It's all stalk

Film Review: The Fan; Tony Scott (15)

The release of Tony Scott's thriller The Fan is so timely that you're tempted to think crystal balls were involved somewhere along the line. Everyone's talking about stalking, haven't you noticed? It's everywhere - in the House of Commons, and on Ricki Lake. The stalker in The Fan is Gil (Robert De Niro), a middle-aged divorcee with more psychological scars than De Niro has played characters with psychological scars.

But despite Gil's maniacal obsession with a baseball hot shot named Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), you couldn't honestly call The Fan a movie about stalking. So what is it? Well it's a guy thing. Bonding. Baseball. Fathers and sons. Men trying on each other's clothes. Little bursts of homophobia, and sudden flashes of homoeroticism. A big jumble of emotions, barely articulated. Like I said, it's a guy thing. A baseball commentator suggests as much: "Fathers sneaking away from work early, kids playing hooky from school," he sighs wistfully at the opening day crowd, inebriated by their sense of community, however transient.

Gil is one of those fathers; he's a salesman jeopardising an important meeting to be at the baseball game with his son. We'll forget for the moment that he eventually abandons the child mid-game in order to make that appointment. His intentions are good; it's his wiring that's all wrong.

When he collects the boy to take him out, Gil flashes a self-satisfied smile at his ex-wife and her new partner, and steers him out of their clutches. It's as though he's taking the kid off to hunt buffalo, not munch hot-dogs and do Mexican waves. The fragile harmony of this bonding ritual is upset by a sinister interjection from the boy's mother. "Don't make him do anything he doesn't want to do," she says bleakly. The actress Patti D'Arbanville-Quinn gets only a few minutes of screen time, but she captures the anguish of a woman surrendering her child to someone volatile enough to require a warning of such severity.

It's conceivable that we are warming to her gender as well as her line readings. Women get very short shrift in this film. They are maids or groupies. Ellen Barkin appears as a radio journalist trying to nail an interview with Bobby. But her character plays like the result of a genetic accident - a probing Paxmanesque figure trying to deconstruct the sporting establishment on what appears to be the American equivalent of the Chris Tarrant show, she pleases none of the people none of the time, and would be unemployable in the real world.

But this is Tony Scott world, a techno-noir hell hole where there are too many venetian blinds and not enough light bulbs; where a locker room can look as cool and chilly as an abattoir; where every puddle holds an explosion of neon. Scott favours quick cutting, and uses tight grotesque close-ups of De Niro to interrupt the fussy widescreen compositions. In the film's second half there is even slow motion, and a series of filters that swamp the screen in marble blue and deep red. As Gil goes off his trolley, so does Scott.

Gil is a real anachronism, suffering from what you might call Death of a Salesman-syndrome. He believes in quality, but his snarling young superior, straight out of Glengarry Glen Ross, is only interested in closing a sale, no matter how shoddy the goods. This is anathema to Gil. He lives in an imaginary world of honour and ethics; he idolises his Bobby because he believes that the superstar embodies those values. Gil chastises a ticket tout for having no interest in baseball. His sales techniques are similarly at odds with the people he meets. He tries to prove the dexterity of his wares to a store manager, but the sleaze- ball is only interested in spying on a customer's cleavage.

So what exactly are Gil's wares? I was hoping you wouldn't ask. He sells knives you see. It's a bit much isn't it? I expect that the screenwriter Phoef Sutton added that detail in case we didn't pick up on the fact that Gil is teetering on the edge of sanity. Extreme mood swings, violent tantrums, regular appearances on radio phone-ins - these pointers are easy to miss. Best make him a knife salesman. Even the kids necking in the back row will understand that.

Scott and Sutton remain undecided about how to present Gil. Is he a man of purity and nobility who's been dealt a bum hand? A fumbling bully who gets a buzz out of intimidation? An out-and-out bogeyman? At one point or another, he is all these things. In a crushingly banal move, Scott precedes Gil's first appearance on screen with a blast of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil", which rather gives the game away. Yes, he's a monster, but look how he got that way, Scott and Sutton argue at first. When the tone changes, so does their approach. Yes, he's had it tough, but just look what a monster he is! Gil becomes a machine of infallible, ubiquitous evil, and The Fan turns from trashy to crude.

Scott creates a kind of pornography of horror, where each brutal act that Gil commits is decontextualised, existing only to trump the previous one. De Niro complies; as in Cape Fear, there's no continuity to his performance, just an escalation of brutality. The only glimpses of subtlety come when he's playing sociopathic, not psychopathic, when he performs the Stones' "Start Me Up", or when he finds himself in Bobby's house, wearing his hero's dressing gown, his clothes, his cologne, and admiring his expansive wardrobe like some Italian American version of Mrs Danvers from Rebecca

On release from tomorrow

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