One night, Marjorie (Farrah Fawcett) is attacked in her car by a masked man with a knife. He forces her to drive to a secluded area, and tries to rape her, but Marjorie fights him off and escapes. She goes to the police who are mildly sympathetic, but quick to point out the lack of witnesses, description or other corroborating evidence – they won’t do anything, despite the fact that he now has her wallet and knows where she lives.
Some time later, Marjorie is alone in her house, having seen housemates Pat and Terry (Alfre Woodard and Diana Scarwid, respectively) off to work. She reads a little, does some gardening, settles in for a day of relaxation. Then a man named Joe comes through her front door, asking if a friend of his lives there. Marjorie says his friend doesn’t live there, berates him for just walking into her house, and asks him to leave. Joe stays. Marjorie bluffs that maybe her husband, a cop sleeping upstairs, might know. Joe calls her bluff, and catches her out in the lie. So sure enough, Joe is the masked assailant from the other night, and what begins is a long scene of him attempting to rape Marjorie.
He’s much more about the psychological control of his victim than the actual rape itself, and while he attempts to exert dominance over Marjorie, she constantly looks for ways to resist, to fight back or to escape. After a long sequence of Joe threatening Marjorie with rather intense violence, he’s in the act of trying to rape her when she gets the upper hand, blinding him with insecticide, dousing him with boiling water, and chaining him up in her fireplace, by securing an old bed-head against it. Tables, turned.
Not too long after, Terry comes home and finds the chaos in the house, as well as Joe tied up in the fireplace, going blind and suffering the effects of poisoning. Marjorie tells her the truth, but Joe spins his own story of what happened. When Pat arrives home a little later, he does the same thing. It’s his word against hers – there’s no proof, no witnesses, no physical evidence of penetration. Marjorie doesn’t seem too fussed by this though; she’s digging him a grave in the garden.
The rest of the movie covers Terry and Pat trying to make sense of the situation, Joe trying to lie his way out of the situation and turn Pat and Terry against Marjorie, and Marjorie getting increasingly more determined to kill her would-be attacker.
Extremities is a movie clearly based on a play. The play had a successful run, drawing in many accolades for Farrah Fawcett who continued to shed the Charlie’s Angels sex-kitten image she’d been removing since earlier attempts such as The Burning Bed. And she’s great in this – there’s a fire and intensity in her performance that’s quite electrifying.
But the film doesn’t stray far enough from the stage. There are some attempts made – the play doesn’t have the initial attack in the car, it merely opens with Joe (“Raul” in the play) insinuating himself into the house, and the first few scenes in the house are cleverly shot from just outside the windows, showing us the hominess of the house but also making it seem claustrophobic. But, essentially, once Joe arrives at the house, the film is a recitation of the play, only with more camera angles. That playwright William Mastrosimone was asked to write the screenplay doesn’t help this at all.
At the time of its Broadway debut, Extremities was a relatively controversial play, not only for its violence (it was common for the actors playing Marjorie and Joe to finish their performances in splints), but delving into the topic of how rape is treated as a crime in modern society, and how the justice system may not be all that judicious. The points made are, depressingly, still valid, but their presentation in Extremities is heavy-handed to a point where it seems like a particularly bold after school special.
On stage, the proximity to the performers goes a long way to glossing over these faults, and the violence is more confronting due to being right there in front of the audience. It’s not to say that it’s not effective in the film, just that the difference of medium is quite great. Soaked in the atmosphere of a theatre, locked in by sharing the same space as the performer, moments such as Terry’s pained revelation that she knows rape victims get no justice because she herself was raped several years prior pack a significant impact – in the film, Pat and Terry are given so little to do with their characters that they serve as props and tools to engage the topical themes with the audience – Terry’s revelation falls flat because we simply don’t know anything about her, beyond that she’s slightly ditzy. It also forces some of the weaker moments of dialogue to come across as hokier than intended (Pat’s admonition of “May I remind you he is a HUMAN BEING!?” standing out as particularly egregious).
But the biggest problem with the film staying so close to the play and not really inspiring any massive change with the different medium, is Joe’s second attack on Marjorie. On stage, the violence is confronting and dangerous because it’s there in front of you. In the film, with the barrier of the screen, Joe’s physical attacks but also psychological ones, come across as exploitative. And if there’s one thing the play Extremites is not, it’s exploitative.
It may be heavy-handed in it its analysis of rape in current society (much of which is still as relevant today as it was in 1982 when the play debuted) but there’s clearly a sympathy towards Marjorie and what she’s been through, and a rage at the unfairness of the system. The film instead runs the risk of cheapening that set up because it’s so unengaged with how to present as a film – simply some more attention paid to what specific camera angles or movements, as well as tightening and widening of some shots may have gone a great deal to helping this.
As well as this, the opening attack on Marjorie in the film is unnecessary – other than the fact that the play’s introduction of Joe/Raul just insinuating himself into the house is just much more threatening, the opening attack doesn’t progress or provide anything new. It also has the negative effect, in a film that is about rape and how it’s perceived and treated in modern society, of reinforcing the idea that most rapes are a crime of opportunity when this is, statistically, not the case. The point of the scenes where the police are unable/unwilling to help are covered off in later dialogue, and the stalker-POV shot is out of place in a serious drama, instead coming off like the movie John Travolta is trying to find a scream for in the opening scenes of Blow Out.
Now having said all that, Farrah Fawcett does turn in a really strong performance as Marjorie. She’s got this iron determination to her, and given that the physical violence in the film seems to have been lifted from many of the stage productions, it would have been amazing to see her perform this on stage. She gives it her all, and the performance is gutsy and intense. Though their characters are given very little to do Diana Scarwid and Alfre Woodard are both serviceable as Terry and Pat, though Woodard comes off better – Scarwid’s performance is more than adequate, but Terry is such an insipid character. And James Russo is a sleazy ball of ick as Joe, over the top as the character needs, but human enough to make him feel truly dangerous, then pathetic in the captivity of the fireplace. Russo never for a moment makes the audience think he’s a nice guy, but you can see how Terry and Pat miiiight have fallen for his lies if he’d gone on with it further.
Extremeties, both film and play, is a little dated now, though its topics are not. It’s worth seeing the film purely for Farrah Fawcett giving a gutsier, darker performance than anything that was asked of her during the height of her fame. But if you happen to be able to see the show on stage, I’d recommend that instead.