In 1993, Madonna would manage to have two films released via MGM. The first, Body of Evidence, was unleashed in January–the known “slump” month in the industry, where nothing new ever seems to be released. Unless, that is, it’s something like Body of Evidence, which the studio already expected to fail, hence releasing it during a period where it would have little else to compete with in the hope of boosting greater audience interest by lack of choice (oh, those pre-streaming days made it so much easier for the studios to control what was consumed). But that didn’t stop it from grossing thirteen million in exchange for a thirty million dollar budget, much to producer Dino De Laurentiis’ dismay.
Still, that would seem like a king’s ransom compared to the roughly $23,000 return at the box office for Dangerous Game (made for ten million), released in November, along with the likes of Carlito’s Way (starring Madonna’s ex-husband, Sean Penn), The Piano, Addams Family Values and Mrs. Doubtfire. Directed by Abel Ferrara and alternately known as Snake Eyes, everything about the movie is in keeping with the shape that independent cinema had come to take in the 90s (with Madonna also revealing this in other cameo roles she would adopt within the decade, namely the ones for Blue in the Face, Four Rooms and Girl 6): gritty, raw, nonlinear, and theme (usually evinced by scripts laden with quotable “isms”) rather than plot-focused. Of course, these adjectives had already been used to describe Ferrara’s work (e.g. The Driller Killer, Fear City and Bad Lieutenant). With the early 90s also being keen to tackle the film industry–therefore L.A. itself–by way of venomously caricaturizing it (i.e. L.A. Story and The Player), Dangerous Game fit right in by framing the story as a film-within-a-film concept, centered on New York-based director Eddie Israel (Harvey Keitel) selling out to Hollywood by letting TV actress Sarah Jennings (Madonna) star alongside the more “legitimate” in his indieness Frank Burns (James Russo).
And yet, Sarah could be the only thing that gets a more “mainstream” kind of crowd to come see a movie about a marriage’s violent unraveling. Yes, it’s very meta indeed. For that’s likely what Ferrara still might have believed about Madonna starring in Dangerous Game despite her being branded as box office poison ever since 1986’s Shanghai Surprise. Co-starring, incidentally, her then husband, Sean Penn, who many have speculated served as Russo’s inspiration for the alcoholic, explosively tempered husband in Israel’s movie, Mother of Mirrors. That Russo was chummy enough with Penn to have gained insight into his personal life and tempestuous nature isn’t the only thing that leads one to believe there was a certain mirroring of (in addition to a neo-April and Frank Wheeler) the “Poison Penns” in the movie Israel is directing, but also the fact that there is a very specific scene where Frank as Russell cuts off Sarah as Claire’s hair as part of his arbitrarily expressed contempt for her. The very same detail unveiled in a domestic abuse report Madonna filed in December of 1989, after Penn forcibly entered M’s Malibu home, tied her to a chair and roughed her up for a period of hours, compounded by a good measure of verbal abuse to complement the physical. These very same scenes seem to be imitated, to a vivid tee, throughout the Mother of Mirrors narrative, which acts as an update to the woes of domesticity (and its damnation to forever crack beneath the veneer) elucidated by Richard Yates in the likes of Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade.
Indeed, Israel’s dissection of the characters and their marriage, depicted through the lens of documentary-like cinematography, seems to be a paraphrasing of Yates’ (and The Rolling Stones’) longtime message about the dissatisfaction that goes hand in hand with being born both an American and, therefore, the ultimate “consumer.” Thus, he explains to Frank, “He’s looking for satisfaction and can’t get it. He ain’t getting it from the booze… he ain’t getting it from her.” Particularly not now that Claire has decided to abandon their shared life of debauchery (via a variety of drugs and sex partners) in favor of finding God. Russell views her “born again” shtick deplorable, mocking her with vitriol in every scene, showing her home videos of herself getting fucked by another man–anything to remind her that, as far as he’s concerned, she will always be a whore, a piece of shit… just like him. For her to try to ascend to a level above him drives him mad. The thought that someone so close to him could find meaning with a wholesome slant in life is unbearable. What’s more, because he’s committed all of the same sins as Claire, he finds her reprehensible for seeming to believe that she can be absolved of them, while he can’t. Or won’t. Either way, their ideological clash continues to reach a crescendo against the backdrop of Israel’s own marriage coming apart at the seams, spurred by his affair with Sarah, who also bangs Frank every so often since both of them appear to think it enriches their abilities to get in the mind of the character.
Of course, Frank gets a little too in the mind of the character during a rape scene, one that sends Sarah crying in a fury after Israel yells “cut.” The blending of reality within the script shines through again at this moment, with Madonna (through the guise of Sarah) recounting her own rape story, one very similar to the one she would tell Bazaar in 2013 as part of one of her first “welcomes” to New York. As Israel continues to give a detailed analysis of the characters’ motivations in various documentary-style “rap sessions,” his own festering anger shines through in telling Sarah and Frank that a marriage can cause a spiritual death. And isn’t that as bad as a physical one? If the vows are “till death do us part,” should that not also include spiritual in addition to physical death? For Russell, the answer looks to be a hard “no” as he wishes to keep Claire in the same iniquitous box that he prefers to remain in. Wanting to obstruct her from changing, he begs, “I just want the woman I married, that’s all I’m asking.” But Claire, like April Wheeler before her, has already seen a light she can’t turn off–refuses to go back into the darkness that Russell is pushing her toward. Forcibly.
Russell’s own various monologues could have just as easily been sprung from the mouth of a 90s version of Frank Wheeler as he seethes, “What’s this shit anyway? We live out here in the middle of this suburban nightmare–with the drugs, the alcohol, the consumerism, personal debt. We do everything that we can to distract us from taking the gas pipe!… Let her convert. But she doesn’t have to lay this hocus-pocus shit on me! Because I don’t need it. If I want to get drunk, I’ll get drunk. If I want to do coke, I’ll do coke. If I want to find some whore on the street and fuck her up the ass, I will! Because I need these things. I just lost a $200,000 a year job. Who the fuck is going to pay the bills around here? God? Is she going to pay the bills? I need these things!” He gets down on his knees (as though worshipping to the American-made God of Corporate-Sanctioned Desires) repeating the phrase, wrought to his very emotional core upon the direction of Israel.
In the end, as Frank would have if it was the 90s and he had been conditioned by an environment that paraded the likes of Natural Born Killers, Lost Highway, or even just watched the nightly news, with Lorena Bobbitt splashed across the tabloid-style recaps, Russell kills Claire. Israel, in turn, kills the version of himself that was playing the family man. And not with much Oscar-worthy buzz. So who’s to say if undiluted rage is better than repression when it comes to domestic dealings?