Cinema: X Marks the Top

Two fine new films get the adults-only label

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X as in toxic. That label, slapped on films by the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board, means that no one younger than 18 may be admitted. But the classification has other hazards. Most newspapers will not run ads for X-rated movies. Most pay-cable networks will not air them. And, because the letter has been appropriated by the porno industry, to many people X stands for sex -- impure and simple.

But what if X also stands for exemplary, exciting, extraordinary? Such is the case with two new films -- The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer -- given the X tag. Their distributors have rightly decided to release these strong, disturbing melodramas as is, uncut and without the MPAA's rating. They will strut naked into the marketplace, allowing adult audiences to judge for themselves whether this is porno or no.

Not hardly. Both films had been rated X for their tone, for their fidelity to the theme of human corruption. These are modern morality plays, fascinating and determinedly unpleasant. They do not tease or flinch; they do not reward prurience. They do not glamourize violence, as the traditional Hollywood thriller does, with tricks of suspense and sexual come-on. Henry and The Cook are horror movies, yes -- essays in the horror of brutality, which they show as the insatiable craving of doomed, destructive souls. Any innocent who crosses these sociopaths, or just crosses their paths, is doomed too.

Henry, made four years ago in Chicago and just now released, is loosely based on the confessions of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The film does show some lurid vignettes of a master murderer busy at his work -- a terrorized family here, a plugged-in TV salesman there. But director John McNaughton, who wrote the spare script with Richard Fire, shows few of Henry's dozen or so crimes. Instead he reveals the victims, at the scenes of their deaths, in slow zoom shots accompanied by elegiac music. He is a coroner with a touch of the poet.

For Henry (played with hollow-eyed precision by Michael Rooker), murder is a vocation. He is compelled to do it and does it well, but the job gives him little pleasure. Only his friend Otis (Tom Towles) feels the thrill of the kill. Otis is the sickest person in the movie; he takes to torture like a born-again sadist. Only his sweet sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) has much hope of touching poor Henry. She will be his best hope or his last victim.

Henry, filmed documentary-style, gets its power from no-frills naturalism. The Cook, by contrast, is all artifice: splendid, meticulous, extravagant. One expects no less from the British writer-director Peter Greenaway, who with The Draughtsman's Contract and A Zed and Two Noughts revealed his gifts as a creator of murals on the subject of ruthless gamesmanship. His stories are hot, his style cool. His new film is the tale of a vicious crook (Michael Gambon) who dines nightly at a posh restaurant with his gang and his luscious, abused wife (Helen Mirren). Her pleasures are furtive but sweet: between courses she tiptoes out of his sight and has lovely sex with another diner (Alan Howard). When the thief discovers them, there is hell to pay. At the end, she exacts a more infernal price from her husband.

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