Created by Richard Neely
“This is insane.”
— Gus sums up the final twist.
Most folks (including me) may not have read Richard Neely’s original 1969 novel, The Plastic Nightmare, but for a brief period, it seemed like everyone was talking about–and had a theory about–Shattered, the confusing, polarizing 1991 film adaptation by Wolfgang Petersen. Suffice it to say while this neo-noir potboiler does have its moments, logic and common sense aren’t among its chief bragging points–they seem to leave the building about two thirds into the film. Ed Gorman, who absolutely loved the novel, called the film “incomprehensible.”
Still plenty of people love it.
The film starts with an epic New Year’s Eve car crash that almost kills the Merricks, a handsome, wealthy married couple from San Francisco. As it is, after the car goes off a cliff, the wife Judith (Greta Scacchi) is thrown free, and escapes with relatively minor bruises and scratches. She’s the lucky one.
Her real estate developer husband, Dan (played by Tom Berenger), isn’t so lucky. He truly has been shattered — he ends up in the hospital, critically injured with his face bashed in and in a deep coma. But eventually he too recovers, albeit after months of extensive plastic surgery and physical therapy. And some severe memory loss — mostly about the incidents surrounding the crash. His loving wife Judith’s helping him get back on his feet, but he’s haunted by disturbing flashbacks to events that he can’t recall, and he begins to doubt that he’s really who he’s been told he is — there are huge holes in his memory, and he’s beginning to suspect Judith.
Enter GUS KLEIN, pet shop owner and part-time private eye, who did some work for Dan prior to the accident. Or so he claims.
Unsure where to turn, and increasingly troubled by Judith’s behaviour, Merrick turns to Gus, hoping he can help him to figure out what happened that night, and maybe — just maybe — who he really is. Lately, Dan’s not so sure.
And that’s part of the appeal of this film — you’ve heard of the unreliable narrator? This film has at least three of them: Dan, Judith and Gus. And you can toss in director and screenwriter Wolfgang Peterson as well. It’s not necessarily that they’re lying, exactly, but that they’re all very selective about what seemingly crucial facts they reveal — and also when they reveal it.
Or else it all falls apart, and you don’t have a movie.
Fortunately, amiably low key gumshoe Gus is one determined bulldog, masterfully played by the always solid Bob Hoskins, adding a much needed touch of humanity and humour to the proceedings. He’s not the lead in this, but it’s his presence that almost holds the film together, almost makes it make sense. Joanne Whalley-Kilmer is also pretty good, as the Merrick family friend who’s has a feeling that something is not quite right. And the film comes laded with enough clues, false leads and red herrings (a mysterious roll of film, troublesome flashbacks, contradictory revelations) to keep everyone guessing until about the last third, when anyone expected any rationale explanations for anything might as well head for the exits.
Still, for about two thirds, it’s a stylish bit of fun.
- “I was thinking of Neely last night because I was finishing up his novel The Plastic Nightmare, which became an incomprehensible movie called Shattered. Neely loved tricks as much as Woolrich did and Plastic is a field of land mines. He even manages to spin some fresh variations on the amnesia theme. It’s as noir as noir can be but mysteriously I’ve never seen Neely referred to on any noir list. My theory is that his books, for the most part, were presented in such tony packages, they were bypassed by mystery fans… I liked Neely, man and writer, and I liked his books, too. Somebody should bring him back. He’s my kind of noir writer–down and out in the dark underbelly of the success-driven American middle class, like non-Trav John D. MacDonald only doomed without hope of salvation.”
— Ed Gorman \
- “I have not read the novel by Richard Neely that inspired “Shattered,” but now, having seen the movie, I feel like I need to.
Perhaps it would shed more light on the state of mind of Judith Merrick, the character played by Greta Scacchi in the film, who commits a series of acts so implausible, and so bewildering, that I would do anything to eavesdrop on her stream of consciousness… the movie really could benefit from another 30 minutes or so, during which the Scacchi character could deliver a helpful explanatory monologue straight into the lens.”
— Robert Ebert on the film
- “Greta Scacchi’s Judith is the movie’s linchpin. A sultry film noir temptress, Scacchi is a worthy successor to the tradition of Lana Turner and Barbara Stanwyck. She’s a honey blonde — the kind of blonde, as Raymond Chandler once put it, who could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window — and she throws nothing but knuckleballs. Every word out of her mouth is molasses-smooth and, at the same time, suspect. She’s both femme fatale and sphinx, alluring and indecipherable.”
— Hal Hinson, The Washington Post on the film
- “I loved the movie. I know not everyone did. But that’s why there is chocolate and vanilla.”
— Jeff Schofield
- The Plastic Nightmare (1969; aka “Shattered”) | Buy this book
- The Plastic Nightmare/While Love Lay Sleeping (2021) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
A Stark House two-fer; includes another 1969 standalone by Neely.
- SHATTERED | Buy this DVD | Watch it now!
Based on the novel by Richard Neely
Screenplay by Wolfgang Petersen
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Musical score by Alan Silvestri
Starring Tom Berenger as Dan Merrick (Marriotte in the book)
Greta Scacchi as Judith Merrick
and Bob Hoskins as GUS KLEIN
Also starring Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, Corbin Bernsen, Debi A. Monahan, Bert Rosario, Jedda Jones, Scott Getlin, Kellye Nakahara