D: Steve Anderson / 88m
Cast: Olivia Thirlby, John Carroll Lynch, Janina Gavankar, Nichelle Nichols, Brendan Sexton III, Rachael Taylor, Jennifer Beals
A freelance investigator for Social Services, Claire Decker (Thirlby) is conscientious and very thorough when it comes to finding relatives of people who have died, seemingly, alone. But when her boss (Beals) gives her a new challenge, it’s not Claire’s usual type of case. The headless, mutilated corpse of a woman has been found on the beach of nearby Morro Bay, and though she appeared to be well-known in the area, the police have discovered that her name and I.D. were fake. Tasked with finding out who the murdered woman really was, Claire spends time at the woman’s home, and finds clues that the police have overlooked, clues that she keeps from the local police chief (Lynch). When Claire talks to some of the woman’s neighbours, she meets Teresa (Nichols), a blind lady who was asked to look after a suitcase the woman left with her before she died. The contents add to the mystery of the woman’s death, but by now Claire has worked out that the woman’s real name was Jessica, and that her murder is somehow linked to a hotel in San Francisco called the Hotel Rex…
Like many thrillers, The White Orchid sets out its central mystery as soon as its central character has been established as one type of person, and then has that same character behave increasingly in ways that don’t seem to match the character’s established personality. All this is in pursuit of the truth, of course, but it does make you wonder why it is that the movies do this. Are we meant to find a flawed heroine more interesting? Will determined and resourceful ever be enough? And what is it about Claire Decker that makes her want to dress up like the murder victim (as she inevitably does; it’s signposted so obviously) and put herself in harm’s way, especially as she knows there’s a potentially dangerous man lurking around who knows what she’s doing and has found out? These are all good questions, but sadly, not ones that writer/director Steve Anderson is interested in answering. Claire’s motivations remain murky throughout, and there’s something of a character swerve late on in her investigation that comes out of the blue, and which has the awkward effect of making the viewer review everything they’ve seen so far (though clues are there).
Of course, with Claire playing dress up in the dead woman’s clothes and wigs, there’s a psycho-sexual aspect to it all, and Thirlby is required to wear the kind of underwear that looks nice but which women don’t sit around in in real life. These voyeuristic moments aside, the mystery develops at a steady pace, teasing out the truth while failing to put Claire in any danger whatsoever. This leaves the movie tension-free, and largely unsure of where it’s going, content to plod along happily until a showdown between Claire and the killer that falls flat bcause of how contrived it all is. Much of the movie’s running time is taken up by scenes that hamper the flow of the narrative, from Claire discussing the case with her roommate (Gavankar), to one of Claire’s neighbours (Sexton III) expressing his worries over his daughter’s safety because a man with a gun was looking for our largely unconcerned heroine. With Anderson’s screenplay unsure if it wants to be a solid mystery thriller, or an exploration of the sexual awakening of a woman with no apparent social life (but a liking for the neck of a particular blonde), the movie is only fitfully intriguing, and rarely gets out of second gear.
Rating: 5/10 – acceptable as a way of filling time until something better comes along, The White Orchid is a laboured attempt at a modern day film noir, but without the skill and ingenuity needed to bring its over-burdened narrative to life; Thirlby and the rest of the cast acquit themselves well enough playing staple characters of the genre, and there’s some good location work along the California coast, but ultimately this is forgettable stuff that jars more than it gels.