At first, Alan Rudolph's Mortal Thoughts looks like the movie for anyone who didn't get enough psychopathic wife abuse in Sleeping With the Enemy. A young working-class woman, Cynthia Kellogg (Demi Moore), arrives at the police station to accuse her best friend of murder. Seated at the end of an interrogation table, where she faces the unflinching eye of a video camera and the skeptical stares of two investigating officers, she proceeds to tell the story of how Joyce (Glenne Headly), with whom she ran Joyce's Clip 'N' Dye Beauty Salon, was trapped in a hellish marriage to James (Bruce Willis), a struttingly insensitive macho blowhard. In flashback, we're shown how he treated Joyce like dirt from the wedding day on, how he yelled, drank, raided the salon cash register, forced her to have an abortion, and constantly threatened her with violence. Finally, we see how she began to dream up ways of killing him (including spiking the sugar with rat poison). One evening, when the two were out at a carnival with Cynthia, James ended up with his neck slashed the victim, apparently, of a wife who couldn't take it anymore.
The movie starts out as a kitchen-sink nightmare: I Married Andrew Dice Clay. Willis must have relished the chance to play against his superstar-hero image, because his performance is all rowdy, acting-class bravado. Sporting a goatee and a black leather sport coat, he goes into bellicose, Ralph Kramden tirades, sings a drunken version of ''Kung Fu Fighting,'' and terrorizes Moore with leering threats of rape. In a sense, he accomplishes what he's there for: He gets you rooting for James' demise or, at least, he makes you understand why anyone married to this scuzzy sadist would start wanting him dead. What isn't at all clear is why Joyce fell for him in the first place. When Cynthia tells James, ''You used to be such a happy-go-lucky guy!'' we don't know what she's talking about.
Mortal Thoughts is structured like a mystery-thriller, but there's nothing thrilling about it. After rubbing our noses in this strident caricature of marital hell, the movie becomes the story of how Cynthia and Joyce try to cover up James' murder. In effect, the two women become sisters in homicide. It's hardly a perfect crime: There are clues everywhere. And since televison and movies have conditioned us to seeing even the craftiest killers apprehended by high-tech police procedures, there's never much doubt that the truth is going to be uncovered. Rudolph, the veteran maverick (Choose Me), obviously thinks he's making more than just another pop thriller. He treats Mortal Thoughts as a deadly serious ''feminist'' psychodrama. The whole movie is drenched in the grim atmospherics of victimization. Everywhere, there are , brutish men looking to tear women down. Cynthia's husband (John Pankow) is a workaholic lout who urges her to go to the police and cut all ties to her friend. Under the circumstances, this doesn't sound like such an outrageous suggestion, but the movie presents it as another example of male pigheadedness.
In the police station, one of the investigating officers (Harvey Keitel) begins to sense that Cynthia's story isn't adding up. What really went on the night of the carnival? Suddenly, the movie offers up a different version of the events except that if this version is true, all the previous interactions between the two women no longer make sense. Sleeping With the Enemy was fairly implausible too, but that film was at least attempting to be a clever, sleight-of-hand thriller. The dramatic flip-flop here is part of a more didactic agenda: The film wants to show us that abusive men make martyrs not simply of individual women but of womankind. It won't wash. Mortal Thoughts isn't a total disaster the two actresses have their moments but it's a garish, bullying movie. By the end, the feeling of victimization extends to the audience.