Random Hearts (1999) is based on the Warren Adler novel of the same name, which was written in 1984. The novel in turn was based upon a real airplane crash in 1982, which was dubbed “Airplane Florida”, where a Boeing 737-222 crashed into the Potomac river and caused the death of seventy five people.
When reading about the Airplane Florida crash because of it serving as inspiration for the book, and film in turn, I wondered how those people who lost their love ones on that flight must have felt. And that’s exactly what Random Hearts tries to address. How do people cope with the abrupt and life changing loss of someone they cared for? And what if the person who they lost was not the person who they thought they were? The film doesn’t ask or answer these questions in the form of a thriller or a suspense film. It does so very much in the manner of a “kitchen sink” drama. There is nothing very glamorous about how the film unfolds. Things happen slowly. The characters realise and grapple with things in what seems like as real time as a mainstream Hollywood film can manage.
The lack of glamour or intrigue or opportunities for sexiness and mystery is probably why the film languished in production hell for fifteen years. How do you go about telling a story in which the victims of a plane crash are not depicted as martyrs, but people whose deaths revealed that they were engaged in adultery and the betrayal of their spouses’ long held trust? Dustin Hoffman was originally interested in making the film in the 1980s, but exited the project after a number of script disputes. In the early 1990s Kevin Costner decided to join, but that also never materialised.
In 1997, another film called the Age of Aquarius, which was supposed to take place during the Bosnian War, was set to star Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas as romantic leads. But Universal decided to cut ties as they films budget ballooned. Harrison Ford and Sydney Pollack picked up the idea of finally adapting Randoms Hearts, and so instead of living through the Bosnian War, Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas played characters living through something else: the death of a spouse and the realisation of the transience of a seemingly solidified life.
Putting Back Together Hearts Broke Long Ago
Internal Affairs Officer, William “Dutch” Van Den Broeck and Congresswoman Kay Chandler’s respective spouses, Peyton and Colin (played by Susanna Thompson and Peter Coyote) are killed in a plane crash. This would be tragic enough on its own, except that they were sitting next to each other during the flight, and Peyton was register as Mrs Colin Chandler, not Mrs William Van Den Broeck.
Dutch and Kay grieve the deaths of their spouses, but Dutch quickly realises that his wife was having an affair, and begins to “investigate” how she and Colin conducted their affair. He contacts Kay, but their first meeting is fraught with tension, and Kay refuses to accept what Dutch is suggesting. She tells him to not contact her again.
Meanwhile, Dutch is investigating the activities of a corrupt cop (played by Dennis Haysbert). But his sole witness for the case is found murdered in an alleyway dumpster, meaning that his case is dead in the water.
Despite her clear reticence, Dutch contacts Kay again and asks her to help him find out about how long the affair was carried out. Kay repeats her request for him to leave her out of it.
Dutch then travels to Miami to find out where Peyton and Colin were going to stay and whether or not Miami was a frequent romantic rendezvous for them. Kay unexpectantly follows him to once again warn him off because of her career and the fact that she has a fifteen year old daughter who idolised her father. Instead of letting things be, Dutch shows Kay were their supposes would’ve stayed in Miami, resulting in Kay being deeply upset. He then takes her to a latin nightclub that Colin had booked a table at. Dutch and Kay watch as couples dance erotic dances such as the tango together, before Kay is recognised by people who used to vote for her father, causing her even more anxiety about the entire situation.
Despite Dutch’s suggestion that they stay in Miami for a while longer, they fly home on the same flight, but do not sit together. Kay drinks quite heavily whilst on the flight. Once at the airport, she offers him a lift home. Whilst in the car in the airport parking lot, Kay has an outburst, which leads to she and Dutch kissing passionately. Kay is immediately regretful of her impulsive and damaging behaviour, although Dutch seems to have enjoyed it.
Dutch receives a threatening phone call from the cop he was investigating, which triggers him and results in him going to the bowling alley where the other man is, and attacking him in front of all and sundry. Unsurprisingly, Dutch is suspended and a trial is imminent. His partner suggests therapy, but Dutch refuses to accept that he may need to talk about his dead wife being unfaithful.
Kay’s fifteen year old daughter (played by Kate Mara) is distraught after she realises that her father was unfaithful to Kay, causing her to smash a perfectly good plate and leave Kay to clean up the mess (literally and figuratively). Kay then drinks rather a lot of wine (who can blame her) and leaves a message on Dutch’s answering machine telling him that she plans not to run for Congress after all because everything is such a mess.
Dutch attends her campaign fundraiser and convinces her not to quit before skedaddling during her speech that reveals that she’s taken his advice. She does, however, see him in the elevator, but because she isn’t alone, she has to talk to him without the others realising, which causes her friend to be rather confused by her odd behaviour. Later Kay finds that Dutch has left her directions to Chesapeake Bay in a map which he placed on her windscreen.
After telling her campaign manager that she needs a day to think about things, she drives to the cabin. Despite her usually reserved and tightly controlled behaviour, she gives into her attraction for Dutch, and they make love.
Afterwards they have dinner together and Kay admits that she doesn’t really know herself with Dutch, and wonders if she will only ever behave in this way when she’s with him. The next day they confide their unrealised plans to one another before Dutch breaks down over their spouse’s easy betrayal of their trust. Kay tries to comfort him, but he’s still obsessed with disembowelling the affair, which upsets Kay, who asks him to concentrate on their new relationship.
Back in Washington, Dutch questions Shyla, a juvenile delinquent who may be connected to his his case that he is still investigating despite his suspension. After he is unable to get any meaningful information out of her, he attacks his partner (played by Charles S. Dutton) and accuses him of being corrupt. His partner is deeply hurt as they have known and worked with each other for many years.
Kay tells her friend, Wendy (played by Bonnie Hunt) about Colin’s affair with Peyton. This causes Wendy to admit that she also had an affair with Colin and knew about a secret apartment he kept, because he took her there for some cheat on my wife with her best friend time. Kay is understandably flabbergasted.
When she and Dutch meet again she fails to tell him that she knows about the apartment, even though he has said that he knows Colin and Peyton rendezvoused somewhere in the city as well. She tells him instead that she intends to retire from Congress if she loses her bid for re-election. Dutch promises to be there for her no matter the outcome.
Despite one of Peyton’s drippy colleagues’ efforts to block him, Dutch finds out where the apartment was. Kay is already there and cleaning everything out. Dutch is furious and feels that Kay betrayed him, and is also lying about not finding anything significant in the apartment. Kay is distraught over his reaction and tells him that he cannot apply logic to what’s happened, and that he won’t find anything that magically explains why their spouses chose to have an affair with one another. He listens to a message that Peyton left on the answering machine for Colin that proves just that.
Kay leaves the apartment and Dutch runs after her, but the corrupt cop is waiting for him outside and shoots him. Before he can get away, Dutch’s partner manages to stop and arrest him. The incident exposes Peyton and Colin’s affair, and against her publicity manager’s (played by Sidney Pollack) advice, she visits Dutch in hospital. He apologises for and explains his behaviour. Kay tells him to forgive himself for loving his wife, and that they both did the best they could after a compounded tragedy. They bid each other farewell before Kay tells the press, who are waiting in the hospital corridor (I don’t think that should be allowed), that she and Dutch are just good friends who supported each other through a very difficult time.
Things return to some form of normality, but Kay loses her bid for re-election, although she isn’t too upset about it. Kay then sees Dutch at the airport, and he admits that he wanted to see her again. He also tells her that he’s been promoted to Lieutenant. She tells him that seeing him has been her Christmas present. He says that he’ll call her up sometime and they can go and see a movie, intimating that he would be prepared to continue a long distance relationship. Kay seems happy to oblige, before she walks off to catch her plane. Angels Running starts to play.
Lovers Lost and Found Again
When I first watched Random Hearts, I knew absolutely nothing about the film aside from the fact that Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas were in it. I didn’t even know Sidney Pollack directed it until the opening titles. I had grown up watching Harrison Ford films like the Indiana Jones trilogy and I had always liked Kristen Scott Thomas since I watched her in The Horse Whisperer and Four Weddings and A Funeral.
But aside from knowing I’d like the leads, I had no idea what the film was about. And it wasn’t at all what I expected. For a film to start with the death of the two main character’s spouses, and then for a further punch to be delivered in the form of them having an illicit liaison, was quite a shock. I first watched the film some years ago when I was a teenager, and my reactions and feelings about the film have shifted as I’ve grown older. Now that I’m an adult I understand Dutch and Kay’s actions more fully, especially their decision to have a relationship with each other.
While the film is fairly glossy due to it being a Hollywood mainstream film, it doesn’t portray the events of the film in an unrealistic or glossed over way. It deals with the reactions of the two main characters to not only the tragic deaths of their spouses but also that shock being compounded by more shocks that ripple outwards from the pebble that the knowledge of their affair acts as. The movie doesn’t try to excuse their behaviour or have some grand moral message, it says quite plainly, and quite obviously through Kay, that there is no reason or rhyme for people’s actions. No neat way to explain their motivations or how they think they can lead a double life without it having consequences. Everything in this film has consequences, and Kay and Dutch have to deal with the fact that most of life’s consequences are unpleasant. Especially when dealing with human emotions, which are messy and often cannot be contained.
Dutch and Kay are like night and day in terms of their personalities and backgrounds. While both characters are intelligent and likeable, Dutch is a cop and Kay is a Congresswoman. If their spouses hadn’t been having an affair and died, they would never have come into contact with each other. And that’s another thing that the film deals with, the rigid social strictures in which we live, especially in countries like America where social standing is something that plays an indelible role in people’s lives. Kay and Dutch shouldn’t be together. He’s tactless and tough, whereas she’s politically savvy and well bred.
But Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas’ natural performances stop that from being an eye rolling set up. Their onscreen chemistry is rock solid, especially in their love scene. There is nothing unrealistic about their interactions with each other. Things are kind of awkward and strange when they do finally make love, but that’s to be expected. This is the coming together of two people who have come to realise that all the things they took for granted as settled in their lives were shifting beneath the surface; and that their relationship with each other is just as uncertain and unknowable.
It’s intimated that Dutch being with Kay isn’t the only unexpected relationship he’s had. Peyton was a fashion editor for Saks Fifth Avenue while Dutch looks like he’s worn the same jeans for fifteen years and wears an earring. But whereas Dutch and Peyton really seemed to be mismatched as proven by her affair with someone more of her own ilk, a refined lawyer; he and Kay’s relationship is a much needed wake up call for both of them. It also provides support in a time of terrible upheaval and emotional strain.
And that’s the crux of the story. People need other people. People need people who are or have experienced the same things they are experiencing. They need someone else to say “I really do know how you feel, because I’m living this, too”. And Random Hearts shows that that support can come from people who are totally different to you, but who are no less touched by the tragedy of an event. Kay and Dutch are like apples and oranges, but by the end of the movie, they love each other, and they want to make it work. Because after being with the wrong people, they’ve found the right person to try for.