost a complete disaster as Polygram Films was unhappy with the results of a test screening and hired someone to re-edit the film… without informing Altman! Altman was so angry about this that he demanded his name be removed from the film, but when the alternate cut tested even WORSE in front of audiences, Polygram restored Altman’s original cut and finally gave the film a theatrical release. The Gingerbread Man came and went without much fanfare and even though the reviews were generally decent, some critics were really disappointed that Robert Altman would direct such a conventional thriller. But in spite of all these problems, The Gingerbread Man still works quite well, thanks to a tense atmosphere, a colourful Southern setting and some really strong performances.
In spite of this being a genre picture, Altman’s naturalistic and improvisational style is still on display here and helps turn potential cardboard characters into much more interesting individuals. Kenneth Branagh’s strong lead performance enhances the material a great deal. The English actor had already shown he could do a flawless American accent in the thriller Dead Again, and his Southern accent on display here is impeccable. Altman and Branagh probably never would have been interested in doing this project if Rick Magruder was a traditional hero. While Branagh is able to make Rick into a likable and sympathetic protagonist, he is still a very flawed figure who can also be pretty self-absorbed at times and is capable of making some very brash mistakes. The supporting cast is also solid, particularly Embeth Davidtz as the emotionally unstable heroine who may be concealing a dark secret, and Robert Duvall, who has very little dialogue in the movie but still leaves a very creepy impression. Robert Downey, Jr. pretty much steals every scene he’s in as the drunken, eccentric Clyde. Of course, this was the phase of Downey’s career when he was constantly dealing with substance abuse problems and though he apparently passed all drug tests during the filming of this movie, you can’t help but wonder how much of his performance is acting. Even though Robert Altman had never really directed a thriller before this, he turns out to be a natural for the genre and does a very good job at generating tension and suspense. Throughout The Gingerbread Man, there is the constant threat of an approaching hurricane, which means that many scenes take place in the pouring rain, greatly enhancing the film’s ominous atmosphere. Most of the weaknesses in The Gingerbread Man are a result of John Grisham’s twisty story, which does not hold up under close scrutiny, but the director and the cast do a great job of turning a conventional narrative into a solid thriller. As strange as it sounds, The Gingerbread Man is a great Robert Altman movie to watch for those who aren’t Robert Altman fans.