After Dark, My Sweet (1990) begins as only the best noirs do: a handsome drifter arrives in town with dubious motives and immediately makes the acquaintance of a woman with sinister plans of her own. The twist in this story is that Fay, the woman in question (played by Rachel Ward), is a drunk; and Kid Collins, the hero drifter of our tale (played by Jason Patric), may or may not be psychotic.
Kid (Jason Patric) and Faye (Rachel Ward) meet over an afternoon drink
Having escaped a mental asylum mostly out of boredom, ex-boxer Kid Collins is wandering through one desert town after another making a nuisance of himself. Having run away from an unpleasant past, of which we learn more and more through flashbacks, Kid is in no hurry to do anything or be anywhere. He has no responsibilities and no ties. When Fay, a lovely local lush, picks him up during an afternoon drink, Kid suspects something other than amorous intentions. And he's right: Fay immediately puts him to work cleaning up her date farm—neglected in the summer heat since the death of her husband—and invites over a friend. The friend is "Uncle” Bud (played by Bruce Dern), a supposed ex-cop who looks and acts like a sketchy desert rat type who’s full of smiles and promised profits. Kid can sense there's some scheme brewing between Fay and Bud, and he allows them to slowly fold him into their sinister machinations, being too jaded by the past life that he’s outrunning to be concerned for himself. As he explains to us in voice-over: “When a man stops caring what happens, all the strain is lifted from him. Suspicion and worry and fear, all things that twist his thinking out of focus are brushed aside, and he can see people exactly as they are at last.”
Despite his outward appearance as a filthy punch-drunk psycho with the jerky movements of a musclebound boxer gone to seed, Kid is intelligent and perceptive. As he warns Fay after her tongue has sharpened into insults at Kid’s expense, “I am not at all stupid. I may sound like I am, but I’m really not.” Jason Patric plays Kid with an anxiety and grace that emphasizes his underrated abilities as a character actor, hiding his matinee idol looks behind layers of tics and manic awkwardness.
When Bud and Fay’s scheme turns out to be a kidnapping, Kid isn’t surprised and plays along, knowing that Bud has him sized up for an if-need-be fall guy. Fay seduces Kid in an apparent moment of weakness, but it’s also a moment conveniently timed to give her an alibi. Kid isn’t sure whether Fay really cares for him but reminds us that in many ways it doesn’t really matter: “I saw Fay then weak and frightened but basically as good as a person could be . . . the only thing that mattered was that she live, it was the only way my having lived would make any sense.”
Kid agrees to become part of the scheme
The action in James Foley’s 1990 film is a faithful adaptation of Jim Thompson's original 1955 novel After Dark, My Sweet, down to much of the same dialogue. Thompson's characters typically revel in their own sinister machinations, but in this story both Kid and Fay display moments of true sincerity and concern for one another despite Fay's nasty streak and Kid's moments of blind rage. Bruce Dern's Uncle Bud, however, is pure Thompson: affable and fatherly when he's reassuring Kid that he's among friends, but when provoked drops his grin to reveal a malicious character concerned with no one but himself.
The trio’s scheme plays out as well as one would expect in a hard-bitten thriller; the entertainment is not in what’s going to go wrong but how it will go wrong. The big mystery of the film is finding out if Fay truly cares for Kid or if she's simply using him to further Uncle Bud's grand plan. Rachel Ward plays Fay as a husky, broken woman who’s retained her inner grace but is emotionally flailing. One moment she’s tender and concerned, the next oblivious and hard. It’s this mystery about Fay’s true nature that keeps us on the edge of our seats until the final scene, and what keeps Kid winding the noose tighter around his own neck.
After Dark, My Sweet is available to rent via streaming from Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Vudu; as well as via disc from Netflix