Double Jeopardy and The Crazy 90s Crime Thriller

Hello, everyone! I’ve found myself watching a lot of 90s movies recently, from rom-com classics like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, to action thrillers like The Fugitive. Each decade can more or less be boiled down to one theme; the 70s emphasized auteur cinema, the 80s invented the blockbuster, etc. But trying to pin down the 90s is harder. What sticks out to me is its cynical appreciation of the shocking, scandalous, and totally ridiculous. The 90s was the perfect time for the tawdry female-led crime thriller, the type of movie that bends the reality of the justice system in order to tell salacious stories about violence and vengeance. Think Fatal Attraction, Sleeping With the Enemy, and Basic Instinct. The film that exemplifies the genre might be the Ashley Judd vehicle Double Jeopardy, a movie so absurd, yet so amusing, that I couldn’t stop watching. It has everything: adultery, murder, car chases, rich people, a fundamental misunderstanding of the American legal system, and a balls-to-the walls confidence that will keep you hooked. It’s the type of movie that makes you wonder if the 90s might not be be the best decade in cinematic history after all.

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Look at that hair!

Synopsis: Libby and Nick Parsons are a happily married couple living with their son Matty in Whidbey Island, Washington. During a romantic sailing getaway, Libby wakes to find herself covered with blood and realizes that Nick has disappeared. Despite Libby’s protestations of innocence, she is charged and convicted of her husband’s murder. While calling her son from prison one day, Libby hears her son speak to “Daddy” and realizes that her husband is still alive. A friend informs her of the “double jeopardy” rule, explaining that since Libby has already been convicted of Nick’s murder, she can kill him for real when she gets out of prison and get away scot-free, as the rule prevents anyone from being tried for the same charge twice. Determined to get her son back, and make Nick pay for his misdeeds, a newly-freed Libby sets off on a path of vengeance, but runs into trouble when she crosses her over-zealous parole officer.

My thoughts: Reading this synopsis, you might be wondering how a rule like “double jeopardy” works in the real world. Can people really go murder someone if they’ve already been tried and convicted for that murder? The answer, of course, is no, that’s not how it works at all. Now I’m no lawyer, but what I understand about the United States’ application of the rule is that double jeopardy prevents a defendant from being re-tried for a charge that has been definitively concluded, whether that conclusion was a conviction or an acquittal. So if Libby was convicted of killing her husband Nick on a boat, she can’t be re-tried for that same offense a second time. But if Libby tries to kill Nick again on a different day, or in a different way, it’s a completely different crime. You don’t get a “get out of jail free” card just because your husband faked his own death and framed you for his murder.

Double jeopardy is the name of the film and the driving force of the plot, which means from the very beginning, this film is rooted in nonsense. I would be willing to “suspend my disbelief” for the insane misinterpretation of the rule in this case if the rest of the film made any sense, but being a 90s crime thriller, it obviously doesn’t. Apparently noted 90s A-listers Meg Ryan, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Brooke Shields all turned down the role, as well as Jodie Foster, who disagreed with the director Bruce Beresford about the film on an intellectual level, before she too turned down the role. After watching this film, I think all four of those women made the right choice. This movie is like criminal revenge for dummies.

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Nothing Libby does in this movie makes any sense. After serving six years in prison, she is sent to a halfway house to serve out her parole for three years. All she must do to avoid being sent back to jail is refrain from committing crimes and keep to an 8:30PM curfew. Parole officer Tommy Lee Jones, who is the best part of this movie and any movie, makes it very clear that he doesn’t give second chances. So what does Libby do immediately after leaving prison? Break into a school on Whidbey Island and break her curfew! She is quickly arrested and returned to Tommy Lee Jones’ custody, and they take the ferry back to the mainland.

“All you had to do was wait three years. That’s all. You fucking idiot.” says Tommy Lee Jones. Libby retorts back that Jones can’t imagine what it feels like to be separated from your child for six years, and then five minutes later, crashes their car off of the ferry into the bay. At about this point in the film, I was starting to realize that Tommy Lee Jones might be right about Libby being a “fucking idiot.”

What ensues over the next 50 minutes is the dumbest game of cat and mouse you will ever see in a film. Imagine Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, except if he kept crashing his enormous green pickup truck into random cars and got locked in a coffin by his own fake-dead husband. Libby’s goal is to find her son and kill her husband, but she fails miserably at every turn and only manages to succeed at both enterprises through what seems like sheer luck and plot magic. All in all, it’s such a dumb film that I lost a few brain cells trying to wrap my head around the twisted logic. I still loved every bit of it.

Double Jeopardy is the type of film that could only have been made in the 90s. Despite its absurd plot, it has a level of insane confidence that almost tricks the viewer into believing that it’s a good movie. Additionally, it contains hallmarks of America’s changing cultural landscape: feminism in its cheesiest, most embryonic stage, ham-fisted jabs at an imperfect criminal justice system, and an inside look at the cynical realities of excessive wealth and materialism. The movie may be as subtle as a pickup truck crashing into an art gallery, but it’s a memento to the collective consciousness of the time period. Women, crime, and money were on the brain, and Double Jeopardy fits it all into a zany, jam-packed 90 minutes. It’s a perfect ode to the era, and a perfect introduction to the silly seedy world of 90s crime thrillers. Now I just need to know what to watch next.

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