Hotels and their roadside offspring have provided the setting for many a horror movie, with “Psycho” and “The Shining” among the most notable. Tim Hunter’s “Looking Glass,” unfortunately, is nowhere near their league.
Apparently inspired by Gay Talese’s recent account of a motel owner who spied on his guests (though, unlike Norman Bates, he never went beyond looking), the movie is about a couple—Ray (Nicolas Cage) and Maggie (Robin Tunney)—who, guilt-ridden over the recent death of their daughter, opt to buy a motel in a small desert town off Craig’s List to start a new life. They find the key under the mat and the former owner, a guy named Ben (Bill Bolender) gone, leaving no forwarding address.
The locals are none too welcoming; even the housekeeper, Ava (Pascoalina Dunham), is oddly standoffish. Ray handles most of the grunt work around the place while Maggie rests, trying to find some sort of closure. But a discovery he makes changes things. He finds a crawlspace from which he can, via a two-way mirror, watch what happens in one of the rooms. It’s the room that Tommy (Ernie Lively), a grubby truck driver, always wants for his nights with a local hooker. It’s also the room in which a dominatrix (Jacque Gray) will kill one of her clients.
Ray’s voyeurism has an effect on his own lust, which finds release in a new passion withy Maggie. But it also leads to his psychological deterioration, especially after Howard (Marc Blucas), a local deputy, begins asking questions, not only about the disappearance of the recent murder victim but a previous killing at the motel—of a young girl found in the swimming pool. It’s hardly coincidental that Ray will find a disemboweled pig floating in the same pool, though his reaction—hauling the porcine carcass out into the desert and burning it—is certainly extreme. He will also go off the rails when he tracks down the dominatrix to tell her not to return to his place, getting into a fight with her protector as a result. No wonder his new neighbors, like the owner of a nearby gas station (Barry Jay Minoff), are positively hostile to the new arrivals.
The mystery of the deaths at the motel is resolved, after a fashion, when Ben finally contacts Ray and arranges to meet, though their conversation does not go smoothly. Suffice it to say that Ray must finally face down the villain and reconnect with his wife.
But the question of murder is really secondary to Ray’s emotional arc, which covers the gamut from painful resignation to renewed passion and reinvigoration of a sort. Unfortunately, that aspect of the film is no clearer than the more prosaic mystery aspect, which is burdened by so many digressions, false leads and opacities that it’s difficult to keep track of the twists, let alone care where they might lead. That’s the fault of the script, of course, but Hunter, whose best work was done three decades ago with the truly unsettling “River’s Edge,” fails to muster much tension or suspense here.
So ultimately the only pleasure to be had from “Looking Glass”—if you can call it that—lies in watching Cage going through his paces. He has a few good moments in his early scenes with Blucas, who plays Howard with a shark-like smile, but otherwise his relatively low-key performance doesn’t bring much fizz to this gloomy entry in his seemingly endless stream of made-for-the-paycheck B-movies. The technical contributions are no more than adequate, and the throbbing music score never adds the punch it’s obviously aiming for.
In sum, this is a sadly muted thrill-free thriller, starring a disappointingly manic-deprived Cage.