“Normal Life” (1996) dir. John McNaughton


In 1986, director John McNaughton was hired by a Chicago-based video company to make a quickie violent exploitation film inspired by the true story of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas.  McNaughton returned with a violent film all right, only it wasn’t the “fun” Freddy Krueger-style slasher film the producers were expecting.  The resulting film, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” was a true look into the void and an attempt to delve realistically into the mind of a monster, without sensationalism or cheap emotion.  It was immediately called one of the most disturbing and upsetting films ever made.  The film was eventually released in 1990 unrated (since the ratings board refused to give it an R) and was a success with critics, who lauded the film’s realistic tone and fine acting.

McNaughton’s 1996 film “Normal Life” was an equally  audacious attempt to drain the “criminal lovers on the run” genre (popularized by “Bonnie and Clyde”) of its sensationalism and tendency to portray its lead characters as romantic “beautiful losers.”  While McNaughton doesn’t seem to hate his lead characters in “Normal Life,” he doesn’t see them as misguided heroes either.

Luke Perry and Ashley Judd give, arguably, their finest performances as a troubled married couple who turn to armed robbery to fund their version of the American Dream.  Perry plays the decent, but painfully co-dependent cop with a romantic hero complex named Chris.  Judd plays an emotionally disturbed and grossly immature woman named Pam.  When Chris sees Pam for the first time in a bar, she has had a fight with her boyfriend and cuts her hand on a broken glass.  He brings bandages over and asks her to dance.  It goes downhill from there …  Eventually, Chris and Pam marry, but Pam’s mental instability and immaturity put them in a deep financial hole.  Chris eventually turns to crime to dig their way out and Pam, turned on by Chris’s recent path, eagerly joins in.  The result is a coldly brilliant portrayal of two criminals on a downward spiral.

Perry and Judd are two actors I’ve never had much affection for, but their performances in “Normal Life” are mesmerizing.  Judd brilliantly plays Pam’s emotional train-wreck of a character all too well.  With his droopy mustache and passive nature, Perry positively nails the type of co-dependent person who falls in love with someone like Judd’s character and desperately tries to make the relationship work at any cost, despite the fact that the Judd character continually proves she don’t deserve it.

“Normal Life” was dumped by its distributor Fine Line into home video hell.  I didn’t post the trailer, because frankly, it makes the film look like the cheesiest straight-to-video schlock that I’m sure the studio thought they had.  But trust me, the film is so much better than that and it deserves to be seen without being prejudiced by the atrocious trailer that I found online.  A true gem if there ever was one.

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