Color of Night (1994)

Directed by Richard Rush. Written by Billy Ray and Matthew Chapman.

You don’t need a medical degree to see that Color of Night is a mess, as Bruce Willis tries to broaden his acting range in this steamy thriller about a therapist who looks to solve the mystery of who killed his friend and colleague by taking over his therapy group wherein the murder hides.

Director Rush, writers Ray and Chapman and composer Dominic Frontiere try to drive you mad switching styles, but the result is like a broken radio where the dial is going all over the place and soon the entire road trip’s ruined with the noise of trying to find something worth listening to.   

Frontiere’s music is emblematic of the stylistic folly, as it includes a bombastic orchestral score for moments of suspense and action, sweaty synths for moments of suspense and a glockenspiel leitmotif for the group therapy scenes, which frankly feels like uncouth mocking of the patients. 

Color of Night certainly won’t ring true with mental health practitioners when it comes to both treatment and depiction of mental illness. At least the film’s a benchmark for us to see how far we’ve come in terms of de-stigmatization of things like gender dysphoria, obsessive disorders and grief in general, because the film makes everyone out to be a suspect based on the fact they’re neurodivergent and it takes the most reductive approach to their conditions.  

It’s a harebrained plot, and in general, Color of Night is an insult to its audience’s intelligence, both in light of the above, but also in the inevitable (and endlessly predictable) twists in the story. Strange to see a film that thinks it’s slick be anything but, and before you’re done, the film will have tried your patience by going from sleek, to steamy, to downright bananas.

On paper, however, you’d be drawn in by the possibility of seeing Willis expand his resume beyond the action hero antics he’s famous for. Coming out in 1994, this is him entering his prime as a star, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that a role as a psychologist would see him get into some real acting that relies more on sensitivity than spectacle. But alas, like gravity, action finds Willis and he’s subsequently found out as the action hero he undeniably is with chase sequences, fights, and more. Too bad for Willis, really too bad for us as it’s another reason why Color of Night loses you.

There’s actual a solid supporting cast slugging through things alongside Willis in the shape of Brad Dourif and Lance Henriksen as members of the therapy group (why a group therapy would be considered the cause of action for people all dealing with different disorders is never explained) and Henriksen even does some genuine acting at one point, which is almost the most shocking thing about Color of Night

All this reminds you of the wasted potential of what could’ve been if both script and direction could live up to the talent on screen. In 1980, Rush directed The Stunt Man, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. He then went 14 years before getting back in the director’s chair. The result was Color of Night. It earned him a Razzie nomination, known as the anti-Oscar. It was his last feature film. 

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