Before there were sparkly vampires, there was 1998’s Twilight, an elegiac neo-noir directed by Robert Benton and starring Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, and Gene Hackman. The film also features strong supporting work from a cast of all-star character actors including Margo Martindale, James Garner, Giancarlo Esposito, and M. Emmet Walsh. Most of the actors portray a kind of weariness–they’re playing characters who understand all too well that they’re a little past their prime, who are living with the legacies of choices they made a long time ago. Reese Witherspoon and Liev Schreiber are younger, and they have a kind of appealing rawness to them here; Witherspoon’s rich girl has a heart-in-throat combination of innocence and knowingness (she reminds me a little of Audrey Horne, which is always good), and Schreiber is all ragged edges, his dumbness not quite masking his naïveté. Everyone, in short, is good, but the highlights are Newman and Garner, whose performances, as the friend I watched this with pointed out, feel like distant sequels to their earlier starring roles as detectives.
Effectively, Twilight is about how you live what you–and those around you–have done, and how you–or others–don’t, dying in the name of it instead. It combines that very smoothly with an F. Scott Fitzgerald-like understanding of the emotional privileges of wealth.
The film centers on Harry (Newman), a somewhat washed-up private detective who has become a live-in gofer for a family of aging Hollywood royalty: the terminally ill Jack (Hackman), the quietly alluring Catherine (Sarandon), and their daughter, Mel (Witherspoon). Jack and Catherine originally hired Harry to fetch seventeen-year-old Mel home from Mexico, where she’d run off with Jeff (Schreiber), and since Harry was shot in the process, he’s mostly retired from detective work. He keeps Jack entertained, pines for the casually flirtatious Catherine, and runs errands–until one day Jack asks him to run a peculiar one. That task opens up can of worms after can of worms, revealing a snarl of blackmail plots and old sins.
While the real masterpiece of the film is a long, tense conversational near the end, a weighted and brilliantly scripted showdown that combines all the film’s strengths, there’s no more succinct blow than the one Mel delivers to a Harry who still has a few illusions: “You think you’re a member of this family, but you’re not. You’re just the hired help.”
Twilight is available for free with Amazon Prime.