Simon West (1999, Paramount Pictures)
Starring John Travolta, Madeleine Stowe, James Cromwell, and
An Army investigator searches for the murderer and potential
rapist of the daughter of a prominent general.
March 29th, 2002
An interesting mystery, coupled with decent acting and well-directed
What seems like a simple mystery is ratcheted up several notches at a time, and
becomes much more complex as the movie goes on. This is the sign of a good
mystery. We follow Paul Brenner as he tries to figure out the mess that this
investigation becomes, and we try, as well. I certainly wasn't successful, and
each revelation came as a shock to me. But Brenner is a good detective.
We know right away that there is something strange going on at this army base.
From the way the officers treat Paul and his partner Sara, from the General all
the way down, we know that they must be hiding something, perhaps many things.
I liked Paul, even though his fake southern accent was terrible. Thankfully,
once his undercover job was done, he dropped it. The previous job met with
marginal success only, as the person he was sending to jail was killed after
getting wind of his real identity as a criminal investigator. I wondered if that
job would come back to haunt him later, but aside from the sheriff (who kept
popping up whenever he wasn't wanted), that job was completely separate, there
only to show us what kind of an investigator he was. But I have mixed feelings
about how successful that plot was, also. It appears that he bungled that job,
but nobody has anything to say about it. And if the person who was being set up
found out who he was, how? Wouldn't he have a problem with that kind of leak?
After that job is finished, he is assigned to work another case, where the
General's daughter is killed, tied to stakes completely naked in a rape
position, strangled to death. But there is no sign of a rape, and the whole
setup seems very strange.
He visits several people on the Army base, including the general, who seems
rather sympathetic, even though he also doesn't look like he's mourning. The
answer to that lies in the tapes found in Elisabeth Campbell's basement, in a
hidden room. Along with the bondage equipment in that room, the tapes show how
Elisabeth dealt with her lovers, of whom there seemed to be many. She was having
violent sex with the entire company under her father, and was an embarrassment
to him. That was revelation number one, and it comes rather early in the film.
The second revelation comes with the best character in the film, Colonel Robert
Moore, played superbly by James Woods. He has a great grasp on the character,
and talks like a person who was really dealing with psychological warfare. He
has spirited debates and discussions with Brenner dealing with Elisabeth, who
worked for him. He knew about Elisabeth's many forays into the sexual world, but
was not one of them. He also knows the deepest secret that nobody will speak
about. His fingerprints are all over the scene of the crime, especially on
Elisabeth's clothing, which is found nearby. Still, he won't give up any
information, and is put in jail rather roughly by Brenner. That night, he was
released from jail and found dead in his home, an apparent suicide. Talking the
next day with another officer, Brenner figures out that Moore and this male
officer were lovers! It all fits, with the absolute certainty that Moore had
when assuring Brenner he was not on the sex tapes, to the careful dinner he was
cooking when he was put in jail. I certainly didn't see that one coming!
Brenner is convinced that Moore was killed; he did not commit suicide.
Brenner and Sara get the medical records that say Elisabeth did really well in
her first year at West Point military academy, but then had a terrible second
year. Speaking with the psychologist seems to yield nothing, but upon finding
out that Elisabeth was killed, he manages to "talk to himself", revealing lots
of information. It turns out that Elisabeth was gang raped in a field exercise
one night, left outside in the same way that she was found murdered on the army
base. The entire incident was covered up, and the general helped cover it up.
Elisabeth went downhill fast, both in marks and in personality. No wonder she
had bondage exercises with all the men on the base, and was forever trying to
get the general's attention.
The third big revelation comes when Brenner is told to close up the case. All
the top officers say that Moore obviously did it, since his fingerprints were
all over the place, and he shot himself. It is never clear who shot Moore. I
thought it was Fowler; he was certainly suspicious, but it could have also been
the actual murderer. Elisabeth conspired with Moore to tie her up naked like she
had been when she was raped. She called her father, to try and prove to him that
what she had experience actually happened. He showed up, but refused to be part
of it. He drove off, without even untying her. When Fowler showed up to "clean
up the situation", she was already dead. Fowler thinks the General killed his
daughter, but will cover it up at any cost. The General's face when Fowler makes
this known is priceless, and it is obvious that he didn't do it. But
suddenly Fowler's attitude makes sense! Brenner figures out that another
officer, who was helping him with the search, was the likely murderer.
His insight serves him well, as the man has already taken Sara out to a
minefield, and is ready to kill them all. Brenner arrives, but I wonder how the
man knew Brenner had figured it out. After all, he was scheduled to leave that
very day. The man ends up killing himself, but Brenner manages to save Sara. But
before he does that, he confesses everything, how he loved Elisabeth, but she
just wanted him for sex, and how she was stupid enough to make extremely rude
and angry gestures when being tied up naked, so he could have taken advantage of
her any way he wanted to, as is more likely, given the situation. Instead of
taking pleasure from her, he strangled her in his rage at being rejected. There
was no reason for him to really confess to the murder, but I suppose that he was
just too full of rage and guilt to keep quiet.
Sure, there were plenty of plot holes, but the movie was well made. The biggest
thing that I would change would be the use of complete confessions by people. It
didn't matter who it was, whenever a confession or description of the past came
up, we cut to a flashback, and the whole story was told in one shot. Maybe it
would have been better if Brenner started explaining it to Sara, or the other
way around, giving a summary of what the interviewed suspect said. It just seems
that everybody was reluctant to talk, and then, when threatened a little, opened
up in a gush of information. There has to be a better way.
The other thing that I didn't like was the smugness the producers had when
things went their way. The scene where this is most obvious is when Sara
interviews the soldier in the men's locker-room. That was a lot of fun,
especially his ego-trip turned sour. But when she throws the panties away in the
garbage right in front of him, telling him these were not Elisabeth's, it was a
pretty dumb move. Sure, he had already confessed, and it was fun to watch him
realize that he had confessed without a real threat, but in reality, she could
have easily been killed for doing that, even if she was an officer of the law.
In a fit of rage, this man could have jumped at her. It would have been better
for her to wait until she was clear, especially after the attack made on her on
the army test grounds the night before. You would think she would be more
But other than that, the characters were interesting, the mystery was
interesting and mysterious, and everyone was suspicious, for good reason.
Everybody had something to hide, but almost none of it pertained to the actual
murder. I liked the brave face that Brenner put on when charging the General
with negligence resulting in death by leaving his daughter there, and by setting
up the whole situation by covering up the rape back in her school. I wondered if
it was foolhardy, but the text that finishes up the movie says otherwise, since
the General was court-martialed. Going into this movie, I had reservations,
mainly because of John Travolta. But he did a good job, as did the others. There
was enough going on, enough clues and revelations, to make the movie worthwhile.