With only fifty-three percent of reviews aggregated through Rotten Tomatoes praising Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992), this Hitchcockian classic of its time is an underrated and misunderstood film.
If you don’t know what to watch next, Basic Instinct is available to stream on Hulu. The neo-noir erotic thriller was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Film Editing and Best Original Score.
It was the fourth-highest-grossing release of its year, despite a divided critical reaction and public protests from gay rights activists.
Set in San Francisco, troubled homicide detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) investigates the murder of Johnny Boz (Bill Cable), who was stabbed to death with an icepick during sex with a mysterious blonde.
The prime suspect is crime novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), Boz’s bisexual girlfriend, who wrote a book about the killing before it was committed and claims an obsessive devotee is setting her up.
As Catherine lures Nick into her world of sex and drugs and violence, his relationship with police psychiatrist Doctor Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn) grows increasingly deadly.
Douglas may get top billing, but Stone is the star of the show. She carries herself with confidence and intelligence and just the right amount of danger.
The most recognition she engendered for her star-making turn was a Golden Globe nod because audiences fail to take her seriously after the infamous interrogation scene.
Like Emilia Clarke in HBO’s Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Stone is more talented than people are willing to give her credit for, and there’s more to her performance than the beauty that meets the eye.
This is due to Verhoeven’s direction. Stone reprises her role in Michael Canton-Jones’s Basic Instinct 2 (2006), but even though it’s the same actor playing the same part, Catherine Tramell is borderline unwatchable in the sequel.
Verhoeven characterizes Tramell as the postmodern femme fatale, who seduces and kills with no loftier motive than that she looks good doing it.
The movie was controversial upon its release for its representation of bisexual women, and while there is something to be said about Hollywood’s lengthy history of demonizing lesbians, and while Basic Instinct exploits lesbianism for the male gaze, it is still ahead of its time sexually.
Catherine and her lover, Roxy Hardy (Leilani Sarelle), are both feminine.
Conversely, in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010), not only do Annette Benning and Julianne Moore conform to “butch” and “femme” gender roles, respectively, but the more feminine of the two also is the one to have an affair with Mark Ruffalo.
Narratively, though, Basic Instinct is overlong, convoluted, and repetitive. In the end, what the central mystery boils down to is an elaborate revenge plan the villain would have had to be nigh clairvoyant to cook up.
Logically, the drama demands more than its fair share of suspension of disbelief.
But Basic Instinct is more… well… instinctual than it is rational, and, for that, it is cinema at its most dreamlike.