Boxing Helena (1993) is an extremely divisive film with very little discussion surrounding it. In the realm of controversial films such titles like I Spit On Your Graves (1978), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Natural Born Killers (1994), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and other such films draw plenty of film lovers (and sometime an uninformed outsider) sharing conflicting viewpoints, and sometime ideology gets thrown into the fold. These are the kind of films that make you ask if a film can go too far. Obviously the answer is yes they can go too far. I draw this conclusion with my experience with the 2012 Ron Morales film’s Graceland which briefly had full frontal nudity of minors. However, such cases are extremely rare as I go years without even thinking a film has gone too far with its material. You might be wondering where exactly Boxing Helena stands in terms of controversy? If we’re purely talking about the content in the film than it’s nothing special. It’s simply an experimental indie film that went to the mainstream public with a traditional Hollywood studio treatment resulting in extreme divided reaction towards the film.
Boxing Helena tells the story of an Atlanta surgeon Nick Cavanaugh (played by Julian Sands) dangerous obsession with Helena (played by Sherilyn Fenn), a woman he had a one night stand with. This is the kind of film where knowing specific parts of the story will spoil the experience on first time viewing. That sounds like a no brainer, but you’ll be amazed how many reviews for Boxing Helena from paid professionals, and amateur reviewers online basically give away 42 minutes worth material. This plot point is usually given away in synopsis (if the review has one) when the film is reviewed. That’s not even including the possible hundreds of film sites that also give away a major plot point that should be have been a surprise instead of just given away in a synopsis. Before hand, I of course went on IMDb to check what the film premise was about, and unintentionally spoiled something that should have been shocking, but instead I didn’t expect for the film to take 1/3 to get to that point. I read about the film Boxing Helena before going on IMDb when checking up a list of controversial films (I occasionally like a challenge in discussing a film) so that’s what sold me on it. However, I advise anyone who has an interest in seeing this film to be cautious when reading reviews on this film. If it sounds like a synopsis, just skip it, and read whatever left in the written review. Best advice I could give to go into this as blindly as possible.
On to the actual meat of discussion in Boxing Helena story. The story is slow moving while introducing interesting concepts in the first act. Nick Cavanaugh is shown being neglected by his mother at a party, and not being affected much by his mother death as an adult by leaving his mother funeral early. Raising a question of what kind of relationship Nick had with his mother? To bad the film almost immediately stopped poking around with the idea. Last time Nick mother has anything to do with the story is a hallucination where Nick sees his naked mother in an attempt to imply they had an unhealthy relationship, but how far it went is uncertain. It’s a “connect the loose dot” form of writing done badly when there’s little foundation to connect concrete information given to the viewer. What’s concrete is Nick had a trouble relationship with his mother, but everything else in association to that is kept vague. There isn’t enough to make the connection between Nick relationship with his mother, and the type of woman he’s attracted to come off as viable. At best, it’s imaginative speculation, but at worse making something significant out of something that ain’t there to be found.
In terms of characters they’re just plot devices. To an extent all characters can be considered plot devices, but there are capable writers who are able to masked this. Jennifer Lynch was not able too. I wouldn’t need to count on my hand the amount of characters that were fleshed in this movie because they don’t exist. All supporting characters are basically one trait exacerbated too inconvenient Nick. In the film, Nick has a girlfriend, Anne Garett (played by Betsy Clark) whom he just has a relationship with. If the film dabble a bit on Nick obsession perhaps being greater than his love for Anne there would have been a point to Anne in the film. Anne, much like the implications of Nick troublesome relationship with his mother, provides little in the way of something concrete to confirm themes, and ideas. In one of the very few scene Anne is in she treats Nick in a motherly way. As mentioned before, there’s speculation to be had that Nick might have a thing for women that remind him of his mother, but there’s not enough established about the characters to make it more than mere speculation.
The loose dots could have been remedied halfway with Dr. Lawrence Augustine who is played by Art Garfunkel…I don’t know why he just is in the movie. It’s mentioned briefly that Lawrence helped with Nick on his obsession with Helena, the woman Nick had a one stand with, but to what extent is kept vague. All the viewer is told about Nick mother is that she’s neglectful, and in one instance of the film Nick see’s an image of his mother when Helena is choking him. Does that mean that Nick had an abusive, or perhaps had sexual relation with his mother? The viewer will never know since there is nothing much to Nick’s mother, nor does Dr. Lawrence provide much insight as a friend of Nick. You think Art Garfunkel, of all people to have been cast, would have imparted on Nick some wisdom about relationship, but that’s the sound of silence.
Another plot device comes in the form of Ray O’Malley played by Bill Paxton. Ray O’Malley is more of a possessive friend with benefits who loves having sex with Helena. Ray contribute slightly to the film’s story, but then there’s the ending which undoes virtually all his contribution in the film. For Helena who is the other main character on the other hand, throughout the film she does speak about how almost every man she comes across only love her for her looks. Helena is played by Sherilyn Fenn who is stunning in the film which makes such an idea easy to swallow. Her personality on the other hand has little to dig into as for most of the film she’s verbally, and physically fighting against Nick possessive nature over her. This mostly due to the fact that the film’s ending once again undoing what development, and characterization the viewer thought there was in the film. So Helena fears to commit to a relationship through her arc means nothing in the end. In particular, if Helena arc did mean something than it would require an incredible amount of disbelief that two people experience the same exact thing while unconscious.
The ending to Boxing Helena is single handedly the most polarizing aspect about it. It’s so fundamental to how viewers perceive their overall view on the film it’ll change your perspective into an extreme. On one hand it could simply be viewed as a cautionary tale of an obsessed doctor psyche. However, since the ending rewrites the rules it makes it come off as clueless writing when scenes not involving Nick Cavanaugh are shown to the viewers. The twist ending, despite how much it undoes still retains Nick Cavanaugh characterization, and can still be viewed as cautionary tale of being incapable to overcome his obsession. A character in the film, due to this ending, basically stroke Nick Cavanaugh ego as being a superior man holds some weight. However, because of the ending many of the implied themes, and ideas have even less of a foundation to be more than mere speculation. As you can probably tell by this review the film’s ending makes a non-spoiler review challenging to write around.
Julian Sands stars in the film to good, and bad degree of acting. The good being Julian Sands is able to make his character come off as a truly pathetic person, and the bad being the material doesn’t make his character sympathetic. Another good in Julian Sands performance are some of the heavier dramatic scene that requires a burst of anger, or subdue emotion he pulls off. There’s a scene of Julian Sands with Sherilyn Fenn out on the porch in heavy rain. Sands yells at Fenn character to scream out for help, but also in the same scene he’s still comes across as vulnerable despite having power over Fenn character. A bad side to some of Sands dialogue delivery is he’s unintentionally hilarious. One moment that stands out in goofy delivery is when Sands says Helena as desperately as he can before Helena experience an accident. On the whole, Sands performance could be considered positive with occasional mishaps along the way.
Sherilyn Fenn also stars opposite of Julian Sands for a majority of the film. While the film does rely heavily on her looks, and pulls of creating a sorta seductive aura around her. Fenn comes off convincingly in later scenes too that rely less on her looks. Unlike the rest of the cast, Fenn is slowly given limitation to her performance preventing her from being as expressive as the other cast. Yet, she’s still able to be convincing in her role coming off as vulnerable, and strong. A downside to this is most of the time she’s constantly screaming her lines, and doesn’t have as many vulnerable scenes compared to Sands. It doesn’t help either that there isn’t much to Fenn character either so Fenn gradually changing into a different person sadly go to waste due to context of the film.
The only other noteworthy performance comes from Bill Paxton who dress up like a dated, 90s greaser in the film. Aside from his silly appearances, Bill Paxton only appears in four scenes, and is silly in all of them. He hams it up in his short screen time, and makes an impression. The other supporting actors in the film are fully onenote. Art Garfunkel doesn’t do much in terms of range, Betsy Clark doesn’t do much either with her time, and Kurtwood Smith despite playing his small part well won’t stay with you because once again, very limited screen time. Also, since it’s wholly a serious movie the whole supporting cast performances eventually mesh with each other being indistinguishable from one another.
Jennifer Lynch direction is fine for a first a time director. There are certain shots that are questionable in the way they’re frame. For example, there’s a scene of Julian Sands looking out at the front of his Mansion garden, and is unable to see a clearly visible crouching Bill Paxton behind some branches. It makes you wonder how Sands wasn’t able to see Bill Paxton when he’s as visible as he is. Another bad shot is when Helena is hit by a car, and lingering on it for too long exposes the bad effects used in the moment. Jennifer Lynch was both subtle, and heavy handed with some of her imagery. Heavy handed when cutting to a bird in cage whenever Fenn is failing to escape the grasp of Julian Sands. The subtle imagery comes in how very selective shots are framed to make it appear it’s actor are stuck in boxes. As for anything else I would say the selection of music is fitting, but none of the original music stands out. A lot of the music choices are orchestrated pieces with rare inclusion of insert tracks. The only piece of music that stands out is a cover of Bonnie Raitt “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Venice. To Lynch credit, it fits perfectly into what she was trying to get across in her film.
This would usually be the end of the review with me posting my closing thoughts, but there’s still one other thing left to talk about, and that’s the ludicrous statement that this film is sexist towards women. The criticism came from the 90s when it was release, but as of the moment of this review being posted it’s as relevant as ever. Labeling this a male power fantasy is silly since Helena is constantly fighting back against her captor for the entire film. Helena wants nothing to do with Nick, even when holds her captive, and Nick is doing anything to prevent her from escaping. If anything, it’s actually against power fantasies since Helena fight every chance she gets. Nick isn’t rewarded for his action which is proven by the film’s ending. Another thing that disproves the film so call “sexism” is Nick does not enjoy obsessing over a woman he had a night stand with. In his own words regarding his obsession, “I’m still haunted for my love for her”. Even if I take into account the way the film is shot it’s still part of Nick character whose otherworldly attraction to Helena is presented by those images, and having seen the film entirely Nick does not enjoy seeing Helena the way he does. It’s negative for his mindset, and negative in his life. Just imagine if the film were to be release in 2016, and it would have caused a far greater riot. I clearly don’t think highly of Boxing Helena, but there’s one thing that Jennifer Lynch didn’t come across when directing her film, and that was sexist.
Boxing Helena I see as a lost opportunity. Beneath the many faults I do feel if handled by a more experience director could have been great. By a first time director, Jennifer Lynch lacked the experience she needed to pull off such an experimental project, and couldn’t reach the high mark she set for herself. None of this is further evident with the ending, and scenes that go against the notion of the ending. Much like its title character, the film itself is trapped in a metaphorical box, but instead of going outside of the box, and sticking to it guns with an ending that would have garner it some respect, even among some detractors. It’s ending plays it safe which goes along with abstract theme of society putting people in boxes, but at the cost of giving the impression Boxing Helena is not worth taking out of its box, even among the more “artsy” film lovers.
Side Stuff: Casting Controversy
There’s also the controversy of casting when it comes to this film. I read one review that made a joke out of it for a closing statement. Granted I wanted to do the same, but someone else beat me to the punch. Originally Madonna was meant to play the part of Helena, but dropped out due to unexplained reasons. Afterwards, Kim Basinger was set to star, but once again stepped down from the role. Unlike Madonna, Kim Basinger exit from the film caused her to go to court, and file for bankruptcy. Her exit from the film cost to pay around, allegedly, $9 million dollars to the film’s producer. Given that Kim Basinger would win best supporting actress four years in 1997 L.A. Confidential I doubt Kim Basinger regret passing up on Boxing Helena.
Sources (this side content):
LA Times: http://articles.latimes.com/1993-08-29/entertainment/ca-29280_1_david-lynch
Backup Link for source: https://web.archive.org/web/20160906193722/http://www.ew.com/article/1993/04/09/boxing-helenas-controversies