Robert Altman has been breaking the sound barrier since he first started making movies 30 years ago. His use of overlapping dialogue has confused some, thrilled the rest of us and influenced any number of younger directors. And his use of ambient sound--the actual sounds that surround us, which we both notice and don't--has brought a musique-concrete verisimilitude to American cinema. Altman's The Gingerbread Man, which is based on a story by John Grisham, might have been a standard Hollywood movie; that's certainly what Polygram was expecting. Instead, the director of M*A*S*H and Nashville has turned in an audiovisual masterwork in which the herky-jerky mumbo-jumbo of the movie's technique reflects the moral swamp that its lead character is trapped in.
Kenneth Branagh is Rick Magruder, a Savannah, Georgia, criminal lawyer who fancies himself a ladies' man. It's a lady--Embeth Davidtz's Mallory Doss--who lures Magruder into the mire of kidnapping and murder that passes for business-as-usual in Grisham's New South. The movie's plot is pretty much an open-and-shut case, but Altman refuses to see it that way. Like a magician, he distracts us from the story's weaknesses with whirls of cinematic hocus-pocus. The camerawork, which alternates between tricky pans and static long-shots, evokes both a prowler and a surveillance camera that tracks the prowler. Branagh is surprisingly effective as a noir sap who gets left out in the rain, but it's the rain--a movie-climaxing hurricane--that seems to have caught Altman's eye...and ear.