"The Tie That Binds" is "Family Feud" played for keeps. The movie is one of those formulaic excesses that, despite its absurdities, keeps you nailed to the screen.
It's conceived almost as "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" X 2, sharing much more than a similar grammatical structure in the title. Instead of one parent trying to usurp another, it's one set of parents trying to usurp another. It also shrewdly plays off some troubling gut issues, such as the validity of the claim made by birth parents, but of course it has neither the time nor the inclination to push them very far.
Instead, the theme is played out in a best case/worst case scenario. When a nice yuppie couple (pert Moira Kelly, soulful Vincent Spano) adopt 6-year-old Janie, she's everything they want -- pretty, smart, responsive. And they're everything she could want: stable, loving, kind, well-off. It looks like a match made in heaven.
What they don't know is that her natural parents are from hell: wandering psychopaths, they live out of their car and subsist entirely on the proceeds from violent home-invasion crimes. Mama (Daryl Hannah) is a vague dreamer with a propensity for treachery. Worse, Dad (Keith Carradine) is known in police circles as "The Photographer," a legendary serial killer who Polaroids his victims before he whacks them.
The little girl, well-played by Julia Devin, is separated from them during a job; a few years later, when she's been adopted, the birth parents (who've escaped the police) want her back and begin an inexorably brutal quest to that end.
One problem: Since we know where she is, we know where they're going to end up, so, instantaneously, there's no suspense in that half of the story. To compensate, director Wesley Strick (a former screenwriter) jams up the energy by making their passage to the girl excessively violent, including a long, unpleasant sequence in which they terrorize, then butcher, a social worker.
In the other story, not much is happening either, except those little family squalls of adjustment, as Spano and Kelly begin to suspect how secretly disturbed Janie really is. But all this is holding action until the movie's main event, the couple vs. couple fight in a symbolic half-built dream house in the country.
If only it were a poem of pure, savage action, the film might save itself. But it's pretty poorly worked out, and never quite convincing, settling for horror-movie cliches.
I could never figure out why good dad Spano, who knew he was being stalked by a murderous psycho, didn't secure some kind of weapon. That's hard enough to figure out; why, even more absurdly, are his shoes and socks off so that he has to fight barefoot on rough ground? Clearly it makes visual sense: He's more vulnerable that way, but it's such a flamboyantly wrong detail, it completely undercuts the reality of a sequence that's supposed to pulse with reality.
But the biggest disappointment of the film is Keith Carradine, whose essential mildness works against the character. He never really busts out as the bad dad, and the character is in some sense overwritten for irony. When he's about to light a match to burn the place down, he says (essentially to the camera), "I hate dream houses." It's a funny line, but it doesn't belong in the mouth of a man who has been portrayed as almost completely primitive in his understanding of the world.
That's a writer directing, however: Strick cares about the cleverness of the writing more than he cares about the truth of the situation.
"The Tie That Binds"
Starring Keith Carradine, Daryl Hannah and Moira Kelly
Directed by Wesley Strick
Released by Hollywood Pictures
Rated R (violence)