With The Fan, we arrive at a very curious question that isn't really as interesting as I probably think it is: can a performance be too good for a movie?

The reason I ask this is because The Fan pairs the slick manipulations of a Tony Scott-directed thriller with the Method acting of Robert De Niro, and I frankly don't think that the movie survives it. There's something unmistakably crude and trashy about the plot, in the manner of a beach potboiler; I certainly have no problem with the content at all, and I think that a lot of what the director does to bring Phoef Sutton's screenplay to life is exactly what a disreputable, overwrought bit of imaginative scuzziness needs to really thrive on the screen as enjoyably nasty, nihilistic fun. But De Niro's main character - certainly not a protagonist, not even an anti-hero; this is full-on "we are trapping you in the mind of a maniac" stuff - is rather more convincing and intense than Scott's glossy directing; given the opportunity to play a psychotic man always on the brink of completely flipping out finally suffering the chain of events that push him right into madness, the actor dug and found the most expressive, shattering way he could to play that role, not as a cackling "movie psycho", but as an acutely damaged personality, giving the history of the character weight and depth and making his actions seem fully plausible and grounded in a cracked but authentic worldview.

All of these things are unmistakably good things for an actor to do; actors get awards for doing it all the time. And as far as great screen psychos of the '90s, De Niro's Gil Renard is certainly one of the most viscerally dangerous. Which is, I'm pretty sure, not to the film's benefit. The Fan isn't a closely attentive study of a decaying mind, like fellow De Niro vehicle Taxi Driver; it's not even a savage howl of vile energy designed solely to break out souls a little bit, like William Lusting's Maniac, the film I found myself thinking of most often during The Fan. It's a cartoon, a mellerdrammer; it's a nasty thriller and it wants a nasty thriller bad guy, someone more like Anthony Hopkin's robust Hannibal Lecter or Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance.

Simply put, De Niro makes the absurd thriller plot of The Fan too real, and in the process he makes the whole thing pretty massively unpleasant to watch. Not every movie needs to be pleasant, of course. But this is a Tony Scott picture about a crazy baseball fan who starts stalking his favorite team's star player. It's not a film where we'd expect to be subjected to the viciousness of the human spirit, and not one where any single element besides De Niro's performance supports that kind of thing. The film benefits in honesty, but it suffers in watchability: Gil's head is not a place that it's very nice to be at all, and the film isn't built to turn that into something constructive and meaningful. So it just ends up being grueling and disturbing in all the wrong ways; a film like, again, Maniac, is equally distasteful, but at least it feels like we're being funneled to some kind of end point. The Fan is structured as a generic thriller and being weighted down by the pain of a fractured psyche prohibits that.

The film, anyway, takes place in San Francisco, where the Giants have just acquired, at stupendous cost, superstar Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes). The team's fans are overjoyed, none more than Gil, for whom baseball is the only positive outlet in a life that is gone completely to shit: his ex-wife (Patti D'Arbanville-Quinn) openly detests him and his attempts to manipulate their son (Andrew J. Ferchland) into becoming a smaller version of himself have gone spectacularly awry; his job as a knife salesman at the company founded by his father has been misery ever since it was taken over by businessmen selling cheap crap.

So it hurts Gil more than most when Rayburn ends up choking almost the minute the season starts: deprived of his lucky jersey #11, already claimed by fielder Juan Primo (Bencio Del Toro), the star's mental game is on the rocks. True fan that he is, Gil doesn't blame Rayburn for this; he understands the potency of a lucky number, which is why he takes the opportunity, one night, to murder Primo in the Giants' locker room. Impressively, his insane behavior only increases from here on out, as he decides that Rayburn lacks motivation and respect for his team's fans, and a little bit of violent coercion might help matters.

It's probably the case that even under the best of circumstances, The Fan would end up a deeply flawed movie. The script is shaggy as all hell, to begin with, with just enough cutaways to Bobby Rayburn's self-doubt and the politics of baseball that it takes up too much screentime to be used in such an uninteresting way - it's not a film about Rayburn's experiences and the controversy about his payday (an entire character played by Ellen Barkin exists solely to make sure we get that this is an Important Thing to Discuss), but it's so interested in those things that it must be, and this is a problem that never resolves, even without closer examination of the case of one Gil Renard. Who, as intense as De Niro's performance lets him be, is nonetheless not a very compelling figure: not nearly universal enough to stand in for All Sports-Loving Men, his story doesn't end up having a way in. Watching the movie is about observing a psychopath, not having that psychopath reveal anything to us about how we live. It's certainly not something that helps with the sense of nihilism.

Where the film does work, though not exceedingly well, is as an exercise in genre mechanics: this wasn't Tony Scott's exact wheelhouse, but he does a pretty fair job of keeping the tension throbbing, always letting scenes play out just slowly enough that we're given plenty of opportunity to imagine that Gil is surely going to snap right... about... It's not all good - I fervently question the director's decision to rely on Rolling Stones songs on the soundtrack as much as he does - but in terms of pacing and modulation of tone, The Fan has the mechanics of a satisfying, though not especially original psycho thriller.

The script lets it down; ironically, Scott's most inspired direction is at the exact same place as the story's most ill-supported twist, when it introduces a kidnapping where too many people have to behave too idiotically for it to feel genuine. And yet the grim cinematography (by Dariusz Wolski) and the angry music (by Hans Zimmer) combine with Scott's lingering direction to make all of it feel legitimately tense, while just barely keeping you from noticing the weedy writing until after it's all over.

All in all, The Fan is a roughly-assembled, mean movie: flashes of solid genre filmmaking keep it from being a wash, but it's really not much fun at all, and anything that attempts to explore a man's anxiety at being professionally and personally emasculated by having him threaten baseball players with hunting knives needs to at least thnk about being fun; there are ways of approaching that theme that are not at all silly, but this just isn't one of them. And Scott, for all that he's largely responsible for the things that work best in the movie, wasn't sincere enough to mount a legitimate investigation into masculine crisis, anyway. There might well be a truly great version of The Fan, but it needed a different lead actor and director and at that point we've pretty much described a different movie altogether than this alienating, frequently competent but never truly impressive misfire.