Tenderness -- Film Review

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
SYDNEY -- The cheerless psychodrama "Tenderness" is the cinematic equivalent of a stodgy meal: leaden and labored, it sits like a brick in your stomach after the credits roll.

Australian director and Tropfest founder John Polson's sophomore outing with GreeneStreet Films (following 2002's "Swimfan") even manages to sap the charismatic Russell Crowe's customary onscreen verve. Crowe, clearly doing a favor for his mate Polson, phones in a supporting performance as a semi-retired cop on the trail of a serial killer, justifiably embarrassed at having to deliver lines like, "He's addicted to the intimacy of the kill, the last beautiful sigh in his hand."

A bunch of murky motives, dozy pacing and two unlikable central characters forced into painful plot contrivances make this low-budget indie increasingly indigestible. Crowe's marquee name won't be able to save "Tenderness" from sinking like a stone upon its Australian release this week. Lionsgate has not yet set a U.S. release date, and the film's best prospects might be on DVD.

Emil Stern's underwritten screenplay, adapted from Robert Cormier's emotionally complex novel, begins with 18-year-old Eric Poole's (Jon Foster) release from juvenile detention after serving just three years for the brutal murder of his parents.

He's greeted on the outside by two separate but equally troubled souls: Crowe's despondent Lt. Cristofuoro, treading water while his wife lies in a coma, and 16-year-old Lori (a game Sophie Traub), who has developed an obsessive crush on the teen killer but behaves more like an annoying kid sister.

Lori, a precocious motormouth with a death wish, attaches herself limpetlike when Eric embarks on a road trip through Upstate New York to rendezvous with a hottie he briefly encountered in prison. The rumple-suited Cristofuoro is on their tail, convinced that Eric is a psychopath who will kill again and determined to stop him.

We know the detective is on to something from the way Eric periodically fondles weapons as various as a hammer and a pillow while wrestling with explosions of temper, but Foster's one-note performance ensures his psyche remains frustratingly opaque.

The whole film is like this, with characters doing things merely because the script tells them to, and the sluggish narrative is propelled in fits and bursts by ham-fisted flashback reveals that do little to clarify motive.

Entire scenes struggle for relevance, most notably a daft episode in which Crowe's cop does a Keystone bumble through the woods looking for his quarry, who is hiding in plain sight.

Parts of "Tenderness" are quite beautifully photographed, but there's no tension underpinning the mood, and the clanging din of an overly insistent score merely serves as an irritant.

Opened: Thursday, April 30, Australia (Lionsgate)