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The General's Daughter
Interesting ideas are buried under a ho-hum thriller
The General's Daughter
Paramount Pictures
Directed by Simon West
USA, 1999
Partway through The General's Daughter--coming out of the first plot twist and heading into the second--we learn that Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), the title character, who was earlier discovered raped and murdered, had earlier suffered through something worse than rape. Paul Brenner (John Travolta), the army investigator on the case, frowns at the freshly-incarcerated Col. Robert Moore (James Woods).

"What's worse than rape?" he asks.

Moore: "When you find that out, you'll know everything, won't you?"

Well, no, he won't. The General's Daughter aims to be a modern film noir, so you know the plot's going to twist more than a roomful of yogic pretzels.

And twist it does, with Brenner and his investigating partner (and--surprise!--old flame) Sarah Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe) trying to keep up. They don't quite make it, playing their roles with such a lack of conviction that we don't care any more about them than when the movie started, and that isn't much. In the noir tradition, Brenner is a jaded wiseass tough guy, but a good and relentless investigator. Sunhill still has a soft spot for Brenner and can go toe to wiseass toe with him. But that's the extent of their personalities, and everyone else is just a piece of the puzzle. There's just nothing to grab onto.

As noir goes, the story is no great shakes either. The requisite elements of sex, murder, and corruption are there (though the film's light on blackmail and double-crossing), but the ingredients alone aren't enough. As modern noir films like Wild Things, The Usual Suspects, and The Hot Spot illustrate, the genre is best served by keeping the audience just shy of the truth and gradually revealing the layers of lies, occasionally by adding more lies. In The General's Daughter, the truth is given to us in chunks--bam!--and then we're told just what's missing.

Where The General's Daughter succeeds--even compels--is in its dissection of rape. Most movies, TV shows, and books focus on rape as a singular event; consequences, if any, are usually histrionics for the victim and later retribution for the perpetrator. (It's telling that most of these kinds of depictions are written by men. Rape accounts by women--fictitious or otherwise--are quite different.) And then there's the axiom, repeated by Woods in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview: rape is about violence, not sex. That's not quite true--rape is really about power, which is often expressed through violence.

The General's Daughter is one of those rare movies that recognizes both of these things. (Not for one minute do I think it's an accident that the one person who is never allowed to talk about the rape--save for one outburst--is Campbell herself. Everyone else defines how it's discussed, and under what circumstances.) The investigation takes us before, during, and after the rape, and we get a clear picture of the forces both overt and subtle that led to it, that drove it, and more importantly, that shaped events and reactions later. Every single thing is about power: personal power, political power, male power, female power, sexual power, paternal power. Just about every character the investigators touch has a different attitude toward what happened, but what they say and what they do all relate to keeping or wielding power. The one scene that struck me cold right to the marrow was a kiss--a moment which wrapped up all the types of power mentioned before, sinister and terrifying in intensity.

In that moment, the movie really meant something. There are other moments like this throughout, occasionally giving us glimpses at what The General's Daughter could have been. As it is, the most thought-provoking aspects lurk under the surface of a mediocre thriller.

A Critical Eye exclusive (June 21, 1999)