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SETTLEMENT, THE(director/writer: Mark Steilen; screenwriter: from Leo Toffler’s story; cinematographer: Judy Irola ; editor: Fabienne Rawley; cast: John C. Reilly (Pat ), William Fichtner (Jerry), Kelly McGillis (Fake Barbara /Ellie), David Rasche (Denny), Bill Bolender (Shamansky), Jonathan McMurtry (Dr. Van Buren), Dan Castellaneta (Neal); Runtime: 101; CineTel Films / Davis Entertainment / Dogsmile Pictures / JeanRoy Entertainment / Todd Hoffman; 1999)
“The Settlement doesn’t settle much in the way of morality, but it has its moments of glee.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Settlement presents some unexpected twists on Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity.” It seemed like it was ‘not quite ready for prime time’ or to be distributed to theaters. The supposed reason that it was only released on cable TV is because Mark Steilen, the director/writer, claims he had offers for only a limited release and that would not give him enough money to pay back the film’s backers and, also, he wouldn’t have enough money to market it. But as a low budget film it has enough going for it, as the always interesting John Reilly stumbles along in the dark until he reinvigorates the film by having a character transformation leading to the film’s surprise ending. The Settlement was operating on such a low budget that Reilly’s wife who is mentioned throughout is never seen, thereby saving the expense of paying an actress. The same could be said about the office receptionist.

The plot is a simple one: A conservative accountant Pat (Reilly) and his fast-living scheming buddy from high school Jerry (Fichtner), go partners in the 1980s on a scheme where they purchase life-insurance policies from the terminally ill. In the 1980s their lucrative business enables Pat to buy a small house and raise two kids, while Jerry is a playboy and lives in a luxurious house. But things change in the 1990s and they are faced with bankruptcy as modern medicine has come up with cures for diseases that were previously killing off their clients, such as the ones who were HIV positive.

Into their office comes an attractive, terminally ill, cancer-stricken, mystery woman, seemingly right out of the reels of dozens of noir films, Barbara (Kelly). She has a $2 million life-insurance policy and proof from a doctor that she is certain to die within three months. She wants $500 thousand within three days before she transfers the policy over to them. The problem is that the bank will loan them no more money so they go to a Russian mobster/baker (Bolender) who lends them the money and threatens to kill Pat’s children if he is not reimbursed in three months, including his $50,000 in interest. They know he means what he said, because he whacked Jerry’s father. They also corroborate her story without thoroughly checking it out as they usually do because of the rush for time. They only visit her physician, Dr. Van Buren, who tells them what they want to hear. They thereby make the deal and wait for her to die.

This modest film had much black humor and the acting ability of Reilly and Fichtner to make the silly story more plausible. But the moral of the story is questionable. The Reilly character, without a hint of violence in him, suddenly becomes willing to commit murder to resolve things in his favor. His character has his come-uppance but in a benign manner, as at the film’s conclusion he is seen staring vacuously out the window of his now bigger house and listening to his wife’s annoying voice as she is nagging the kids. This comes after he has successfully gotten away with his crime. There is no sense of urgency about how rotten his soul has now become and what he will now do.

The Settlement doesn’t settle much in the way of morality, but it has its moments of glee. It was right on target in offering up a tasty serving of black humor. It has these vulture-driven insurance schemers say to one of their ailing clients: “To a very special lady, may God be with her and strike her dead.” The film had enough bite in its humor to make the story be adequate for all its budget restraints it was under and its lack of a deeper script. Those who like indie films that are a little offbeat should enjoy this one, especially if they are understanding of its limitations.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”