Zipper: Mora Stephens's chilling portrait of the Clinton sex scandals
By Thomas M. Sipos
Zipper (2015) isn't specifically about Hillary Clinton, but she and Bill Clinton will to come to everyone's mind while watching this brilliant sexual/political thriller. More broadly, Zipper is about a specific type of woman. The power-hungry woman who will cover up for her husband's sexual infidelities, because she so craves being half of a Washington Power Couple.
Zipper is set in the South. Patrick Wilson plays Sam, an admired district attorney with a public image made for politics: Ivy League, squeaky clean, law-and-order, a family man. Everyone says he has a bright political future. Guests at a dinner party half-jokingly discuss his wife Jeannie's (Lena Headey) qualifications for First Lady.
But Sam is sexually dissatisfied. Married for 13 years, his sex life with Jeannie has gone stale. She won't experiment. She's content to go through their usual motions. Sam is addicted to internet porn. He's always masturbating to his laptop, at times nearly getting caught.
When Jeannie takes away the kids for a weekend trip, Sam caves in to his fantasies and phones an escort service. The first time of many. It becomes an obsession, going to hotel rooms for sex with anonymous women. He's not having an affair. There is no love. It's an addiction -- sex with a series of prostitutes, never the same one twice.
After an FBI sting, an enterprising journalist threatens to expose Sam.
This is where Zipper's brilliance and originality lies. I had expected the usual story arc. Scandal. Public humiliation. The noble wife files for divorce. Sam's career and family life are destroyed. Duly accepting his chastisement, he emerges a wiser and better man. Perhaps redeemed by taking a humble job serving the community. Meekly phoning his kids on weekends, his ex-wife now with a better husband. Not!
After Jeannie explodes in the expected screamfest, expressing her hurt and anger at Sam's betrayal, she turns practical and cold-blooded. Determined to save Sam's career -- and their mutual political goals -- Jeannie almost unexpectedly engages in even deeper depravity than Sam, to cover up the scandal and kill the press story.
I say almost unexpectedly, because there are hints in Zipper's brilliant and literate script that Jeannie was always the more ambitious of the two, the primary driver of Sam's ambitions. When scandal and destruction seem inevitable, Sam is relieved. It's finally over. He talks of quitting the D.A.'s office and finding a humbler legal job, leading a normal, less stressful life. He promises to "make it up" to Jeannie. But she will hear none of it. She won't dump Sam. Neither will she let him quit.
What Jeannie does to save Sam's political career is both chilling and Zipper's greatest strength.
The film flash-forwards several years. Sam is a celebrated and admired Senator. He's in Washington while Jeannie lives in Atlanta. To the public they are a model couple, faithful and loving, yet living apart to better serve the people. Yet we see that it's a marriage of political convenience. And that Sam's continuing "zipper problem" is now an an open secret in political circles, but safely hidden from public view. And presumably everyone with a vested interest in Sam's career, Jeannie included, continue to cover up for him.
Patrick Wilson (Insidious -- one of the best horror films of this decade) offers an outstanding performance as Sam. Wilson conveys Sam's sincere desire to be the good guy everyone thinks he is. His attempts at fidelity and eventual failure. His mixed feelings about his wife. His grief and panic when he's nearly caught -- and Sam's chilling smugness at film's end, having become a morally bifurcated man who now cheats -- and lies -- with ease and grace.
Wilson is especially admirable in the scenes when he contacts and meets his first hooker. He's trembling and sweating outside a convenience story, using a prepaid cell phone, nearly hyperventilating in panic merely for calling an escort service. The scene is effectively supported by a moving camera and quick edits, conveying Sam's queasy guilt -- even his nearly physical nausea at making the call.
The scene with the hooker is also well done. Sam is nervous, tempted, and hesitant, He nearly backs out, saying that "This is not right. I'm a married man." He begins to redress, but then allows himself to be seduced by the coy and understanding hooker.
Zipper is also to be admired for its portrayal of the hookers. We see their professional side -- warm, clever, playful, and understanding to their clients. And we see their candid side -- impoverished, frightened, desperate, and hooked on drugs. We see Sam with a hooker in a glamorous hotel. Then we see her again in her shabby home, after Sam tracks her down. Thus we see both sides of this hooker -- the jaded and carefree woman of the world -- who's only 19 years old -- and the anxious drug addict.
Lena Headey's performance as Jeannie is equally admirable. Headey is best known as Queen Cersei in Game of Thrones, and Jeannie share similarities with Cersei. Jeannie is smart -- she out-performed Sam in law school, but quit her legal career to raise a family and pursue their mutual dreams for Sam's brilliant political career.
Jeannie is warm, proud, and supportive in the early scenes. The model wife. Her growing suspicions, followed by her evident pain over Sam's betrayal, wins our sympathies. But then Jeannie turns fierce, calculating, and cold-blooded -- ruthlessly determined to save the political dreams for which she sacrificed her own career.
Headey is known for her skill with accents. She affects a Southern accent in Zipper. It's softer and higher class than her Southern accent in Laid to Rest (in which she played a blue collar Southern woman). It's also a more authentic Southern accent, at least to my ears.
This isn't the first film featuring a Hillary Clinton archetype. Reese Witherspoon's politically ambitious high school student in Election seems inspired by a young Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Hillary's Clinton is a living embodiment of the Lady Macbeth archetype -- a calculating, cold-blooded wife who pursues her political ambitions through a weaker husband.
Zipper is a brilliant and timely film. Brilliant because the script avoids the usual clichéd story arc-- a hero's rise and fall and redemption. Zipper offers no redemption for fallen hero, partially because his wife becomes his enabler. Timely because, well, just look at today's political land scape.
Thomas M. Sipos writes horror fiction, satire, and film reviews. His website is http://www.CommunistVampires.com/