“Masquerade” is a crime thriller set among the wealthy inhabitants of the Hamptons, a socially exclusive part of Long Island. The main character is Olivia Lawrence, a young heiress who has been left tremendously wealthy by the recent death of her mother. (Olivia’s father has died several years earlier). Olivia forms a relationship with Tim Whalen, a yacht skipper, but this causes friction with her stepfather Tony Gateworth, who suspects that Tim is only interested in Olivia for her wealth. There may be something in his suspicions, as Tim is also carrying on with attractive older woman Brooke, his employer’s wife. Gateworth’s objections to Tim, however, seem hypocritical, as it is obvious that he only married Olivia’s mother for her money and has lost no time since her death in moving his new mistress, Anne, into the family mansion.
The title is significant. “Masquerade” is the name of Olivia’s yacht, but the word “masquerade”, literally a masked ball, can also signify a charade or pretence, and several of the characters are pretending to be something they are not, pretences which are revealed in a series of twists. Tim and Gateworth seem to hate one another, but it is suddenly revealed that they are plotting together to murder Olivia for her money. During a confrontation between Gateworth, Tim and Olivia, however, Gateworth is killed when his pistol goes off during a struggle with Tim. Officer McGill, a local cop and former boyfriend of Olivia, is put in charge of the investigation into Gateworth’s death.
There are no really outstanding acting performances in this film, but Meg Tilly makes a convincingly innocent Olivia, even though at 28 she was several years older than her character. Rob Lowe does enough to show that he was more than just a Brat Pack pretty-boy, even though he shows enough flesh to keep his most ardent female fans happy. (Tim is supposed to be older than Olivia, but in reality Lowe was four years younger than Tilly). There are certain similarities between this film and “Wild Things”, a thriller from 1998, which also has a plot involving yachting and differences in social class. (That film, however, was set in Florida rather than Long Island). “Masquerade”, however, is by far the better of the two films, and part of the reason, I think, lies in the way in which the thriller genre developed over the intervening ten years. Although the plot of “Masquerade” contains several twists (there are a couple more after those mentioned above), it always remains perfectly comprehensible. By 1998, however, there was a tendency (one which has continued into the twenty-first century) for the scriptwriters of films like these to demonstrate their cleverness by devising excessively complicated plots; that of “Wild Things” contains so many twists that it ends up twisted out of all recognition, and almost totally incomprehensible to the average viewer, even with the assistance of a series of flashbacks interspersed with the closing credits and intended to make good all the numerous plot holes in the actual movie.
Pauline Kael described “Masquerade” as a “tranquil and sophisticated thriller”. “Tranquil” may seem an odd choice of adjective to describe a thriller, especially one in which several characters meet violent deaths, yet I know what she meant. “Masquerade” lacks not only the silly-cleverness that mars films like “Wild Things”, it also lacks the cynical amorality that is their stock-in-trade. Towards the end I was waiting for some truly devastating silly-clever twist, like Olivia ‘s mother and Gateworth both coming back from the dead, or Olivia turning out to have planned the whole thing with her lesbian lover Brooke. Yet nothing like this happens. The twist is that there is no twist. There is no assumption that an obviously innocent person must be guilty; Olivia turns out to be just as sweet and naïve as she has always seemed. Moreover, Tim, whatever his original motives may have been, turns out to have genuinely fallen in love with her and selflessly sacrifices his own life while saving hers. It comes as quite a surprise to come across a thriller that does not take a completely cynical view of human nature.
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