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Breaking The Girls

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What’s the most important word in the title of Hitchcock’s classic Strangers On A Train? We can surely dismiss “On” and “A.” Is the train crucial? Not especially—Farley Granger and Robert Walker could have had their initial conversation pretty much anywhere. What made the movie’s plot credible, at least in Walker’s twisted mind, was that he and Granger didn’t know each other. They’d met by chance, so if they were to swap murders, as Walker suggested—with Granger killing Walker’s father and Walker killing Granger’s wife—there would be nothing whatsoever linking either culprit with either victim. Make the two of them good friends or, here’s a truly wacky idea, lovers, and the whole scheme falls apart. Right?


That elementary bit of logic escapes Breaking The Girls, which isn’t expressly credited as an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel but employs the same basic murder-swap idea. College student Agnes Bruckner loses both her job and her scholarship due to the vindictive actions of a snooty classmate (Shanna Collins) who thinks—correctly, as it happens—that Bruckner has the hots for her boyfriend (Shawn Ashmore) and vice versa. Bruckner isn’t the violent sort, but the same can’t be said for Madeline Zima, the wild girl who suddenly enters her life and invades her pants. Zima has a meddling stepmother (Kate Levering) she’d love to get rid of and proposes to Bruckner that the two of them could live happily ever after if they just solve each other’s problems, homicidally. Bruckner naturally assumes this is just a joke, but when Collins ends up floating in the university pool, it doesn’t seem nearly so funny.

Again, the whole “nobody would ever suspect” bit makes zero sense in this context, as Bruckner and Zima have been seen together by half the student body and even the requisite suspicious cop (Davenia McFadden) knows they’re having sex. Subsequent non-Highsmith twists ostensibly solve that problem but are themselves so ludicrously convoluted and implausible that they can’t withstand the lightest scrutiny. (“But how could X anticipate that Y would do Z?” recurs again and again as you work your way through the necessary machinations.) What remains is a bland, perfunctory erotic thriller that lacks the courage of its would-be-trashy convictions, though it’s at least mildly amusing to see Ashmore repeatedly get shoved aside during the film’s tame three-way grope session, until he finally gets fed up and leaves. Literalizing Strangers On A Train’s gay subtext might theoretically have been interesting, but Breaking The Girls’ LGBT angle, like everything else about it, seems pandering rather than heartfelt—a “contemporary rethinking” of material that was once sturdy enough not to require a pseudo-sleazy hard sell.