NEW YORK — MOVIE director Alan Rudolph began his career as an associate of Robert Altman, one of the premi`ere mavericks of the American film industry. Since then, Mr. Rudolph has bounced between offbeat, personal projects and more conventional work. His filmography includes unusual pictures like ``Remember My Name'' and ``Made in Heaven'' next to dull movies like ``Roadie'' and ``Endangered Species.'' Rudolph's latest film, ``Mortal Thoughts,'' falls somewhere between these two extremes. It's obviously a commercial project, with a standard thriller plot and a good deal of violence and other nasty behavior. Rudolph has directed it with some seriousness and a lot of imagination, though, giving it a slight creative edge over the usual run of Hollywood melodramas.
Demi Moore and Glenne Headly play Cynthia and Joyce, two best friends from Bayonne, N.J., who operate a beauty parlor and cope with James, the abusive husband who makes Joyce's life a lot more difficult than it ought to be. As the movie begins, Cynthia is in the local police station, being questioned about the last time she saw James alive.
Through a series of long flashbacks, we see her story as she tells it to the detective: her friendship with Joyce, her mingled fear and affection toward James, and the violent attack that apparently ended James's life. He was the kind of guy who brought out the worst in people, tempting his own wife to thoughts of murder long before someone finally did get rid of him. The solution to his death seems obvious most of the way through the movie, but there are surprises in store - not very surprising surpris es, but enough to provide a bit of suspense if you're willing to suspend your disbelief and let the narrative carry you along.
WHAT'S best about ``Mortal Thoughts'' isn't the boisterous and sometimes crude story itself, but rather the way Rudolph has filmed it, with unexpected camera moves and a rich color scheme that gives the picture a deep, moody atmosphere that's enhanced even more by Mark Isham's haunting music. As befits a movie directed by Rudolph, who regards good acting as the essential core of any film, the performances are also fine: Ms. Moore and Ms. Headly develop convincing characterizations without patronizing th e working-class women they play, and Bruce Willis is unexpectedly strong as the rotten James, a character way outside his usual range. It's also a pleasure to see the detective played by Harvey Keitel, a fine actor when he gets a suitable role.
It's too bad the later scenes of ``Mortal Thoughts'' are too predictable to fulfill the expectations set up by the first hour or so. After establishing a complex and believable situation, the screenplay (by William Reilly and Claude Kerven) doesn't know what to do with it, and the story's tension peters out. I hope Rudolph's next project will be more like ``Made in Heaven,'' the movie about angels that was one of the most underrated films of the late 1980s. ``Mortal Thoughts'' has strong moments, but fa ils to keep you riveted to the end.