Out of all the sin-in-the-suburbs films that I’ve watched recently, 1996’s Normal Life is one of the best. Judging from the lack of reviews of this film online, it also appears to be one of the least known. So, allow me to rectify that by telling you a little about Normal Life.
In Normal Life, Luke Perry plays Chris Anderson, a seemingly naive police officer. From the minute that we first see Chris, it’s obvious that he’s a cop. With his thinning hair, his anonymous mustache, and his deliberately calm and controlled manner, there’s no way that Chris could be anything else.
One night, Chris goes out to a bar and sees Pam (Ashley Judd) getting into a fight with her date and cutting her hand. Chris, playing the hero, bandages it and then asks her for a dance. For him, it’s love at first sight. Soon, Chris is taking Pam on dates to the shooting range and, before you know it, they’re married. Pam, it soon becomes obvious, is emotionally unstable. She deals with disagreements by threatening to kill herself and trashing the apartment that she shares with Chris. She makes little secret of how little respect she has for Chris’s family and she often goes out of her way to embarrass him. However, Chris will never leave her because he’s in love with the idea of being the only one who can save her. And, even though Pam may not admit it, she wants to be saved. Chris gives her stability while Pam gives Chris a taste of excitement that his life would otherwise lack.
Unfortunately, even after Chris loses his job, Pam continues to spend money extravagantly. Soon, in order to support his wife, Chris starts to utilize his law enforcement experience by robbing banks. Now that they finally have money, they are able to move to a perfect house in the suburbs and Chris is able to pursue his lifelong dream of opening and running a small used bookstore.
However, Pam eventually discovers that Chris is a bank robber and soon decides that she wants to rob a bank with him. Chris knows that it’s a mistake to involve the unpredictable Pam but, as the film makes clear, he will always chose her happiness over everything else…
Normal Life was directed by John McNaughton, who also directed the seminal serial killer film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. And while Normal Life is a far less disturbing film than Henry, it does utilize a similar technique of emphasizing just how banal Chris’s suburban lifestyle really is. When Chris isn’t robbing banks or dealing with his suicidal wife, he’s essentially a rather boring guy who is perfectly happy to spend his days running his little bookstore. The best scenes in the film are the ones where Chris simply walks to the doorway of his house, the placid calmness of the suburbs providing a strong contrast to what we know is going on inside that house and inside Chris’s head.
Of the two lead performers, Ashley Judd has the showier role and she does give a fantastically brave performance, providing an honest and sympathetic portrayal as a character who is not always pleasant to watch. Luke Perry, however, is even better. Whereas Judd is playing a character who is literally incapable of hiding her emotions, Perry has to play a character who keeps all of his emotions hidden. Judd’s performance is almost totally external while Perry’s performance is largely internal and, when those two techniques come together, it tells us all we need to know about why Chris and Pam are fated to be together.
Normal Life is a film that you need to see. And you can watch it below!