"I like rough edges." That’s the sultry greeting the viewer receives upon first popping in the Basic Instinct DVD, along with a few ice-pick stabs set to the Hitchcock-esque score.
And anyone who’s planning on enjoying this 1992 Paul Verhoeven thriller should really be in agreement with this sentiment, as Basic Instinct has more than its share of uneven spots — not to mention grossly problematic characters, strange plot points and an ending that still has people scratching their heads 15 years later. It even sparked one of the biggest uproars over a film in LGBT and feminist circles at the time of its controversial release.
However, taken entirely on its own merits, Basic Instinct is a wildly entertaining, delightfully trashy thriller: the ultimate guilty pleasure movie.
The film’s opening scene — a woman stabbing a man as they have sex — sets the tone for the noirish femme fatale story to follow. For most of the film, we follow detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), a fading-star cop with a long, shady past, as he attempts to solve the murder that launches the movie.
Nick meets Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone, the real star of the film), a bisexual millionaire novelist who writes crime novels wherein the murders correspond to real-life killings. It seems that her latest book mirrors the recent murder down to its tiniest details, and Catherine, the victim’s lover, was the last person to see him alive.
Catherine is cool, sexy and supremely confident. Nothing shakes her, even when she is called down to the police station for questioning, prompting the infamous leg-crossing scene. She takes an interest in Nick, much to the chagrin of her girlfriend, Roxy (Leilani Sarelle).
Before long, Nick is taken off the case, but that doesn’t stop him from falling for Catherine.
Of course, the plot thickens. Nick has an interesting relationship with his psychologist/ex-lover Beth (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who has also been connected to Catherine.
And the wild affair that blooms between Nick and Catherine pales in comparison to the clue chasing and shocking revelations that make this film a genuine thriller.
Complicating matters further is the fact that everyone connected to Catherine has been a killer, at least at some point in their lives. Nick killed two tourists accidentally in the line of duty; Roxy was a juvenile murderer with a jealous streak; and even Hazel (Dorothy Malone), Catherine’s older friend, was once a murdering housewife in the 1950s.
Likewise, everyone connected to Catherine has also been involved with her sexually, thus linking the lovers and killers and fortifying the basic theme of the film.
The most problematic aspect of Basic Instinct is the ambiguous and often stereotypical coding of characters according to gender and sexuality. By most readings, Nick is the prototypical alpha male. He’s powerful; he’s arrogant; he doesn’t take no for an answer. Roxy is the worst kind of lesbian stereotype: a jealous, murdering woman who ends up dead — and dressed in black, no less.
As for Catherine, she certainly doesn’t buck any trends in terms of bisexual stereotypes. She is promiscuous and — if the infamous ending is to be believed — a killer herself.
However, many have read the character of Catherine in a different light. She is powerful, sexual, smarter than the male protagonist and by no means owned by him. According to the director’s commentary, this was the characterization Verhoeven intended: a strong, liberated woman. She might be a killer, but she’s still the most powerful, most dynamic force in the movie.
Catherine is presented as the mastermind behind all the events in the film. She is literally and figuratively an author, manipulating the characters around her to do her bidding. Even when she herself is being interrogated, she is completely in control of the situation.
Her moments of vulnerability are confusing — is she just trying to dig deeper into Nick, or is she really mournful about all the deaths in her life (particularly Roxy’s)? When she sobs, "Everyone in my life dies!" it’s just over-the-top enough to instill suspicion.