Perhaps best classified as an erotic thriller Red Letters is the story of a college professor, Dennis Burke, (Peter Coyote) that is forced to leave a Vermont university after an affair with a female student
There are many films out there being released on DVD that many collectors may not be aware of. These films are usually not big budget films. They are not what many people expect form DVDs but they are often worth viewing. One of these films is Red Letters.
Perhaps best classified as an erotic thriller Red Letters is the story of a college professor, Dennis Burke, (Peter Coyote) that is forced to leave a Vermont university after an affair with a female student. Although he is determined to make a fresh start, circumstances are far from conducive for that end. First, there is the dean’s daughter Gretchen (Fairuza Balk) who is so attracted to him that when she runs into him at a bar that she out right invites him to bed. (The language is much more graphic but you get the idea.) Then there is a pile of letters he finds for the former tenant of his apartment. He is in the middle of drinking himself into oblivion while marking the letters ‘return to sender’ when his drink soaks through one letter and he sees pictures of a young woman undressing. He begins to read the letters and soon finds himself writer to their author. It turns out that the letter writer is a convicted murder named Lydia (Nastassja Kinski). He winds up visiting her in prison and Lydia is convinced that Burke is in love with her. Lydia escapes from prison and in order to stay out of jail himself the professor must find the real killer for the murder Lydia was convicted of. Soon, Burke is on the road with a computer professor/hacker Thurston (Jeremy Piven) and Gretchen. Running from the detective out to catch them (Ernie Hudson), the motley crew of fugitives must solve the case and restore order! Complicated, yes it is, perhaps a bit too complicated for a movie of this caliber.
The acting here is a bit strained even though the actors themselves are very talented as seen in their other films. Coyote is a bit too understated in his role as Burke. For all the trouble this character finds himself in, the script does not lead up to it well enough, it just plops him into the fray. The only real background on the character of Burke comes from the very first scene where a beautiful young student is reading to him while sitting naked on his desk. Seemingly out of the blue she announces that she is filing a sexual harassment charge against him. Perhaps if Coyote had more to work with in the script he could have risen to the usual level of talent he is capable of displaying. Kinski is very good as the semi-insane Lydia. She sells the role well, a young woman who found herself in jail for life for something she didn’t do. Balk is normally a strange actress. Her choice in roles is always interesting and grabs the audience’s attention. Here, there is just not enough of her performance. She could have added a lot more to Red Letters if she was permitted to display a quirkier character with Gretchen. The supporting cast of Hudson and Piven were a bit better. Piven was perfectly cast as the hacker professor while Hudson’s role was all too unbelievable at the end.
The director, Bradley Battersby is rather new to mainstream film making. Red Letters is only his third film. He should keep trying. He has talent but his direction needs some work. The scenes are well set, the lighting is very imaginative but the pace drags at several points. The commentary points out that he used blues in Vermont and more yellow colors on the west coast, to signify the old world feel of the east coast in contrast to the newer attitudes of the west. While this is all well and good the theme was not carried to the point where it would become significant to the audience. If the lighting had changed with the mood of the film, perhaps becoming darker as it moved along, it would have added a lot to the flow of Red Letters.
The Red Letters DVD was well authored. The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic, clean and free of defect or artifact. The audio is a usually well-balanced Dolby 5.1. There are some scenes where the sub woofer overwhelms the rest of the sound field. The commentary is well done and interesting, making a second watching generally worth while. Still, there are much better thrillers out there. Red Letters is interesting but falls just short of its well intended mark. Review by Doug MacLean of hometheaterinfo.com
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