Immediately after the opening credits of The Victim, the phrase “Based on a true story” flickers to life like a neon sign over a shot of wooded terrain. Almost as soon as they appear, they’re quickly joined by the word “not,” which is strategically placed at the start of the sentence. I’ll give writer/director/star Michael Biehn credit for that one; I too am getting tired of the horror movies and psychological thriller claiming to have been inspired by true events, especially since most of the facts are either grotesquely distorted or not real facts at all. But as soon as that moment passes, we delve into an implausible, unfocused, unrewarding story that blends a murder mystery, a crime thriller, and a character study, the latter being the most awkward because, in the worst possible sense, it neither confirms nor denies what we might be thinking.
It’s being billed as a grindhouse film. But it isn’t a grindhouse film, not really. There are exactly two scenes that are visually gratuitous, one of explicit sex and the other of explicit gore. The rest of film is not all that far removed from an A-list psychological thriller, which is to say that I could see the potential for something far more compelling. If this were a true grindhouse film, there would be no subtexts to glean, no theme to interpret, no symbols to ponder; it would be pure, unadulterated exploitation, lacking any semblance of depth and complexity. In some ways, this is a relief, because quite honestly, the grindhouse experience is not my thing. I had my fun with the homage double feature Grindhouse, and I reached my limit with its sleazy spinoff Hobo with a Shotgun. In other ways, however, it makes processing this film difficult. The story never quite knows where it’s going or what it wants to be.
We meet Kyle (Biehn), a grungy-looking man who always has a distant, troubled expression on his face. He has sequestered himself in a cabin nestled deep in the woods, where his only apparent source of activity is watching online podcasts of a woman giving sermons using New Age mantras. Into his life enters a stripper named Annie (Jennifer Blanc); she’s hysterical, screaming that men are after her and they killed her friend Mary. Indeed, intermittent flashback sequences do show Mary (Danielle Harris) being murdered at the hands of a corrupt cop named Harrison (Ryan Honey). He, along with a deputy (Denny Kirkwood), took the girls to a secluded spot to have a party of sorts, but Harrison got a little too rough, and, as they say, things got out of control. Now Annie is in Kyle’s cabin, and the power-hungry Harrison is on the prowl. Kyle agrees to help Annie, despite the fact that he always seems so reluctant to be in her life.
What is his back story, exactly? We do know he spent time in prison, but we don’t why. We know that, when threatened, Kyle is capable of the most extraordinary forms of violence, including torture. We know that, at age fifty-four, he can still have good sex. That according to Annie, of course, and rest assured, “have good sex” is not the phrase she uses. But for the most part, we really have no idea who this man is or why he acts the way he acts. We have our suspicions, and nothing more. Meanwhile, the flashback sequences with Annie and Mary show that they watched news reports of a woman who was murdered in a way very similar to other women across several states; in the present, Annie makes a very possible connection between those murders and Mary’s. For all we know, she could be right. But then again, she could be dead wrong.
The facts of the case are never made known, probably because that isn’t what the film is really about. The main focus is Kyle, the mystery hermit. As fascinating as I find character studies, it’s obvious to me that the real intention of this film is not to delve into anyone’s mind or examine anyone’s behaviors. Quite simply, the intention is just to jerk you around, to build you up for absolutely nothing. We pick up on this with the final scene, in which the intention was not to reveal but rather to hint at two possibilities of an equally sinister nature. An ambiguous approach might have worked in a film that tried harder to be emotionally complex. In this case, Biehn is doing little more than not delivering the goods. There’s a difference between being clever and not seeing things through to the end.
Although the film doesn’t live up to its grindhouse image in terms of content, there is an undeniable low-budget charm to the camerawork and the editing, which is almost on par with a direct-to-DVD release. That’s to be expected when you only have $800,000 to work with. Biehn carries this style all the way through the end credits; rather than have a plain succession of names and titles roll from the bottom of the screen to the top, he instead shows behind the scenes footage of each crew member doing his/her thing. It’s nice to be acknowledged visually. Too bad it’s for a film that didn’t quite work. The premise was somewhat intriguing, but ultimately, The Victim was not developed as far as it should have been. It might have helped had Biehn opted to actually provide us with one of his two possible answers.