“It’s all a matter of tone,” says ex-revivalist/low-grade con artist Bill Hill (Christopher Walken) midway through Touch. If only writer-director Paul Schrader had taken this statement to heart. The screenplay, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s 1987 novel, has the witty dialogue and inconceivable plot twists of a screwball comedy. In his direction, however, Schrader plays everything at a lugubrious tempo, eschewing the frenetic pace of a typical screwball comedy for something solemn and dignified. “Solemn and dignified,” in this case, are polite euphemisms for “dull.”
The film opens with a brutish redneck throwing dishes at his blind wife. Family friend Bill and rehab counselor Juvenal (Skeet Ulrich) arrive to defuse the situation. Before leaving, Juvenal touches the blind woman, and her sight is immediately and miraculously restored. From there, Juvenal is torn between exploitation on two fronts. Bill senses the opportunity to publicize Juvenal’s apparent gift and make back all the money he lost faking the same gift in a church revival. Pious print-shop owner August Murray (Tom Arnold) has the same desire: he wants to use Juvenal’s gift to bring attention to his church, which attempts to practice 1300s-style Catholicism. August’s subtle hypocrisy could have juxtaposed nicely with Bill’s overt exploitation, but Schrader’s direction lacks the energy for this rivalry to get off the ground.
Instead, Schrader focuses more on Juvenal, arguably the film’s dullest character. This is not a problem with Ulrich, who turns in a fine, nuanced performance. The issue rests in the screenplay, which spends too much time on an enigmatic character who never quite stops being an enigma. Even his love story with Bridget Fonda’s Lynn Marie (initially Bill’s partner in crime, she legitimately falls in love with Juvenal) doesn’t do much to reveal who he is or why anyone watching should care. Other than his ability to heal (which manifests by giving him the stigmata), Juvenal’s main trait is apathy. He knows both Bill and August want to exploit him, but he doesn’t really care. He doesn’t seem to have much interest in anything, including using his gift to help people. Not surprisingly, this does not make him a compelling protagonist.
Ushering Juvenal to the background to focus more on the rivalry between Bill and August (and, to some extent, Lynn Marie, who wants to defend her new lover against these predators) could have made this film much more effective. Walken and the perpetually sped-up Arnold have the energy Schrader’s direction and Ulrich’s laconic performance lack. When the tug-of-war over Juvenal reaches its boiling point in the third act, Bill and August both do some bizarre things that don’t seem motivated by anything earlier in the film. Concentrating on them would heighten the conflict enough to make these over-the-top actions seem perfectly in character.
As it stands, Touch is a deeply flawed disappointment. It’s too reverent to work as satire, too soporific to work as a comedy, and too goofy to work as a sober character study. Alfonso Arau’s 2000 film Picking Up the Pieces shares some of Touch‘s flaws (notably, focusing on the wrong character as its protagonist), but it’s essentially what this film should have been: a dark, brutal religious satire played at the frantic pitch of screwball comedy.