Harry Barber (Woody Harrelson) is an ex-newspaper man, just out of jail after being framed for a crime. His luck hasn't been the best, but things are looking up when a mysterious woman, Rhea Malroux (Elisabeth Shue), approaches him with a proposition. She wants Harry to help her and her stepdaughter, Odette (Chloe Sevigny), pull off a fake kidnapping scheme to get $500,000 out of her stingy, but rich, husband Felix (Rolf Hoppe).
At first, all Harry is expected to do is provide a threatening voice on the phone, and to collect the money (of which he gets to keep 10%). But, as the deed is carried out, things are not what they seem, and Harry gets caught in the ensuing storm.
Palmetto pulls out all the stops to achieve a film noir film, but the effect never quite comes together. It's got the sultry Florida heat, seductive women, and even curvier plot twists, but the whole thing smells of paint-by-numbers. Sure, the right ingredients are there, but the end result is much too artificial.
A lot of the problems lie with the script, which, though providing some genuine surprises, is packed full of leaden dialogue and bland situations. Even the plot twists don't seem to flow well with the rest of the story. Some of them, for example, come from so far afield that they seemingly only make sense because the writer needed a twist (for example: Harry's spontaneous job offer, or the whole typewriter situation).
The characters are mostly lifeless, played to type, but not much more. Woody Harrelson plays Harry with such imbecilic thick-headedness that it's hard to even picture him as an ex-journalist. Elisabeth Shue vamps it up, but doesn't add anything special to the role. Chloe Sevigny gives a terrible performance, trying to be a sexy 17-year old, but she just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Some of the supporting cast (notably Gina Gershon and Michael Rapaport) give stronger, but, in the end, meaningless performances.
And to top it off, the pacing of the film is much too slow. As the movie grinds to a halt, you're given too much time to wonder why you're wasting it watching Palmetto. If you're in the mood for this type of movie, you'd be much better off going out and renting some classic film noir.
[R - sexuality, language and some violence] (Castle Rock)