May 22, 2012

Betrayed is constructed like a nightmare; the farther into it we go, the more distorted and surrealistic the images become.

That’s also the experience of the protagonist, a young FBI agent (Debra Winger) who’s investigating the murder of a colorful Chicago talk-show host.

When she travels undercover into a farming community in Nebraska, she’s immediately taken by the wholesomeness of the environment, the Norman Rockwell appearance of waving wheatfields and cherry pies cooling on the window sill. She’s also taken by the presence of a widower farmer (Tom Berenger), whose strength and sense of family seem to fill in the spaces of her own empty existence. But the longer she stays on the case, and the more personally involved she becomes, the more ugliness she uncovers.

At this point, the reviewer becomes honor-bound not to reveal too much of the film’s plot. When I saw Betrayed at an early screening, I didn’t know anything about it, and the surprises of the story came as real shocks. (I’ve already given away the fact that Winger plays an FBI agent, which isn’t clear in the film until 15 minutes have gone by.)

Suffice it to say that the particular rock that gets overturned in Betrayed reveals an organization of white supremacists, who seek to overthrow the government and install an all-white society.

When Winger infiltrates this group, she sees the duality of their existence: On the outside, they’re a warm group of homey family folks, who on camping trips just happen to take target practice with automatic weapons and burn crosses in meadows on cool summer evenings.

Joe (Jagged Edge) Eszterhas’s original screenplay examines this milieu with some admirable attempts at treating not just the political issues but also the personal trauma within Winger’s character. She’s appalled at the activities of the group, which include hunting down black men in the forest (where she is encouraged to participate), but she’s also feeling abused by the FBI; her boss (John Heard), who is also an ex-boyfriend, seems to be pushing her back into the field with insensitive fervor.

The natural director for this sort of piece is Costa-Gavras, who cornered the market on the political thriller with Z and State of Siege. As in those films, Costa-Gavras builds a spider web of fear surrounding his characters. But, also like his Missing of a few years ago, Costa-Gavras stays somewhat on the surface of events; as good as this movie is, it lacks a kind of lived-in quality, an authenticity of place and time.

It undoubtedly will stir up some potent emotions. Debra Winger wondered in an interview in “American Film” magazine whether the racist sentiments spoken by some of the character might be received approvingly by some.

Betrayed does have some very disturbing moments, none creepier than a scene in which two small children, being tucked into bed at night, begin spouting repulsive racist attitudes with which their parents have brainwashed them. That’s when this film really makes the skin crawl.

First published in the Herald, August 25, 1988

Debra Winger’s film credits are so few and far between that you can’t help wondering about the films she decided to do. Why this one? Heavy subject matter? Director? As for Eszterhas, he was a few years shy of launching Basic Instinct and making a famous name for himself.