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Dusty: To be normal, to drink Coca-Cola and eat Kentucky Fried Chicken is to be in a conspiracy against yourself.
Comment: Just review the movie, dude.
Director: Richard Donner
Writers: Brian Helgeland
Stars: Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, Patrick Stewart
Release Date: August 8, 1997 (United States)
Run time: 2 hour, 15 minutes
Conspiracy-theorist and New York City taxi driver Jerry Fletcher continually expounds his ideas to Alice Sutton, a lawyer at the Justice Department. She humors him because he once saved her from a mugging, but is unaware he spies on her at her home. Her own work is to solve the mystery of her father’s murder. Seeing suspicious activity everywhere, Jerry identifies some men as CIA workers, follows them into a building, and is captured. The interrogator injects Jerry with LSD and questions him using torture. Jerry experiences terrifying hallucinations and flashbacks, panics, and manages to escape by incapacitating the interrogator by biting his nose and kicking him.
Later, after being captured again, Jerry is handcuffed to a hospital bed and forced into a drug-induced sleep. Alice visits, and Jerry persuades her to switch his chart with the criminal in the next bed or he will be dead by morning. When Alice returns the next day, the criminal is dead, allegedly from a heart attack. The CIA, FBI and other agencies are there, led by CIA psychiatrist Dr. Jonas, whose nose is bandaged. Meanwhile, Jerry fakes a heart attack and, with Alice’s help, escapes again and later hides in Alice’s car. While Alice and FBI Agent Lowry are examining Jerry’s personal items, the CIA arrive and confiscate everything. She declines Lowry’s offer to work with her, and later finds Jerry hiding in her car. They leave the hospital and, on the way to Jerry’s apartment, Jerry explains someone is likely following her. Trying to avoid a car chase, Alice switches lanes and stops, finding out that that someone is Lowry, she convinces him to leave her until she has more information to give him and he drives away. They go inside Jerry’s well secured apartment, where he tells her about the conspiracy newsletter he produces.
Just when Alice has decided Jerry is crazy, a SWAT team breaks in. Jerry sets everything on fire and they leave through his elaborate secret trapdoor exit. In the room below, there is a large mural on the wall, which features both Alice on her horse and the triple smokestacks of the Ravenswood Generating Station. As Jerry’s apartment is burning, Jerry and Alice escape, with Jerry disguised as a firefighter to avoid suspicion. The pair go to her apartment, where Jerry accidentally reveals he had been watching her. Upon hearing this, Alice kicks him out of her apartment. On the street below, Jerry confronts Lowry and his partner staking out her place, and he warns them at gunpoint not to hurt her. After being tracked to a bookstore, Jerry sees operatives rappelling down from black helicopters and hides in a theater, escaping by causing a panic by saying “Bomb!”
Alice calls each person on Jerry’s newsletter mailing list and finds that all have recently died, except one. Jerry uses a ruse to get her out of the office, and then immobilizes the operatives watching her. During their escape, he tells her that he fell in love with her at first sight, then flees on a subway train when she brushes off his feelings. She goes to see the last surviving person on the subscription list, and finds that it is Jonas. He tells her that Jerry was brainwashed using techniques developed by Dr. Jonas at Project MKUltra to become an assassin and was stolen by another party, which only Jerry can identify. He also claims that Jerry killed her father. She agrees to help find Jerry, who sends her a message to meet him. He ditches the agents following them with a pre-arranged car transfer, and he drives her to her father’s private horse stables in Connecticut. Meanwhile, Alice secretly calls her office so that Jonas can track her phone. At the stables, Jerry remembers that he was sent to kill her father, but found that he could not and had become his friend instead. Jerry tells Alice that he had promised to watch over her before the judge was killed by another assassin. Jonas’ men capture Jerry, kill her hierarchical superior and attempt to kill or capture her without success.
Having escaped, Alice brings Lowry to the offices where she met Jonas, which they find cleared out. She then forces him at gunpoint to admit that he is not from the FBI, but from a “secret agency that watches the other agencies”. He says that they have been using the unwitting Jerry to uncover and stop Jonas. Alice goes to the site of the Ravenswood Generating Station smokestacks from Jerry’s mural and sees a mental hospital next door. There she hears and talks to Jerry through a vent, and an attendant she had bribed shows her to an unused wing. She breaks in and finds Jerry. As Jonas catches them, Lowry arrives with his men and attacks Jonas’ men. Jerry attempts to drown Jonas, but is shot by Jonas from underwater. Alice, who has regained consciousness after being knocked out, then shoots Jonas eleven times. After killing Jonas, Alice tells Jerry that she loves him before he is taken away in an ambulance. Some time later, a grieving Alice visits Jerry’s grave and leaves a pin that he had given her. She returns to riding her horse that she had stopped riding after her father’s murder. While watching Alice from a car with Lowry, Jerry, whose death and burial had been faked by the secret agency, keeps to his agreement to not contact her until all of Jonas’ other subjects are caught. As they drive away singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You“, Alice finds the pin she had left at Jerry’s “grave” attached to her saddle, and smiles as she continues riding.
It will come as a surprise to anyone who knows me well that I somehow avoided this film until now. Conspiracy Theory contains subject matter right up my alley and a tense plot that includes machinations of the FBI, the CIA, the DOJ, a secret “uncle” intel agency, and Project MK-Ultra. More than two decades after its release, these organizations are arguably even less trusted today than they were in the 1990s. In fact, MK-Ultra, an actual program run by U.S. Intel for decades – remains a point of discussion in popular culture (along its fringes, at least) and many celebrities and killers continue to be accused of being a victim of the program.
The subject matter alone is not really why this movie works, though. Richard Donner’s film is an efficiently told thriller, with very few lulls from beginning to end. The story is clever, too, with writer Brian Helgeland crafting a screenplay that is funny, intense, and mysterious – keeping the audience guessing all the way up to the credits.
Mel Gibson’s performance as Jerry is outstanding. His character has to be a lot of things at once. Jerry is incredibly intelligent, funny, emotionally unraveled, highly prepared and self-collected at all times, despite his emotional upheaval, his moods shift, as does the sense of physical threat he poses to those around him, and a lot of his lines throughout the movie are delivered with something of a stutter. Oh yeah, and in addition to all of that, Jerry is also deeply human and sympathetic. If you want someone to play “crazy” Mel Gibson is your guy. Julia Roberts was also excellent as Alice, the tough, intelligent, and warm DOJ attorney, dealing with her own personal tragedy, who finds herself on a journey with Gibson’s Jerry, and then comes to realize she has been on the journey with him for longer than she knew. Roberts and Gibson have great on-camera chemistry in this film. Gibson’s Jerry loves and obsesses over Roberts’ Alice. Alice, in turn, is tolerant and somewhat fond of Jerry and that affection grows into love throughout the film, though not a romantic love on her end. This is a difficult relationship to depict well but the two actors really succeed.
It’s not possible to discuss this film without mentioning that Patrick Stewart is the bad guy. The scene where his character tortures Gibson’s Jerry is hard to watch. The combination of seeing Gibson with his eyes taped open, the flashing lights in the room, and the quick cuts to other events, made all of this very difficult to watch. Stewart’s character, despite being a lying monster, emits an almost neutral energy to the audience – just as you would expect from someone like this in the real world. Stewart’s Jonas is not overtly sinister. That makes him more frightening.
It is difficult to separate the film, today, from Mel Gibson himself. After the release of Conspiracy Theory, Gibson made several strange comments during interviews about Hollywood. In the early 2000s, the actor and director was exiled from Hollywood, to a great degree, for a few years after delivering an antisemitic rant during an arrest. Since, he has largely been welcomed back into the fold of Hollywood (including among other things multiple Oscar nominations for his film Hacksaw Ridge.) Life and art reflect each other in the man. His character in Conspiracy Theory describes Oliver Stone as a disinformation artist, working for the Feds, and his justification for that belief is that Stone is allowed to work at all. In real life, one wonders how Gibson still has a career, too.
Overall, this is a great movie. It is funny, intense, the pacing is sharp, and it is incredibly well acted. If you are in the mood for a thriller, then I recommend you check this one out.