Prayer Focus
Movie Review

Death Benefit

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and a scene of sensuality

Reviewed by: Brett Willis
CONTRIBUTOR

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Older Teen to Adult
Genre:
Drama/Suspense
Length:
1 hr. 29 min.
Year of Release:
1997
Box art for “Death Benefit”

Starring: Peter Horton, Carrie Snodgress, Wendy Makkens, Penny Johnson, Elizabeth Ruscio, Belita Moreno | Director: Mark Piznarski | Producers: Tina Threadgill, Philip Rosenberg, Derek Kavanaugh, Rick Rosenberg, Bob Christiansen | Screenwriter: Philip Rosenberg, from the book by David Heilbroner | Released By: MCA Home Entertainment

This film would be just average semi-thriller rental fare—except that it’s based on a true story and therefore belongs in the “A Civil Action” / “Erin Brockovich” class.

Kentucky corporate lawyer Steven Keeney (Peter Horton) is approached after church by LouAnne Wilkens (Elizabeth Ruscio) who has been unable to collect on a $2000 Burial Policy after the death of her young-adult daughter Melissa in California. Keeney tells her to stop by his office; he intends to give her a few minutes of pro bono work and see if the company will respond to an inquiry on an attorney’s letterhead. When she does stop by, it’s an inconvenient time and Keeney almost sneaks out to lunch unseen by her. But at the elevator, he decides to go back. That momentary decision to do an act of goodwill changes his life for years to come.

It turns out that the insurance company can’t pay because no death certificate has been issued, which in turn is because the Sheriff’s Office regards Melissa’s death as a “suspicious” accident and is still investigating. In fact, the Sheriff thinks Keeney is calling about a $35000 Life Insurance policy which was taken out on Melissa by the older couple she was staying with; their son (Melissa’s supposed fiancé, even though he was in prison) was the beneficiary, and the couple themselves were the contingent beneficiaries.

Keeney is now hooked. His five minutes of donated time run on endlessly as he conducts an unofficial investigation of Virginia McGinnis (Carrie Snodgress) and her husband. His lover Wynn Burkholder (Wendy Makkens) breaks up with him, unable to listen to him constantly discussing the case. The partners at his firm pressure him out, since he’s not billing hours. His interaction with his young son, which was somewhat neglected already, is shelved even more as Keeney grudgingly makes progress. Mrs. McGinnis’ past includes a double-digit number of insurance fires and the suspicious death of her own daughter. Whatever it takes, Keeney can’t bear to let her keep getting away with this.

Content Warnings: The creepiness of the theme is enhanced by the solid acting of Snodgress (who also played the mother of “Ed Gein”). Although there are several implied deaths, the on-screen violence is minimal. I don’t recall any profanity whatsoever, although I was engrossed in the story to the point that I may have missed some. The most annoying element in this otherwise worthwhile film is a nude simulated sex scene between Keeney and Wynn (due to discreet camera work, the nudity isn’t explicit; nevertheless, that scene serves no purpose except to make the film more “edgy” and to degrade the image of two otherwise positive characters).

For mature audiences, this is worth seeing as an example of doing the right thing at any cost.

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