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NORMAL LIFE

Those who claim HENRY: PORTRAIT OF SERIAL KILLER’S John McNaughton is a one-trick pony need to check out NORMAL LIFE, a hard-hitting and exciting true crime saga that also offers ample evidence of Ashley Judd’s thespian skills.

The Package
     This 1995 gem followed THE BORROWER and MAD DOG AND GLORY in the John McNaughton lexicon, and stands as McNaughton’s one truly worthy successor to his first and finest film HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. NORMAL LIFE starred Luke Perry, who actually gives an impressive performance (really!) and the then up-and-coming Ashley Judd, proving that with the right role she’s as good as they come. Also on hand are HENRY’S Tom Towles and PRIVATE PRACTICE’S Kate Walsh in supporting roles.
     The criminal case the film was based on was that of Jeffrey Erickson, who together with his wife Jill robbed eight Chicago-area banks. Jill was killed in a police shootout following a high speed chase in December 1991, and Jeffrey took his own life after shooting two cops during a botched prison escape in July ‘92. Interestingly enough, Jeffrey Erickson was a subscriber to the late GORE GAZETTE, which published an editorial on the case that concluded with a “Note to John McNaughton: Don't you smell a HENRY-esque movie here?” Evidently he did!
     Sadly, NORMAL LIFE has been largely ignored. Despite making a minor splash on the festival circuit it went straight to video, and not even its 2005 DVD release received much fanfare.

The Story
     Chris Anderson is a naïve small town cop who against his better instincts falls head over heels for Pam, an admittedly crazy, drug-addled hottie. Her insanity manifests itself in violent and unpredictable outbursts that only serve to turn Chris on. The two are married in a bare-bones wedding ceremony.
     The marriage is a disaster from the start, plagued by conflict and lack of funds. Pam’s incessant spending aggravates that latter aspect, and her frequent bouts of self-mutilation don’t help matters. Chris of course fails to heed the unspoken message Pam is sending with her outrageous behavior (that she’s no good for him), and is fired from the police force after blowing up at his superiors.
     Lacking job prospects and credit cards (which Pam has maxed out), Chris takes to robbing banks to make ends meet. His police training comes in handy in devising a complicated car switching scheme to escape detection following his hold-ups. This improves the Andersons’ finances considerably and allows them to movie into a spiffy suburban house.
     But then one day Pam catches Chris on his way back from a robbery. She’s turned on, and eagerly joins in the hold-ups.
     Inevitably they’re caught by police. Pam leads the cops on a high speed chase and shoots herself. Chris is incarcerated but attempts an ill-advised escape, during which he kills two cops and then himself.

The Direction
     With NORMAL LIFE John McNaughton crafted a lively and compelling saga that ranks with the best criminal romance films, mixing the harsh naturalism of THE HONEYMOON KILLERS with the romantic thrills of BONNIE AND CLYDE. It moves fast and has a crackling energy, capturing the thrill of danger that drives Chris and Pam (and presumably their real-life models). The film also has a mordant humor to it (as when McNaughton intercuts Pam at a rehab clinic talking about how Chris “only wants the best for me” with the latter robbing a bank), although the overall impact is harsh and unsettling.
     Ultimately the film belongs to Ashley Judd as Pam. Her live wire of a performance is among the most fearless and revealing of the decade, at once dangerous and dangerously sexy; Pam may be hopelessly nuts and even scary in her mood swings, but it’s not difficult understanding why Chris stays with her nonetheless.
 

Vital Statistics

NORMAL LIFE
Fine Line Features

Director: John McNaughton
Producer: Richard Maynard
Screenplay: Peg Haller, Bob Schneider
Cinematography: Jean DeSegonzac
Editing: Elena Maganini
Cast: Luke Perry, Ashley Judd, Jim True, Tom Towles, Kate Walsh, Penelope Milford, Carlton Miller, Fred Stone
 

     

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