Heroine of Hell

A Film by Nietzchka Keene

Keene and Keener on Punishment in an Age of Political Correctness

Rebecca Webb
University of Minnesota
Masters of Liberal Studies Program

If you were anguished by the sight of your recent lover ensconced in happiness with another, could you jump into the car he left running in the driveway and take off?

Sure you could.

That's what separates Nietzchka Keene's HEROINE OF HELL from independent thrillers like SHALLOW GRAVE. It's more involving to watch a film where the actions of the central character (Magda) are intrepid enough to be compelling, reasonable enough to be enlightening, and realistic enough to be believable. "I could do that!" the viewer thinks. Yes, you could. And maybe you should.

Magda is a watercolorist with visions of hell and a knack for disseminating pertinent punishment in her quest for an ordered world. As the film begins she's suffering the termination of a platonic but sexual relationship with Michael. When Michael fails to call her, she leaves a vision on his answering machine depicting the hellacious conditions awaiting sinners and "those who don't answer their messages" and concludes, "Thus I suggest you call me."

Michael is amenable to maintaining a friendship but refuses to be sexually unfaithful to his new girlfriend. The punishment for this rejection is grand theft auto; a devastated Magda steals his car to leave town.

Now Magda knows and eventually acknowledges that Michael hasn't really done anything wrong. But her plan to return the car is stalled by a series of truly punishable offenses including cruelty, greed, adultery, and murder.

HEROINE OF HELL's plot starts hopping when a road-tripping Magda discovers a car burning by the road. The charred driver's hand extends in the direction of a briefcase containing a charmingly blurred photo of his love. When Magda tries to return the photo to his widow, Margaret, she refuses it. A little spying reveals a man roaming nude in Margaret's house. The house is for sale, so Magda arranges for a showing while Margaret is away and swipes a housekey from a kitchen drawer.

Margaret returns to find a mural of hell painted on her bedroom wall.

Her unruffled, straightforward reaction (after the initial shock) confirms the appropriateness of Magda's extremism. Margaret meets the onslaught of calls, drawings and home redecoration with the composure of one who understands the value of action in an over-compromised world. She asks Magda simply, "Why?"

"Because you didn't want your photo back."

The core of this film is revealed as Magda and Margaret talk, plan, and act. Magda explains to Margaret that her depictions are inspired by medieval sources rather than organized religion and reflect a desire for "spiritual justice for what we really are." "So hell is a wish," summarizes Margaret, who understands the nobility in accountability.

The photo Magda found is not a picture of Margaret.

Validating these women's perspective is their acknowledgement of their own misconduct born of a "wish to be loved too much." But Magda sifts and separates justified rage from cold-blooded selfishness and together she and Margaret find a way to move humanity a bit closer to utopia.

Catherine Keener is proficient as usual at the savvy tartness also required of her in her DiCillo vehicles. But her shining moments are those of wet-eyed trembling when Magda suffers the consequences of integrity, the self-endangerment that results from battling corruption. Most actors portray "life endangered" with a controlled, tense, terror-induced body stiffening that aims for (and usually misses) high drama. But Keener shuns the routine choices and instead conveys, through her very breathing, the changes in bodily rhythm that accompany a threat to survival. These are impressive scenes that serve the film's vision well. But my favorite Keener moment comes when Magda tries to talk Margaret out of a mortal overreaction. Instead of going for the hysterics that often bring acting awards, she uses the tone of a controlled but firm parent instructing a naughty five-year-old: "Don't shoot him. Margaret, don't shoot him!"

Keene or Keener might have been well-advised to use the same tone on Keener's husband and co-star, Dermot Mulroney, who plays Magda's short-term rebound squeeze, Callum. Perhaps Keener's presence makes Mulroney nervous. His performance is not as focused as another recent small-but-quality boyfriend role, Sam, in HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT. This is surprising given the quality of Mulroney's efforts in indie vehicles like WHERE THE DAY TAKES YOU or BRIGHT ANGEL. And it's not like he didn't have good dialog to work with.

CALLUM: What else are you drawing?
MAGDA: Hell. See?
CALLUM: Is this an ad for a fancy barbecue?
MAGDA: It's a punishment for murderers.
CALLUM: Who are your lucky models?
MAGDA: Just people around.
CALLUM: So I don't have to kill my mother to be in one of your pictures?
MAGDA: No. But it would help.
CALLUM: Sell me a drawing. Sell me a small one, one I can afford. Sell me this one.
CALLUM: Why not?
CALLUM: Why the hell not?

But they have fun with their "meeting-in-a-bar" dialog and their small moments work well, like Magda slapping away Callum's hand for playing with the knobs on her recording equipment.

Callum is cute and sweet, and he is referred to as "good" more than once, but his desire to continue an intimate relationship with Magda despite disapproving of her extreme actions compromises his admirability. Magda rejects him. In the end she pairs up with the person willing to aid her in her mission...in public, no less.


The author wishes to thank Gail Loeber at the Independent Television Service for her assistance.

I can be reached via e-mail at:
Last Modification: February 1997
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