There is a murder. We, as an audience, get to see it, although it’s up to the film’s police officers and detectives to piece it together and solve it. We don’t see the killer’s face anyway, although we see the rest of her body. A retired rock ‘n’ roll star is murdered in bed with an ice pick after having his hands bound. “Kinky,” he probably thought before receiving multiple stabs to his neck. Assigned to the case is Detective Nick Curren (Michael Douglas), currently going through his own problems.
The prime suspect, for Curran, is the lover of the deceased, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). She, a graduate from both a psychology and linguistics program, doesn’t show remorse for the dead man. Instead, she appears to want to play games with the Detectives. It also turns out that she had written a book in which a murder takes place precisely like the one that occurred at the beginning of the film. Does that give her an alibi or should it act as a preemptive confession? It’s up to Curran to bring whoever killed this man to justice.
Oh, and he also has to avoid falling for his only true suspect, especially when more people around him start dropping like fleas. Basic Instinct is a thriller from start to finish. Have no doubts about that. It never tries anything else other than to get your blood rushing. You keep wondering who did it, the film keeps throwing curveballs at you, and everyone has a good time. And when it all comes together, you and the film can be happy together. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
The best thrillers make you want to rewatch them a second time directly after the first. The reveals make you think back on the experience, on earlier scenes, and you want to make sure everything checks out. With Basic Instinct, you’re pretty sure it doesn’t. The movie hides things from you. You aren’t able to figure it all out because the film doesn’t provide enough information until it’s ready. There’s no point looking for clues you might have missed because there aren’t any. It permits a passable first experience but second viewings are a waste.
The film never reaches a proper conclusion, either, which isn’t a criticism but a fact. You get an inconclusive answer to the “Who did it?” question. It all depends on how you interpret it. There are multiple ways to take many different scenes in the film, and it all comes down to what you want to believe. The final scene throws another twist in there. This might please some members of the audience — a little ambiguity here and there never hurt anyone — but I can see it infuriating many others.
The joys of the film come from the mind games played between the Stone character and the Douglas character. Both in actions and in words, it’s a joy to watch both actors interact. The duality in their characters, the way certain elements of one life run in parallel to the other’s, and the wordplay in the dialogue scenes is all so sharp that you almost forget that one is a potentially dirty cop who has killed innocent people and the other might be a sociopathic murderer. That’s what happens when smart characters are put on-screen.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about the film is that it is never dull. At least, it wasn’t the first time around. I was consistently entertained even if I had to shut down my brain. By trying to figure out the central mystery, I was doing myself a disservice, because it was never going to happen. The filmmakers weren’t going to let me. Basic Instinct runs for just over two hours but it doesn’t feel long.
This is the film to make Sharon Stone a movie star, or at least an effective femme fetale. As the shrewd, sarcastic, know-it-all, she shines. As long as she’s not required to actually do dramatic acting — which happens once in this film and yields laughable results — she is as effective as anyone could be. She comes across as both smart and sexy, and capable of drilling a guy’s temple with an ice pick, if she deems it necessary. That capability — even if we never see her do it and her character is ultimately not the killer — is so important.
In fact, she overpowers and takes the screen from Michael Douglas, a more established actor. Douglas is fine in the role but does little to draw our attention, despite being the protagonist. There are moments when he shines, but they all involve a back-and-forth with Stone. The same lack of screen presence is true of all of the supporting cast, who are relegated to the background whenever either actor is on-screen. The focus is squarely on their shoulders, and each handles it well.
As an entertaining thriller, Basic Instinct works for a single viewing. It doesn’t allow you to figure it out — although not through intelligence, but through deception and tricks — and a second watch is pointless because it won’t allow you to glean anything new, but it moves along well and is never dull. It has a star-making turn from Sharon Stone, a dependable lead in Michael Douglas, and several fun scenes involving the verbal sparring of the two actors. It’s not a great thriller, but it’s easily watchable and might just be worth your time to see.