Why People Love To Hate BASIC INSTINCT
Basic Instinct is a famous noir thriller by Paul Verhoeven from 1992; here is why it is still both celebrated and reviled today.
Ahhh, Paul Verhoeven, what would the erotic thriller genre be like without you? If you have the slightest idea what Verhoeven‘s movies are like, then you know that Basic Instinct is probably his most recognizable. For those who have seen this movie, it’s either a ‘love it or leave’ kind of film. I know plenty of people who adore it, others, not so much; there are several reasons why this may be the case. Some people may not necessarily enjoy the sexuality that the film offers. Others, like myself, think the climax of the film (no innuendo intended) is utterly absurd, especially given the year this movie was made.
However, there’s a list of things I could write down that this picture gets very wrong. In order to see why that may put off some cinephiles, we first have to look at the characters.
Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell
Easily the most frustrating/idiotic character in the movie, Catherine Tramell is certainly a piece of work. Both, simultaneously the protagonist and antagonist, she is easily the worst character in Basic Instinct.
We first meet Catherine at the beginning of the movie. You would think since this film is a basically a noir, that we would see her in a cafe (or something of that sort) looking rather mysterious, cryptic, almost aloof. But no, she’s introduced to us through a very graphic, very ‘Verhoeven-esque’ sex scene. I don’t recommend looking it up unless you want to be squirming in your seat (especially since there’s an ice pick involved) but I do, however, urge you to sit through the scene when you watch the actual movie.
Well, without it there would be no movie, to begin with.
You see, Paul Verhoeven thought it would be a fantastic idea to have the opening scene of the picture be a ‘death by sex’ one. Despite it being extremely grotesque, the scene is an integral part of Basic Instinct because it shows us who committed the murder that the police will be trying to solve for the duration of the movie.
After we see Catherine commit the crime, Verhoeven cuts to a scene that shows a couple of detectives arriving at the site of the murder. This is where we get acquainted with Michael Douglas‘ character: Nick Curran.
Michael Douglas as Nick Curran
When Michael Douglas enters the frame, suspension of disbelief as an audience member ceases to exist, completely.
The detectives show up to the crime scene and, already, the incompetence is apparent: multiple men are touching things that could be used as evidence, someone cracks a joke about how,”this guy got off before he got offed,” and the coup de grâce is misunderstanding that there could only one person who could’ve done this. The detectives don’t know this, but, wouldn’t they able to pin the crime on Catherine since she’s the girlfriend of the man who got ‘ice-picked’ to death?
They seem willfully ignorant.
Thankfully, even though Nick Curran is surrounded by a bunch of amateurs, he manages to keep a cool head and finish the job. Unfortunately, with the next scene, all of Nick’s credibility goes out the window.
Jeanne Tripplehorn as Beth Garner
Apparently, Nick has a serious problem with drugs.
Not only does he enjoy sniffing ‘angel dust’ every once and a while, he’s also having a remarkably passionate affair with his station’s psychologist Dr. Beth Garner.
Their *ahem* “relations” intensify once Nick finds out that Catherine (who happens to be a writer) put him as her protagonist in her new novel about a detective who falls in love with the wrong woman and ends up getting murdered.
During the next few scenes, Nick’s life goes awry. It’s revealed in Basic Instinct, conveniently explained in a playful quip by Catherine, that he accidentally shot two tourists while high on cocaine. He doesn’t get fired for this ‘little’ event, however. It’s only when Nick is told that a fellow cop at the station, Lieutenant Nielson (played by Daniel Von Bargen) gave Catherine his file of previous offenses and punches him out in the parking lot that he’s placed on extended leave.
Beth does nothing to stop it either, which leads to Nick getting even angrier and more manic, which culminates in him relapsing back into his drug and alcohol habits.
We find out that Nick has been growing increasingly physically, sexually, and emotionally frustrated from the rather fiery interrogation he gave Catherine a couple of days earlier.
The next time we see Nick and Catherine, they begin a very steamy affair – starting in a discotheque. Verhoeven shows Nick and Catherine dancing – or rather, eyeing each other up – for a few minutes until Catherine scurries away to the bathroom. Obviously, Nick follows her and ends up in a situation that no one saw coming.
When he enters the restroom, he sees Catherine and her ‘girlfriend’ Roxy snorting lines of cocaine and touching each other suggestively.
Naturally being a red-blooded male, Nick desperately jumps at the opportunity to provide himself with a release by having sex with Catherine.
George Dzundza as ‘Gus’. Yep, Just ‘Gus’, No Last Name or Anything…
Seeing that Verhoeven’s films are known for their sexual excessiveness, the love-making lasts for about 8, very long, minutes.
It’s after this scene that we get introduced to the fourth and final main character – Gus, Nick’s right-hand man. Gus is definitely the most level-headed character in the entire movie. He’s regularly telling Nick to stop sleeping with Catherine, but, Nick doesn’t care, all he wants is to dive deeper into the world of Catherine Tramell. Just as he thought their relationship was developing into something more meaningful, Catherine drops an emotional bomb on Nick.
It turns out that Catherine’s girlfriend accidentally killed herself out of jealousy – by car – after she unintentionally walked into Catherine’s room while she was ‘making whoopie’ with Nick. This, clearly, leaves Catherine heartbroken and emotionally vulnerable. In this state, she reveals to Nick that this has happened to her before. She goes on to say that she had a lesbian lover in college that also died under mysterious circumstances.
Nick pushes the issue further and Catherine, finally, relents. She tells Nick that the girl’s name was Lisa Hoberman. This confession leads Nick to believe that Catherine may not have killed the man she’s being investigated for. Wanting to find out who this ‘Jane Doe’ is, he digs through his precinct’s files and discovers that this ‘Lisa Hoberman’ is actually Dr. Beth Garner.
It is at this point during the action where Basic Instinct proceeds to ‘jump the shark‘.
The Utterly Ridiculous Ending
While laying in bed together, Nick discovers the final pages of Catherine’s new novel peeking out of her bedside drawer. The finale of the book involves a detective finding his partner dead under an elevator with his legs protruding out. As you may know by now, Catherine has the tendency to use real-life situations as endings (or beginnings, really) in her novels. Soon after this revelation, Catherine abruptly breaks off their affair, leaving Nick disgruntled and a little bit suspicious.
He shrugs off this “bump in the road” and meets up with Gus, who arranged to have Catherine’s former college roommate Lisa meet him at an office building in order to figure out what went on between the two of them. Gus goes into the building and doesn’t come out for a couple of minutes. Turns out, he was stabbed with an ice pick, fitting Catherine’s M.O.
Concerned, Nick walks into the building frantically looking for Gus and find his lifeless body underneath an elevator with his legs protruding just like Catherine’s novel.
Nick looks for the person responsible for this horrific act, and during his search, he stumbles into, you guessed it, Dr. Beth Garner.
Standing a little too close to Gus’ body, she tells Nick that she’s only here because Gus told her to. Beth reaches into her pocket to hand him a memento when Nick, a little too trigger happy, pulls out his pistol and shoots her point blank. When her body hits the ground, Nick sees the item that she was trying to give him: a Bart Simpson keychain, which happens to have the keys to the apartment they were sharing.
In the movie’s finale, Nick searches the crime scene and Beth’s apartment finds enough “evidence” to pin the slew of murders on her. Though they search Beth’s condo, Nick knows that Catherine must’ve set her up. Despite knowing this, he tells no one. Nick returns to his apartment where he meets up with Catherine and, of course, they have sex. The pair finishes up and spends their allotted pillow talking time discussing their future together. The final scene has Paul Verhoeven slowing tilting the camera down from the Nick and Catherine’s semi-nude bodies to underneath the bed where a lone ice pick is revealed, implying the Catherine was the mastermind behind everything all along.
Why People Love to Hate Basic Instint
Basic Instinct was a product of its time.
When it was released in 1992, it was the first of its kind. A “sex-film” with that much gloss and polish shouldn’t be that fun and amusing. There are a lot of people in the film community who thoroughly enjoy this movie. The slick sensuality, the ‘noir-ish’ dialogue, and the twisting plot lines can all be very thrilling. Basic Instinct‘s shortcomings, however, lie in its weak plot lines.
When Nick Curran and fellow detectives show up to the initial crime scene, they make a multitude of ‘rookie mistakes’ that actual detectives would never do. Contaminating the scene of the crime, not ‘bagging and tagging’ everything in sight and the biggest sin of all: no DNA testing.
DNA testing was invented in 1985, Basic Instinct was written in the 1980s then shot in the early 1990s; the film’s writer Joe Eszterhas was very negligent in not including something as important as that, and it most certainly ruins the suspension of disbelief you’re suppose to have as an audience member.
Because if the LAPD were able to take fingerprints and ‘other’ DNA from the scene and match it up with Catherine’s, there wouldn’t have been any subsequent murders, or, movie for that matter.
I suppose that’s why many in the film criticism community have such a hard time digesting this movie. It had the potential to be great, but in the end (and plot-wise) it falls flat on so many levels.
What’s your favorite (or least favorite) moment in Basic Instinct? Let me know in the comments!
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