Malice

Original Release Date:  1 October 1993

Written By: Aaron Sorkin and Scott Frank

Directed By: Harold Becker

Cast:  Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman, Bebe Neuwirth, Peter Gallagher & Anne Bancroft

Runtime:  106 minutes


SPOILER-FREE SUMMARY

This, the second film to Aaron Sorkin's name, is the smallest in scope, and is largely overlooked in his pantheon. Set in a small Northeastern township, Malice follows Andy Safian (Pullman), a college professor whose halcyon existence is becoming unraveled. Firstly, the local coeds are being victimized by a local serial rapist, which the police (personified by Neuwirth as Detective Dana Harris) seem powerless to stop.  Secondly, there is tumult closer to home, as his wife, Tracy (Kidman), is victimized by a surgeon and old high school classmate of Andy's, Jed Hill (Baldwin). There isn't much left to tell about this film without unravelling its onion-like layers of convoluted mystery; suffice it to say for now that not all is as it seems...


The Breakdown

[SPOLIERS AHEAD]

So now let's run through this with the cheat codes enabled, because trying to make sense of this some of movie's plot twists is hard enough.  The film opens with a series of shots of an idyllic little New England College Town, where clearly nothing has ever gone wrong for anyone, up until the events of this film.  

The camera follows an anonymous young woman as she bikes home from campus along the tranquil avenues.  Once at her house, we are immediately introduced to Malice's B-story, as, despite the warnings of her housecoat, the young woman is attacked by a dark figure.  After being rushed to the hospital, we learn that she is only the latest in a series of attacks in our picturesque hamlet.  

Detective Dana Harris (Neuwirth) is on the case–but Associate Dean Andy Safian argues that her department hasn't been doing enough to prevent these assaults or catch the man committing them.

Their argument is an effective introduction to their interactions throughout the film;  they have a contentious yet collaborative working relationship, she's a police officer, he's a professor.  It's all tied up in a neat little bow right from the start.

Next we meet our heroic-antagonist character, Dr. Jed Hill.  He is the surgeon working to save the life of the student who was attacked, who Dean Andy calls Bridget Kelly, but is credited only as "Girl on Bike."  The prognosis is good, but there is another piece of business that needs to be taken care of.  Apparently both Dean Andy and "Gallopin'" Jed Hill went to High School together.

This will not be the last seemingly-inexplicable piece of backstory we are given about our lead characters, and, frankly, adds almost nothing to the broader arc of the Andy-Tracy-Jed Dynamic that plays over the remaining 100 minutes.

Speaking of whom:  we meet Tracy next, working in the hospital daycare facility.  She and Dean Andy go to lunch, and he updates her on the situation, adding that the new surgeon, Dr. Jed, whom he describes as a "whiz kid from Mass General," deserves credit for her condition.   And then, the elevator doors open to reveal the man of the hour.

Now, assuming that the plan is already in place, it's interesting to watch Tracy and Jed's behavior in this, their supposed introduction (as far as Andy knows, that is.) This is the point when the groundwork for the con has been laid, and the scheme is now about to kick into high gear.

Therefore, it isn't Baldwin and Kidman's performance in the elevator that's compelling, so much as Jed and Tracy's. The young Mrs. Safian is clearly the better liar, turning on the charm, while Dr. Jed immediately pivots to his colleague rather than look her in the eyes.  

Later, during a series of scenes establishing the strength of Andy & Tracy's relationship, we are introduced to a minor (not a pun) character who will become crucial to the resolution of the story at the very end of the film. In the house next door to the Safians, the neighbor boy sits in his room, playing his keyboard alone while his mother works the nightshift

The next day, Dr. Jed activates Operation Best Buddies, stopping by the Safian house on the spur of the moment (he literally says "I was in the neighborhood," in retrospect, this is a completely unsubtle move) and taking Dean Andy to lunch. And speaking of unsubtle: as they are preparing to leave, Director Harold Becker makes absolutely sure we notice a statuette near the door, spending a long ten seconds pointing his camera at it.

It's a Degas statue!  Look at it!  LOOK!!

Dr. Jed asks if it's a Degas, which Dean Andy confirms, "I think it's an original. Tracy's father gave it to her." It is in fact a Degas: a replica of a statue he made in 1881 called “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans.” Some very rudimentary research reveals that that this is a replica: the original is bronze, and two-thirds scale–approximately a meter tall. From his ignorance we can infer that Andy Safian is the trusting type. Tracy tells him a lot things in their life before the events of the film, and his realization that she cannot be trusted stimulates a lot of growth in his character.  

Over lunch, we finally get to the A-story of Malice. Tracy has been having some serious medical issues, and Andy, being the trusting type, as we've established, tells his new friend the medical professional about it. Dr. Jed knows all about this issue–it was more than likely his idea in the first place to load Tracy up with crazy-unsafe amounts of hormones and risk her health on his skills for the promise of an eight-figure payday. In this conversation, however, he is all business. He asks all the right questions for a doctor to ask, and Dean Andy tells him she is seeing a "Dr. David Lillianfield." Dr. Jed's response to this information is–knowing who he is actually talking about–absolutely priceless. "I've heard of him.  Lillianfield's a good man." Everyone through laughing? Okay let's keep going.

Back at home, Dean Andy delivers his wife a bit of a one-two punch of unwanted news: Andy has bonded with Jed enough to offer him the third floor of their Victorian for a flat, and he also sought the doc's advice about her recurring pain problem. Tracy is not thrilled with either. It's curious that she reacts so negatively to the news that Dr. Jed will be boarding with them–was that not part of the plan? It seems like having the co-conspirators under one roof would be a good thing... After a moment to process, Tracy decides be tolerant of her husbands solo endeavors.

I set my alarm and it didn't go off!  Also, my dog ate my homework, and other totally fresh and new original excuses that no authority figure has ever heard before ever.

At this point, Malice bounces us back to the B-story, and we meet a troubled undergrad named Paula Bell, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.  After a brief meeting that seems mostly designed to make us like Paula enough to be upset when she is found dead, Dean Andy ushers the young woman out of his office with a stern but empathetic sort-of-reprimand.  Dean Andy might actually be kind of good at his job, if his dealings with this student are any indication:  he takes an active interest, but calls her on her B.S. excuses.

Det. Dana is his next appointment, with a discouraging update on the investigation.  The student who was attacked earlier has no leads to offer up, so they're still where they were before this latest indent:  circling square one.

ANDY:  So what do we do now?

DANA:  "We?"  "We" don't do anything, Andy.  Only one of us is a police detective.

ANDY:  And maybe not even that many.

DANA:  Oh, collegiate wit.  Let me search my mind for a clever comeback–how 'bout "bite me?"

This bit of dialogue, while moderately amusing, is highly demonstrative.  While their tones seem hostile, it's obvious that they are united in their common concern about the situation.  Dean Andy's word's seem harsh, but they don't come from a truly cruel place; Pullman's performance makes clear that he doesn't really mean it, he's just struggling with his powerlessness in the face of this threat.

In the next scene, with the benefit of hindsight, we get a look at the incredibly layered interactions between Jed and Tracy.   Dr. Jed finds Tracy in the bathroom, having presumably heard her cry out while suffering through her (self-imposed) ovarian pain.  It's really just the briefest of moments, but if you watch this scene twice–the first time thinking that these two people are basically strangers, and the second time knowing that they are actually lovers and in cahoots to steal millions–you can wee that it works equally well both ways.  Tracy's angry outburst. "what are you doing in here?" suggests both that she is upset at having her privacy violated, and also suggests that she is worried about them being caught together lest their conspiracy be discovered.  Kidman is playing two characters here, simultaneously:  the Nice Tracy, who loves kids and her adoring husband, and the True Tracy who we come to know in the third act of the film:  selfish, heartless, disdainful, and quick to anger.  

They bend down to pick up the bottle of pulls she's dropped, and Dr. Jed asks if she is alright.  Is this the natural concern of a dedicated physician, or the more self-interested concern of a partner in crime?  Baldiwin's minimalist portrayal in the scene establishes that it must be both.

After she snaps at him they share a look, their conversation interrupted by Dean Andy's return.

They pause for only a few heartbeats, but–again, with the power of knowing the extent of their actual relationship (including the fact that she's already pregnant with his child)–their silence speaks volumes.  What would have happened between them had Dean Andy not called out from the doorway?  Might Dr. Jed have persuaded her no to go through with the scam, if it caused her so much physical pain?  Might she have disparaged his conviction for being soft and caring about her?  

After a breath, Tracy remembers herself, and is back in character as the small-town housewife. The acting by Kidman here is so nuanced that it doesn't really raise any red flags upon the first viewing of the film. Tracy's motivations are completely transparent, however, upon subsequent viewings.

Likewise, the sequence that follows, where Tracy gets completely bent out of shape when Dr. Jed brings home his surgical nurse for the night. Tracy fumes, glaring up at the swinging ceiling fixture. Is she jealous of Dr. Jed having another woman in his bed, or legitimately upset by not being able to sleep. As in the previous scene, the answer is, again, both.

The next day, Dean Andy is back on the case, having appointed himself to look after his students.  When Paula Bell fails to show for her meeting, he drives over to her house to talk to her, assuming she is just "ducking the call."  Through the screen door, we can't see Paula, but we do see flying toasters!

Dean Andy invites himself in (in what is definitely an legal and ethical violation, but we'll overlook all that) and finds his attention drawn to the back yard. There, in a sort of nightmare-Cinderella-scenario, he finds her shoe on the lawn, which leads him to her lifeless body in the bushes.

Upset, he meets Dr. Jed for a drink. Dr. Jed tries to reassure him that he'll get over seeing a dead body, with an entirely unhelpful story about how he himself was not upset the first time he saw a dead body, and therefore had nothing to get over. Dean Andy soon departs, leaving Dr. Jed to have a conspicuously fun time with a pair of young women playing darts.  We'll discover later why he wants to buy them drinks (aside from the usual reason) he wants to establish an alibi of sorts, for the legal proceeding that comes later.

Everyone at the bar will notice him carousing irresponsibly, given that he is an emergency surgeon on call–and tonight's the Big Night for his scam with Tracy.

Before all that though, Dean Andy has to have another unpleasant interaction with Det. Dana. In the course of her investigation of Paula Bell's death, she has some ridiculous and insulting questions for him. Turns out, there are some circumstantial forensics–including blood type–that make Dean Andy a suspect.  (Incidentally, if Dean Andy had turned out to be the killer, this movie would have been way darker & probably become more of a cult hit.) Det. Dana doesn't think he's the guy, but still needs a semen sample for elimination.  Andy initially resists, but then decides to just get it over with.

After he leaves, Tracy arrives home, and the Dramatic Score tells us that it's finally time for Tracy's ill-fated surgery. She collapses in the kitchen, and we see her rushed to the hospital. There can be no doubt that her pain is real (there's no one with her to impress with fake pain) but it certainly precisely timed, thanks to the injections Tracy has been taking.

In the surgical suite, Dr. Jed is in command, smoothly assembling his team and their plan of action.  This is when they make the discovery that Tracy is pregnant, but tell is in the same breath that the fetus won't survive the procedure. The surgery seems to go well... until Dr. Matthew notices "some pathology on the second ovary." Just according to plan.

Now Dr. Jed has to make his unforced error, removing Tracy's remaining, healthy ovary after taking out the ruptured one. In the scene where he gets consent from Andy, Pullman does some real heavy lifting. Andy wrestles with his decision internally, unsure of what the right call to make is. He puts his trust in Jed–just as they knew he would, "do whatever you have to do." Dr. Jed scrubs back in, bullies his staff, and completes the procedure.

Later, when the reports that they didn't have time for when Tracy was on the table come in, the truth is revealed: Dr. Jed removed a healthy ovary. He seems remarkably unfazed by the news–which makes sense, since it was planned beforehand–insisting, "it was a judgement call, and I stand by it... I didn't do anything wrong."

Tracy doesn't see it the same way. She is (in character) furious and embittered, and doesn't want to see Jed when he tries to apologize. She doesn't even want to see Andy anymore either. As soon as she's out of the hospital, she's out of the house was well.  "He took my insides out, and you gave him permission." Tracy leaves Dean Andy, for good. Her work here is done: she is about to have her settlement money, and a life free of pretending to care about Victorian houses and working with kids.

There's just one more thing for the pair to take care of: Dr. Jed has to tank his deposition to seal the deal. Each side's lawyers spar over a witness supposedly called on Jed's behalf: Dr. Kessler (George C. Scott) a former med school teacher, and Chief of Staff at Mass General. As Tracy & Dr. Jed had presumably planned, Tracy's lawyer, Dennis Riley (Gallagher) turns Kessler's testimony back on Dr. Jed. Riley quotes an evaluation of Dr. Jed from 1982 written by Kessler: "While Jed Hill consistently remains the most skilled and brightest of our residents, we should not ignore what I and several of his colleagues have observed to be an indulgence of the God Complex." Tracy's lawyer is positively invigorated by this piece of evidence, and really goes to town on the elder doctor.  He sets Dr. Jed up perfectly to deliver his speech, and Baldwin is equal to the task.

At this point the heist is essentially complete.  Tracy's lawyer tells her on the way out to the car that the settlement should come in about a week; she's not interested in hearing his advice about investing it trout–she won't be in the country long enough for all that after cashing the check.

Across the street we see a forlorn Dean Andy, who still cares about his duplicitous fake wife, but can't quite summon the moxie to approach her against her wishes.

And now Malice decides it's time to wrap up its subplot.  Later that night, Dean Andy is working late in his office, trying to take his mind off things.  The lamp on his desk goes out, so has to head downstairs to the building's Supply Dungeon to fetch a lightbulb.  While in the basement, he discovers that the College's maintenance man, Mr. Leemus (who we don't remember from the first act), has apparently been living down there.  Tobin Bell of course dials it up to eleven with the creepiest voice ever, so the revelation of his involvement with the recent string of student attacks, when it comes, is no surprise.  Leemus attempts to silence Dean Andy as he goes for help–but Dean Andy turns the tables on him, incapacitating the older man.

Today is MY independence day!

Don't mess with me... I've got tenure.

He rains down blows upon the perpetrator, exorcising all of his frustration and anxiety and futility with his fists, his feet and, finally, a fire extinguisher. In the next scene, Det. Dana has met him at the hospital, and Malice assures us that Dean Andy didn't actually kill Leemus–don't worry he's still the White Hat. "If you want something' done right, goddammit, you call a teacher."

Andy and Dana go for a post-ass-kicking drink, where they have a tragic, but priceless interchange:

ANDY:  There's one thing I realized during all this. Jed had just come out of the O.R. to talk to me, he was covered in blood, and he was telling me what he was about to do and that he needed my permission to do it. And, there was a second, maybe a second and a half between him telling me that Tracy was pregnant and him telling me that the fetus was aborted during surgery. That second, that second and a half, that was the happiest time of my life.

DANA:  That is a horrible story. It's the worst story I ever heard.

ANDY:  And I appreciate your word of comfort.

DANA:  I mean it, Andy. You're like fuckin' Job–shit just happens to you. 

ANDY:  Have you had a lot of success talking jumpers off of window ledges?  

It's a powerful combination of emotional revelation salted with a bit of dark comedy that makes this scene effective. But Det. Dana has an even more dark and tragic bit of information to share, since he's told her that Tracy was pregnant.  She seems almost afraid to tell him, but resolute. 

It turns out Dean Andy that when the police took their sample from him to exclude him as a rape suspect, they discovered something painful but apropos. The baby wasn't his. Andy is an utterly changed man; gone is the well-meaning professor, and in his place is a man who almost killed someone tonight and is itching for an encore performance.

He immediately goes off and shares this revelation with Dr. Jed:  if he is sterile, then who got Tracy pregnant? And if her settlement is based on her appearance as a person of sterling character, then Jed's lawyers should use this little tidbit to impeach her credibility and reduce or nullify her settlement. Dr. Jed, naturally, has to talk him down; he knows exactly who the fetus in question belonged to–himself.  (This fact, naturally, never occurs to Andy.)

But Dean Andy suspects Tracy's lawyer, and confronts him, charging up into the well-appointed office and right past his secretary, "Claudia."  (A Sorkin Stable member!  See below...) Their brief exchange doesn't make Dean Andy feel much better, although Riley does convince him that he was not in a relationship with Tracy.

That is however, the only thing he is able to say for certain, what with the attorney-client-privelige thing and all–but in Yoda-like fashion, he does indicate that "there is another..." Tracy's mother, supposedly dead these twelve years, will have the answers Dean Andy seeks, and she really likes Scotch.

Anne Bancroft is just begging for a best supporting actress nod in this part. Her portrayal of the drunken Ms. Kennsinger is brilliantly erratic:  hostile, friendly, warm, cold, soft, sharp–she's in full form, spouting expositional backstory with a Southie accent. ("I haven't had single malt since '69...")

It turns out that Tracy is from a family of con men. Her father ran out on her when she was a little girl, and she's been trying to make a big score to set her up for the rest of her life ever since.

(This is where we run into a bit of a problem with the serpentine plot:  how and why did Tracy go to Andy's College?  We saw the framed newspaper headline earlier, "Professor Marries Favorite Student," so was Tracy just at that school to get her MRS Degree? Or maybe she was really attempting to have a real life?)

Dean Andy is certain Tracy has been at Ms. Kennsinger's house; Tracy's Degas is on the mantlepiece.  The statue, however, is just like Tracy: a fake, "you can buy them in any department store for eighty-nine ninety-five–looks just like the real thing." 

(IRL, you can buy one for yourself online starting at about fifty bucks.)

Tracy's mother opens Dean Andy's eyes with a strained card trick metaphor, and his Hero's Quest continues. He goes on the offensive:  he finds the clinic where "Dr. Lillianfield" (aka Dr. Jed) worked and steals the address they have on file for him. (Again, possible plot problems:  what was Jed doing in this little hole-in-the-wall clinic in the first place? Pro-bono work under a false name?  Did he work there before he met Tracy (and while also pulling shifts at Mass General) or did they set up this cover for him once they hooked up, after meeting in another, unspecified way, so that they could create this fake back trail of her medical history...?)

That actually IS the Degas dancer you're looking for.

At "Dr. Lillianfield's" residence, Dean Andy finally spies the correct Degas statue–and something even more surprising, to him:  Jed Hill is there, too.

Dean Andy is pissed.

Back at home he is confronted with a smiling picture of his former wife, and allows his hurt and frustration and anger to get the better of him. He smashes Tracy's abandoned sundries. Among the broken items now scattered across the floor he finds a syringe. Momentarily losing his temper may have granted him an advantage...

The next morning, we see Dr. Jed in his second-most Sorkin-Baldwin-esque moment of the film. He and Tracy are having a victory stroll on the beach below their cliffside house, celebrating the impending settlement and their good fortune & general mean-spirited cleverness (presumably). Dr. Jed apparently celebrates by being kind of a total and patronizing dick about grammar.

In addition to his bottomless reservoir of ego, Dr. Jed also reveals in this scene his motivation for the scam. While Tracy is driven by a basic inborn insecurity and lust for money and control, Dr. Jed lusts for revenge. His bosses at the hospital never appreciated his talents, and he's making them pay for it. His ire leads him into felonious early retirement from medicine.

Back up at the house, they discover Dean Andy's declaration of war: the needle in the bed. Dr. Jed, naturally, is instantly able to divine its significance.

Next:  the meet. Tracy–the real Tracy–swaggers in to the restaurant where they have their confrontation, all pretenses dropped. At last they meet, for the first time, for the last time. She opens with an overt seduction, but Dean Andy's not having it, so she reverts a more businesslike demeanor. Tracy threatens him, but he pushes back:  "I'm running the show now!"  Andy had the drug inside the hypodermic contained Pergonal, which created the ovarian cysts Tracy suffered from. She asserts her deniability, but Dean Andy is supremely confident, bluffing her out about a witness who saw Dr. Jed giving her the injections.  The witness, he intimates, was the neighbor boy–and Tracy's suppressed fury makes her inadvertently shatter the wineglass in her fist.

And now the punchline: Dean Andy wants half.

Jed is keen to grant him his wish. When Tracy brings him the news at the cliffside house, he tries to convince her to pay him off so that they can all get on with their lives. "Give the guy the ten bucks and we leave the country." It's an interesting reaction; Dr. Jed is clearly not entirely heartless. He thinks Andy is a good guy and deserves the money for all they've put him through.

Tracy disagrees, suggesting that they just need to remove the kid from the equation, and then Andy has nothing to hold against them. Dr. Jed, for first time, is surprised.

TRACY: Without the kid Andy's just a guy who cracked under the strain.

JED: What?!

TRACY: Absolutely.

JED: Do you know what you're saying? ...He's a child.

TRACY: NO! He is a little fucking troll who deserves to be put out of his misery for fucking up my life!

This scene is some of their very best work together. Their emotion, their fraying chemistry, it's an amazingly intense moment. Dr. Jed tells her that he will go to the cops himself if she harms the neighbor boy, and she retorts, twice, with lead. Dr. Jed falls to the floor.

Alec Baldwin is really exceptional at the instant of Jed's death: the strangled little cry, the single tear, the perfect blend of physical and emotional pain.

Later, Tracy waits on the street outside the home she used to share with Andy. She makes a call from her carphone (wow, remember carphones?) to draw Dean Andy out, and then moves in to take out the kid and secure her future. She breaks into the house and sneaks upstairs, weapon in hand, but when she tries to wrap her sheet of clear plastic over the boy's face–it's not a real boy, it's a CPR dummy! Tracy goes crazy, slamming the prop around the room, and then attacking Dean Andy with it when he appears at the doorway.

Grappling, they break through the bannister and fall to the ground floor, where Detective Dana is waiting, sidearm drawn,"I wouldn't mind shooting you."  It's nice to see Neuwirth finally get to some real police work for a change–here at the very end. Tracy finally surrenders, and is eventually led outside in handcuffs. While's she's being put into the squad car, we get Malice's final twist: the little neighbor boy is blind, and didn't see a damn thing. Dean Andy and Detective Dana get a moment's respite as justice has been done.


Sorkinisms

In this film, we see the origination of what will become a classic Sorkin gem.  Two characters ping-pong a very specific interchange between them: in this case it is Alec Baldwin's Dr. Jed and Dr. Matthew Robertson, the junior surgeon at the hospital, played by David Bowe.

MATTHEW:  I'm not going to like you am I?

JED:  Don't be ridiculous! Everybody likes me.

We'll see this again in The West Wing. Also in that series, is another, more evocative turn of phrase from this same scene in Malice: "I'm going to take out your lungs with an ice cream scoop." An easy to visualize, if unnecessarily creative threat.

The final standout in Malice–which is only co-penned by Sorkin, thus the dearth of Sorkinisms–is said by Dr. Jed at the end of his epic God Monologue: "This sideshow is over."

THE MIGHTY SORKIN PLAYERS

There are several appearances in Malice of actors who will go on to other Sorkin projects.  First is Brenda Strong, who will play an important recurring role as Sally on Sports Night five years hence.  Second, is David Bowe, who also appeared as Cdr. Gibbs near the beginning of A Few Good Men.

And last–but never least–we have Joshua Malina, credited as "Resident," who shows up to give Dean Andy an update on Tracy's condition while she is in surgery. This role is a bit of a leap forward for a Malina cameo, as there's actual emoting involved, rather than simply a crisp, "Yes, Sir!"

So for character names, here's what we have so far on our running tally:

  • Andy––I
  • Dana––I
  • Daniel––I
  • Jed––I
  • Lillianfield––I
  • Matthew––II
  • Samuel––I
  • Whitaker––I
  • William––I

Dynamic Duo

There isn't much brotherhood in this film, compared to nearly every other Sorkin script.  Dr. Jed and Dean Andy have the closest thing to a best-pal-relationship, and that for maybe fifteen or twenty minutes of screen time, max.  Andy and Jed meet for a drink a couple of times, and Andy confides in him about Tracy's medical issues–but there's no history there, and certainly no true loyalty.  This becomes even more apparent when we look the pair from our last installment, Danny & Sam (and then again even more so if we look ahead, to The American President's Andy & A.J.)

Like Father, Like Son

Similarly, the paternalist theme so prevalent in A Few Good Men is all but absent here as well.  The only parents of the three main characters ever even mentioned are Tracy's.

I Go Home When You Go Home

Dean Andy has a very nice secretary in the form of Ms. Worthington (Diana Bellamy)

This is a much bigger role than the mysterious "Janelle" from our previous installment, with actual screen time in multiple scenes!  Bellamy plays Worthington as a bit world-weary, who maybe isn't as interested as helping the kids as Dean Andy is.  She does take good care of him and tolerates his facetiousness.


The Aaron Sorkin Rewatch Project will return with The American President...