Friday, July 13, 2012
Oliver Stone’s Savages is a powerfully visceral moviegoing experience: a gritty, gorgeous story about pot growers in California, crime lords in Mexico and the perversion of the modern-day drug wars. It’s a tailor-made subject for Stone, who knows all about drug-themed Hollywood thrillers and set the standard for them in his early years as a screenwriter-for-hire; he dealt with hashish in Midnight Express, cocaine in Scarface and heroin in Year of the Dragon. Now comes this movie, packed with sexy leading stars and slam-bang action sequences. Unusually youthful in point-of-view for a film made by a 65-year old director, it’s a masterful Hollywood entertainment, as well as a refreshing directorial comeback—this is Stone’s best movie since Nixon.
Savages has been described by some critics (including this critic and this critic) as a departure for Stone—a conventional genre picture with “no message”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The movie is a single-minded assault on the drug wars, which, Stone argues, hurt more than they help; they lend assistance to power-hungry drug lords (and greedy servants of the law) while addicts and manufacturers are jailed, raped, tortured and decapitated. “This is not a war on drugs,” Stone told Matt Zoller Seitz. “This is a war for money. It’s being fought in Mexico for money, and it’s being fought in the United States for money — the United States being the biggest sap of all, because we give the most.”
The movie is based on the novel by Don Winslow, which I read at the beginning of the summer and finished in a couple of weeks, finding it damn-near-impossible to put down. Part of my interest in reading the book stemmed from the fact that I had never gone into one of Stone’s movies with prior knowledge of the source material before; I was curious to see how well Stone’s vision of the story would match up with my own. The book is a highly-recommended page-turner that raises serious moral questions about torture, drugs and the occasional necessity for violence in the world, and while the film doesn’t quite broach the deepest depths of its source material, Stone (who co-wrote the screenplay with Winslow and Shane Salerno) comes closer to it than perhaps any other filmmaker could have.
The heroes of Savages are three California pot-growers in their 20’s: Ben (Aaron Johnson), Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ophelia (Blake Lively). They are the three greatest pot growers in the world. Ben is the botanist, the brains behind the science of marijuana growth. Chon is the Iraq War veteran with military connections enabling him to import the highest-quality weed all the way from Afghanistan. Ben is the Buddhist who takes 99% of the violence out of the weed business. Chon is the other half—the backup who always deals violently with anyone left who’s refusing to cooperate. And Ophelia, nicknamed “O.,” is the playmate sleeping with both of them—the glue holding their business partnership together, so to speak, and quite possibly the only thing maintaining their sanity as they continue to operate in an increasingly dangerous business. In opening voiceover narration, she summarizes the two boys’ worldviews on the basis of their sex lives: “Chon fucks. Ben makes love.”
Then, one morning, an email is sent to Chon’s laptop, and it changes everything. It’s a video of eight decapitated Mexican heads all in a row, and a message warning them that they have one last competitor standing in their way: the Baja Cartel of Mexico. They’re demanding Ben and Chon come and work for them, or else. A meeting is held, the boys turn down the offer, and the cartel quickly makes plans to teach them a lesson. “I found their weakness,” determines Elena (Salma Hayek), and pretty soon Ben and Chon are once again staring horrified at the screen of Chon’s laptop—this time, because O. has fallen into the clutches of the cartel’s right-hand man, Lado (Benicio Del Toro), while a synchronized voice threatens decapitation unless the boys reconsider their answer.
At the time I was reading Winslow’s book, I found this to be an irresistible premise for American fiction. We still live in a country that frowns upon marijuana as a taboo substance, even despite the admissions of our current president to having experimented with it during his youth ("I inhaled frequently. That was the point”). The genius of Savages is that it’s impossible for us not to sympathize with Ben and Chon; their line of business makes them criminals according to the law, and yet we expect this law to be overturned in our generation any day now. The timing of this movie is a key factor in its success. If pot were legal in America, we would have gotten a much different movie, in which Ben and Chon summon the help of the U.S. government as they handle negotiations to free O. (a convention we’ve seen in just about every hostage thriller). But because marijuana is still illegal in the U.S., Ben and Chon’s only option is to take matters into their own hands; for them to consult the authorities would be out of the question. Indeed, out of all of the film’s villains, perhaps the most evil is Dennis (John Travolta), the slimeball federal agent who accepts a bribe from the boys every week and is the only thing keeping them from doing time in prison just because of the plants they grow.
The film does for the drug cartels what Stone’s Any Given Sunday did for professional football, portraying it as a system so brutal a man’s eye can literally pop out of its socket at any given moment. These people will kill for money and for love. If Ben seeks nonviolent solutions, then Chon is far more trusting of his primitive instincts. He’ll do whatever it takes to get O. back, even if it means sticking a gun in his own mouth. While I would have liked more of the back-and-forth arguments about violence waged between Ben and Chon in Winslow’s book, Stone adapts enough of them to make his point. As Ben, Aaron Johnson has a great scene where he sobs hysterically after watching the blood of a Mexican thug blow up in his face; he absolutely nails the paralysis of a Buddhist watching his own system of values come crashing down before him. Kitsch, as Chon, is cool and quiet in a Steve McQueen sort of way; those who complained of his “uncharismatic” performance earlier this year as the hero of Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (which I loved) will find him more agreeable here, in a role where he earns charisma by playing an antihero instead. But the film’s most jaw-dropping portrayal of a savage is delivered by Demián Bichir as the cartel’s messenger, Alex, for reasons I will not divulge here, except to say that he has a scene so painful and harrowing, I was on the verge of tears watching it.
I have never bought the argument tossed around by Stone’s most fervent detractors that he’s too masculine a filmmaker to write strong roles for women; such critics ignore Hiep Thi Le as Le Ly Hayslip in Heaven and Earth, Joan Allen as the First Lady in Nixon, Cameron Diaz and Ann-Margaret as the Miami Sharks’ owners in Any Given Sunday, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as a 9/11 survivor’s pregnant wife in World Trade Center. It should be said, however, that Savages is Stone’s finest hour to date for female roles; there has never been this many interesting women in a Stone film before. As Elena, Salma Hayek is not merely playing an entertaining femme fatale cartoon (as Jennifer Lopez was in U Turn). No, Hayek brings out the humanity of Elena; this is a woman constantly looking over her shoulder in macho Mexico, struggling to remind her male enemies who’s boss, coping with the lack of attention her teenage daughter (Sandra Echeverría) pays to her ("She is ashamed of me, and I am proud of her for it"). Blake Lively makes O. not an annoying bimbo, but a street-smart girl who learns from her nightmarish experience in captivity. The fact that Lively has a reputation as a posh actress makes her all the more appropriate for the role as opposed to somebody like Jennifer Lawrence, who is a fine actress herself and was originally intended to play O., but would have been less effective; her roles in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games suggest the charisma of a tomboy, rather than somebody as glamorous as O.
Del Toro, as Lado, plays what is unquestionably the most fearsome gigantic Latino in any American film since Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurgh in No Country for Old Men, and you can feel the dread enveloping the audience whenever he appears onscreen. In one scene, he is tasked with the duty of slowly feeding bits and pieces of steak to O. on the sharp prongs of a fork; it’s a moment so simple and yet so terrifying, we fear he might jam it down her throat. Another of the film’s most amusing scenes has Del Toro and Travolta, as Dennis (the actor’s greatest role in years), alone together in a luxurious kitchen while the two middle-aged men decide to strike a deal—one because he can, the other because he doesn’t have a choice.
For a $40 million film, Savages appears to be doing pretty well at the box office despite some truly nasty criticisms being mounted against the film on IMDB, The Huffington Post and the like—many of them over the film’s controversial ending (which is only half-faithful to Winslow’s novel). I won’t outright spoil how the film ends, except to say that it took me completely by surprise watching it in the theater, where I wondered if Stone was paying homage to his old Scarface pal Brian De Palma’s 2002 film-noir Femme Fatale, which employs a similar climactic technique. But I have no way of knowing at the moment if Stone ever even saw that movie, so in the meantime I’ll come up with a theory of my own.
I think Stone is making a point that Shakespearean tragedies don’t always get to end in, well… tragedy. That sometimes reality can be harsher, even when nobody has died. Think about it: the drug wars are a form of prohibition. What does prohibition do? It sends the crime rate skyrocketing. It punishes customers and rewards figures in positions of power (on both sides of the law). Stone feels the need to emphasize this, and so he ends the film in an unconventional way—in which villains profit, “good guys” are disgraced and justice is not served. The ending of Savages has been criticized by some as “sentimental”. I think it is anything but sentimental. While I’m not entirely sure what influenced Stone’s decision to play a cover version of “Here Comes the Sun” by Yuna in the end credits, consider this line in the song’s lyrics: Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces. And then retrace back to the ending. Who is smiling at the end of the film? Who isn’t?
Savages has restored Stone’s rightful place in Hollywood as one of America’s most important filmmakers. Looking back, his career since the late 90’s brought forth some decent movies and some lesser ones, but nothing like this that was worthy of his earlier, stronger work from the late 80’s and early 90’s. U Turn was goofy genre fun. Any Given Sunday was a fascinating mess, and so was Alexander (although the 2007 Final Cut is worth watching). World Trade Center was noble and uplifting. W. had its moments. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was entertaining, but slight. All of these films were either gems or failures, but none of them achieved greatness. This one does.
Friday, July 6, 2012
I’ve been a casual Oliver Stone fan since I was a young teenager, but I didn’t get around to seeing Natural Born Killers until 2010, when I was 19 years old. Looking back, it was the one movie in Stone’s filmography that I was simply too afraid to see, despite my strong admiration for many of his other films. Some had told me it was one of the worst movies ever made. Others told me it was a masterpiece. Now, after three viewings of the film, I have to say: I agree with the latter.
Stone’s latest film, Savages, is all set to be released in the U.S. this weekend; having read the book by Don Winslow, I can pretty much guarantee that it’s going to resurrect age-old debates about Stone’s approach to cinematic violence, and whether or not he has a problem with pushing it too far. I suspect critics’ personal feelings about Stone as a whole have tended to be a factor in their perception of the ways he handles violence in some of his movies. Because I always try to go into a Stone release with a clear understanding of what he is trying to achieve (even when the end result is a failure, such as the botched 2005 "director's cut" of Alexander, quite inferior to the 2007 Final Unrated Cut), I wonder if maybe I’m guilty of a bias, in that I largely notice only the good things about the ways he handles violence in a film like Natural Born Killers, and very little of the supposed flaws to his approach. Indeed, for some, Natural Born Killers was an exploitative and gratuitous film, so irresponsible in the way Stone handled violence that many critics lost faith in him soon afterward.
Jim Emerson, one of my favorite film critics, is among them, and, in a 2008 piece captioned, "Why doesn't a new Oliver Stone release matter any longer?" seemed undeniably pleased that Stone's more recent films have no longer been getting the attention they used to. Emerson's three-part-dismissal of Natural Born Killers, published for his Cinepad site in the mid-90’s, was the first negative review of the film that I began to think seriously about (up until then I had spoiled myself only with the more positive reviews by such critics as Roger Ebert and Todd McCarthy). Emerson opened his three-part piece with this argument:
A lot of people still consider Oliver Stone to be a serious political filmmaker. I used to -- up until I saw Natural Born Killers. Then I saw him for what he really is: a sensationalist -- an exploitation filmmaker who, instead of making movies about zombies and bikers and big-busted women in prison, applies his exploitation-film sensibility to fragments of American history or pop culture. His style was perfect for Platoon as a way of immersing you in the disorienting sensations of combat. And even the senseless hodge-podge of film stocks and techniques that Stone applied to JFK seemed appropriate for a movie about piecing together a crazy quilt of conspiracy theories.
But with Natural Born Killers, Stone revealed his true nature -- not just in his relentlessly pandering and derivative "stylistic" doodling, but in the way he took all the satirical energy and purpose out of Quentin Tarantino's original script. In Stone's hands, Natural Born Killers was no longer about the way society (and particularly Hollywood filmmakers) glorify murderers and then sell them back to the public as celluloid rebels; it's about Oliver Stone striking back at the press who have begun to see through him, and a desperate (and apparently successful) attempt to cash in on the middle-brow, MTV-bred youth market by force-feeding them trippy visuals -- and by riding Tarantino's "hipster" coattails.
I have to disagree with Emerson’s argument that Stone’s film lacks the “sale and glorification of murderers” theme that was present in the original Quentin Tarantino screenplay. Consider the following: about a quarter into the film, Stone introduces us to Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.), a news reporter with a Robin Leach accent who hosts the tabloid TV show American Maniacs. True to Tarantino’s original screenplay, this television show is shown doing precisely what Emerson argues Stone’s film shies away from exposing: the glorification of serial killers who are sold back to the public through entertainment.
In one American Maniacs episode, for example, Wayne Gale sensationalizes the murder of a police officer by the film’s infamous serial-killing duo, Mickey and Mallory Knox. The episode grossly dramatizes the murder, portraying the ensuing police chase of Mickey and Mallory (who are played by American Maniacs actors) as though it were an action sequence straight out of a Roger Corman picture. Another cop, also played by an actor (Dale Dye—Stone’s military advisor on Platoon), recalls his partner’s murder outside a donut shop as he was carrying out a cup of coffee and “my bear claw.” He chokes up as all-too-obviously fake tears begin streaming down his face—a moment which Stone, on the film’s DVD commentary, describes as demonstrating “the sentimentality of television tabloid.” When one of Gale’s American crew members, David (Evan Handler), complains that the episode “raped and pillaged” a previous episode, Gale shoots back, “Repetition works, David. Okay? Do you think that those nit-wits out there in zombieland remember anything? It’s junk food for the brains. It’s, you know, filler. Fodder. Whatever. Just build to the interview.”
Gale does not realize his mistake until the second half of Natural Born Killers, when he finally gets a rare opportunity to meet Mickey and Mallory Knox themselves after they are caught by the law and sent to prison. Mickey (Woody Harrelson) is doing time in the deepest, darkest region of the prison and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) is being salivated over in another region by officers of the law. Mickey has agreed to do an interview with Gale on Super Bowl Sunday. The interview (which Stone modeled after Geraldo Rivera’s interview with Charles Manson) goes pretty smoothly until Mickey debunks the artificiality of Gale’s scare tactics: “You’ll never understand, Wayne. You and me? We’re not even the same species. I used to be you, then I evolved. From where you’re standing, you a man. Where I’m standing? You’re an ape. You’re not even an ape—you’re a media person. Media’s like the weather, only it’s man-made weather. Murder? It’s pure. You’re the one made it impure. You’re buying and selling fear. You say, ‘Why?’ I say, ‘Why bother?’”
So even though Natural Born Killers is not specifically an attack on the selling and glorifying of mass murderers by Hollywood filmmakers, as Tarantino’s screenplay was (to some extent—though not entirely), this does not mean Stone ignores the “sale and glorification” debate entirely. Still, Emerson expresses annoyance at Stone for ignoring Hollywood movies that allegedly commit such a fallacy, particularly because Stone cut out a movie-within-a-movie excerpt in Tarantino’s original screenplay, entitled "Thrill Killers", that gave weight to that argument. Emerson writes:
Tarantino's script was done like a documentary, and featured a hilarious excerpt from a Hollywood exploitation movie about Mickey and Mallory called Thrill Killers. As you can see from reading this excerpt, there's nothing in Stone's movie that makes fun of the media's perceptions of Mickey and Mallory (or of Mickey and Mallory themselves) as much as this movie parody. Why did Stone cut it out? Probably three reasons: 1) he's notorious for having no sense of humor; 2) it has a satirical point of view that the rest of Stone's film lacks; 3) the movie Stone actually made is much closer to Thrill Killers than it is to Tarantino's send-up.
Emerson makes a valid point when he accuses Stone of making a movie that’s actually a lot like the “Thrill Killers” excerpt from Tarantino’s screenplay. Indeed, Natural Born Killers, much like “Thrill Killers”, puts a lot of emphasis on the love that binds Mickey and Mallory together; the director in Tarantino’s “Thrill Killers” excerpt describes the tale of Mickey and Mallory as “an operatic love story,” which certainly sounds like the sort of thing a filmmaker like Stone might say.
But here’s my question: why is it such a problem if Stone did, indeed, make a movie closer to “Thrill Killers”? Wouldn't that make the movie a more empathetic study in the lives of these two people? You have to remember that Natural Born Killers was released at a time when the American public, aside from being obsessed with mass murderers, was also obsessed with thinking up grotesque ways to punish them. Our justice system back then was founded on a “three strikes, you’re out” rule. Stone was worried about this, and longed for the public to do a little more in the way of empathizing with the situations and backgrounds of these mass murderers, horrific as their crimes may have been. In the age of the Willie Horton political ads, I’d say this was pretty ballsy on his part.
“None of us,” Stone explained in a Charlie Rose interview, “should feel ourselves superior to another person for having committed a crime, because in us is the ability to commit that same crime. We are united, we’re linked… we must have the humility to understand our brother and sister. In the murderer goes I. The little black kid that kills somebody in the park tomorrow, and—you know—kills a nice, respectable person? You hate that kid, right? I mean, you wanna kill him for what he did. You want to throw him away in jail… but, you know, he has a reason, and you gotta go back through his life, and his pain, and his suffering. And you begin to understand.”
Perhaps because Natural Born Killers provides a more intimate window into Mickey and Mallory’s lives than the harshest of satire would permit, Emerson charges that Stone’s own filmmaking approach is indistinguishable to that of Wayne Gale:
Stone is very big on how "the artist" just can’t help but "reflect society." He contends that to say that NBK is part of the problem it half-heartedly pretends to criticize is like trying to "kill the messenger." But how, exactly, does Stone's "message" significantly different from Hard Copy's or Wayne Gayle's? Stone doesn't, or can't, say. In claiming that NBK is but a mirror, simply reflecting the violence in the media and society at large, Stone is virtually admitting that his movie has no point of view that would give satirical context to the violence it portrays. I'd argue that the artist's mission is not just to reflect, but to imagine, transform, interpret, comment.
And then Stone says: "Natural Born Killers comes from a very emotional moment in time, those two years that I really felt disgusted. Everything was coming up. I just felt sick, disillusioned – and I just expressed myself the way a kid would by just throwing paint on a canvas. And I just let it go, I didn’t censor myself at all." Somehow, throwing paint on a canvas (or blood on a screen) like a kid and then labeling it "satire" is equated with not censoring oneself. You know, I'll bet Wayne Gayle (or, for that matter, John Wayne Gacy) could say the exact same thing about reporting for tabloid TV or serial killing. Gosh, they were just expressing their disgust with society and not censoring themselves.
Again, I have to disagree with Emerson here. In my view, Stone, as a filmmaker, differs from Wayne Gale in that he believes violence can be eliminated by not exposing potential mass murderers to the greediness of mass media. A figure like Wayne Gale would say that mass media can be a deterrent to crime because a show like American Maniacs alerts at-home viewers to the actions of nearby criminals. Stone, however, believes that the environments of most mass murderers are actually shaped by mass media (demonstrated, for example, in the film’s notorious “I Love Mallory” sequence), and that the only way to escape such artificial hostility is to escape the system and disappear in a media-free underground. As Patti Smith sings in the film’s opening credits: “Outside of society—that’s where I wanna be! Outside of society—they’re waiting for me!”
Furthermore, it is untrue to claim that Stone is merely “reflecting” media violence. Stone is also interpreting it; specifically, he interprets media violence as an insult to the audience’s intelligence (“Repetition works, David!”). And where Emerson takes issue with Stone’s “uncensored paint on a canvas” quote, dismissing it as the confession of a sloppy artist with nothing to say, I see nothing wrong with it; Luis Bunuel, after all, specialized in “uncensored paint on a canvas” long before Stone, and in several instances (Un Chien Andalou, Simon of the Desert, The Exterminating Angel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie) the results worked beautifully. Stone is more or less following his lead.
Stone is also interpreting misogyny in the media, which he first exposes in the “I Love Mallory” sequence when Mallory imagines being fondled by her father (Rodney Dangerfield) while a laugh track howls at her abuse, ignorant to what is really going on. Ironically, Quentin Tarantino revealed in an interview with Opie and Anthony that this sequence drove him out of the theater and provoked him to demand that Stone cut his screenwriting credit out of the film (although Tarantino says that he and Stone are on good terms now, and admits that the one thing he likes about the scene is its interesting interpretation of what Rodney Dangerfield might have been like in real life). Why Tarantino disliked the scene, I am not sure, but to me, it is an important scene because it establishes Mallory’s violent home life, which includes being derided by her father as a “stupid bitch”; thus, she is reasonably upset when Mickey calls her this later on in the film. Misogyny in the media is further emphasized when a psychologist (Steven Wright—who worked with Tarantino on Reservoir Dogs) informs Wayne Gale he is unmoved by Mallory’s death threats against him, because “I never really believe what women say to me.”
But herein lies a possible problem: by focusing more on the villainy of the mass media than on the villainy of mass murderers, is Stone not committing some type of moral fallacy? Emerson writes:
In the end, the only idea in the movie is Stone's assertion that tabloid TV reporters are a lower form of humanity than mass killers. That may be a provocative (if morally questionable) position to take, but it's just thrown out there; the movie doesn't even try to back it up.
Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to conclude that the film portrays the mass media as “a lower form of humanity” than mass killers. I just think that Stone wants to take a more unusual approach by showing us more of the media’s villainy. After all, we walk into the movie knowing, from the opening scene in the diner, that Mickey and Mallory are evil people. It is a given. But in the 1990’s, it was not a given to charge the mass media with some of the blame as well.
Along with the media, Stone also goes after right-wing law enforcement. This is represented by Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), who, like Mickey and Mallory, was bred by violence; as an 8-year old, he witnessed his mother’s chest exploding on the day Charles Whitman fired shots from the University of Texas Tower. Because Scagnetti wants nothing to do with Wayne Gale, you would think he’s anti-media, but no: he’s written books about his ruthless crime-fighting exploits. Like Wayne Gale, he sells fear to the public, as does McCluskey (Tommy Lee Jones), the prison warden who believes that the best way to run a prison is to strike fear into inmates by twisting their noses with pliers. Neither Scagnetti nor McCluskey ever once consider that their ruthless crime-fighting tactics will come back to haunt them; this explains clips in the film’s end credits featuring the recently-departed Rodney King, a distant echo of a real-life incident tainted by brutal law enforcement and its consequences.
Stone scores another point against the media when he argues that it’s hypocritical to criticize figures like Mickey and Mallory when we all have a Mickey and Mallory hidden deep within the recesses of our souls, a universal theme that is emphasized at a moment (very late in the film) when Wayne Gale suddenly finds himself fighting alongside Mickey and Mallory in the wake of an escalating prison riot. The riot has made Gale feel pure and alive for the very first time in his life; anyone who’s ever at least played a game of paintball can certainly attest to what he’s feeling. It’s not until this point in the film when Natural Born Killers truly begins to qualify as satire, and, as fellow blogger Jake Cole writes, “Gale is so consumed in his own hype that he, too, begins to gun down prison guards in a frenzy. As TV destroys itself in rapid montage, Mickey and Mallory emerge the evolved ‘natural born killers,’ the idols of a world that has finally come to celebrate its evil side.”
But does the movie itself celebrate this kind of evil? Emerson argues:
This movie does exactly the same thing it pretends to be criticizing -- and gets off on it. Stone wants to have it both ways -- to condemn violence and its exploitation, and to acknowledge that it's fun to groove on that violence after all. In 1969, Stanley Kubrick tried to show the same sort of thing in A Clockwork Orange… But Kubrick's film, whatever its other faults, captured that ambivalence and communicated it to the audience; it got you to feel sorry for a pathetic monster but never urged you to applaud his cruelty.
True, A Clockwork Orange didn’t urge us to applaud Alex’s cruelty. I don’t believe Natural Born Killers urges us to applaud Mickey and Mallory’s cruelty, either; in retrospect, both films can be accused of practically the same offenses. Both Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers begin with their heroes launching into a series of brutal acts, show us how they’re punished by establishments, and then proceed to reveal the flaws in those establishments before ending with the heroes essentially beating the system. The Ludovico Treatment is conquered in Clockwork Orange, and the mass media is pumped full of lead in Natural Born Killers. Alex is a rapist and murderer, and in the end he’s rewarded with his Beethoven music. Mickey and Mallory are mass murderers, and in the end they escape underground and get away with it. We come away from both films convinced that these are, yes, monstrous people, but then again so are the systems controlling them. Kubrick and Stone each get to make their case to explain why.
For me, the strongest section in Emerson’s critical piece on Natural Born Killers is his analysis of Stone’s own interviews explaining the film’s intentions, and it is here that one does have to admit some of Stone’s statements appear to contradict each other:
Oliver Stone may be the first, true "spin director" – a filmmaker who continually uses the media to manipulate impressions and put spin on his movies. Stone undoubtedly feels this is necessary because his movies themselves are so muddled and confused. As I've noted many times before, Stone talks a much better movie than he actually makes. Here are some examples of Stone talking out of both sides of his mouth, from the NBK video documentary:
"The irony is that, in cutting these three minutes, I think that much of the black humor in the film was lost. A shot of a knife going through a window, a bullet going through a hand and creating a hole in it, take the edge off and make the film, in a way, more comfortable and easier to watch, because you realize it’s ridiculous. And I think that by cutting some of that stuff it makes it grimmer and allows certain people to not completely grasp the attitude of the movie." -- Oliver Stone; intro to NBK
And then: "A lot of the, you know, younger filmmakers – I’m surprised that they think violence is cool and hip. And they play it that way – which is fine, you can make a couple of films like that, but I can’t see making a career out of it. Morally, it’s a repugnant point of view to me, because I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve seen the effects of guns, and it’s pretty terrifying....
"There’s no question that movies, by the standard of real violence, are a pale approximation, almost a joke. So I think a lot of the younger filmmakers, because they can’t get the realism, just go the other way, and they dismiss the consequences of violence. You kill someone and it’s fun, it’s hip, it’s cool. I could never take part in that, personally, because of my own experience in life." -- Oliver Stone, in the interviews accompanying the director’s cut of NBK.
OK, my head is spinning (though not as fast as Ollie’s, apparently). Let’s see: The original version of NBK lacked some of the black humor – like the bloody see-through gunshot wound in the hand – that should make the film less grim and easier to watch. Those kinds of things allow you to better grasp the movie’s attitude because they are supposed to be funny and ridiculous, although Stone himself (the director and co-author of the screenplay) finds that attitude morally repugnant because he’s seen the real effects of violence in Vietnam and violence should not be portayed as fun and cool and hip, the way those younger filmmakers do. Right. But, uh, how again does the "black humor" and making the violence fun/funny different from what Stone is accusing those younger ‘90s filmmakers (a direct slap at Quentin Tarantino, who hated what Stone did to his script?) of doing? And how does this "black humor" clarify the film’s "attitude"? Who does the film encouraged to laugh at, the killers or the victims of their violence? Whose side is the film really on? What consequences do Mickey and Mallory -- embodiments of Violence in Society -- face because of their violence? Why are the killings presented from the killers’ point of view, and the victims always made comically loathsome and somehow "deserving" of their deaths -- oh, except for the racist stereotype of The Indian, that is. It's "bad bad bad" to kill those noble Native Americans, isn't it? (See Mississippi Burning for more examples of this kind of extra-perverted racism.)
Emerson is correct that Stone’s comments about “black humor” are odd. The scene Stone refers to—in which Mallory takes Wayne Gale hostage and then shoots a hole into his hand—is not a scene that I find particularly funny. To the contrary, I think this scene works for the exact reason that Stone tries to argue against: it’s supposed to be grim, horrific, and uncomfortable to watch. When Mallory shoots Gale in the hand, he lets out a painful, bloodcurdling scream that puts an end to his brief fantasy as a killer; it’s a jolt to the audience as well, because it reminds us—just as it no doubt reminds Gale—that violence is not all fun and games. It HURTS. Oddly enough, Stone even confirms the raw power of this scene on the DVD commentary (“It’s real, in its weird kind of way. It kind of centers you… and that became one of the symbols of the film”), so perhaps even Stone has come around to realizing the ridiculousness of his previous claim that the scene is meant to be funny. I do, however, think that Downey’s performance as Gale provides the basis for many funny lines of dialogue in the film (“Ming is not a fucking restaurant!”), so I disagree with Emerson’s separate point in Part III of his piece that the film has “no humor”.
I understand where Stone is coming from when he expresses uneasiness about the younger filmmakers in the 90’s who made careers out of “cool and hip” violence. It’s a redundant trend in moviemaking that continues to this day. There’s no denying that his comments are partially a slap at Tarantino, and I would deem them a little unfair; to be sure, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds all make occasional attempts to cut through the ugliness of violence. Still, there’s no denying that Tarantino, as a filmmaker, is way more interested in making violence exhilarating in his movies (see Kill Bill Vol. 1) than Stone, who is generally more interested in making violence disturbing in his movies, being a Vietnam veteran who’s witnessed human atrocities first-hand. That doesn’t necessarily mean Stone is clean in this regard; at one point in Natural Born Killers, Mickey is griping about violence in Hollywood (“I been thinking about why they making all these stupid fucking movies. Anyone out there in Hollywood believe in kissing anymore?”) while the chainsaw clip from the Stone-scripted Scarface is played in the background through rear projection—Stone’s clever way of acknowledging his own hypocrisies.
As for the Navajo Indian (Russell Means from The Last of the Mohicans) who takes Mickey and Mallory into his home, I am confused by Emerson’s assertion that the character is “a racist stereotype.” Stone presents him as a man whose family has endured the pain of violence (it is implied that his son died in Vietnam), and who determines instantly that Mickey and Mallory have been bred from violence as well, although theirs is dictated by media instead of government; from the Navajo’s point of view, the words “too much T.V.” are projected on Mickey and Mallory’s clothes. The Navajo is not necessarily “noble,” either, which he reveals when he tells his grandson a story about a woman who died from the bite of a snake that enjoyed her hospitality (“Look, bitch: you knew I was a snake”). The Navajo laughs at this story, even when he knows he is violating its principal moral. Mickey and Mallory are, in a sense, snakes, yet he is willing to offer them his hospitality anyway. When Mickey accidentally shoots the Navajo dead and is reprimanded for it by Mallory, we are happy to see them coming to their senses for once, even while we sense the irony that they still haven’t realized their mistake in murdering scores of other innocent people.
I question Emerson’s claim that the movie’s victims are made out to “deserve” their deaths. In Part III of his piece, Emerson elaborates on this a bit further, describing the murder of Mallory’s mother (Edie McClurg) and father:
Mickey and Mallory kill Mallory's parents, stuffing dad's head into the fish tank and setting mom on fire in her bed. The movie's visceral message is: These people deserve to die -- dad because of what he did and mom because she didn't try to stop him. But is anything else going on here? Is the film pulling the old "blame-the-parents-for-the-sins-of-the-children" routine and saying this is the reason Mickey and Mallory turned out to be indiscriminate murderers? Does this excuse their behavior in any way?
Well, while it is certainly true that Mickey and Mallory believe Mallory’s parents deserve their deaths, (Mickey says in his interview with Gale, “I know a lot of people who, uh… deserve to die”), I am not so sure the movie agrees with them. Stone has indicated that Natural Born Killers is partially a study in the reasons why mass murders happen; I don’t think this is the same thing as excusing the murders just because of the reasons why they occurred. As Stone himself put it in his interview with Charlie Rose, “Everybody’s out there, you know, ripping, shredding. And I’m not for it! It is a Darwinian world, but it’s also a world capable of love. And this is the big conflict in our lives. Love and aggression.”
So, then, one might ask: Why doesn’t Stone judge Mickey and Mallory too harshly for their definition of “deserved deaths”? If I had to take a wild guess, I’d say it’s because the point of this film is to attack the media’s perception of deserved punishment, not the concept of deserved punishment itself. At one point, the film even briefly addresses the thorny issue of capital punishment when Scagnetti tells McCluskey, “Fry the pricks!” He views the death penalty as a convenient way to deal with killers, and God knows this was a persistent view held by many law officials in the 90’s (Timothy McVeigh’s execution comes to mind). Aside from Mallory’s parents, practically all of Mickey and Mallory’s victims are very obviously undeserving of their deaths, including: a rape victim (Corinna Laszlo), a waitress (O-Lan Jones), a druggist (Glen Chin), a gas station attendant (Balthazar Getty), and a hostage cop named Duncan (Joe Grifasi) who is a family man and pleads for his life, but is shot anyway (reminding us of the hostage cop in Reservoir Dogs, another Tarantino script).
The killings in the film are not always seen from Mickey and Mallory’s’ point of view. When a girl, taken hostage, is raped by Mickey in a motel room, we experience it from her POV; there is a terrifying moment when Mickey sneers sinisterly into the camera. When Scagnetti is dying on the floor of a prison cell, gurgling blood while a fork is stuck in his throat, we see everybody else in the cell from his POV, and the scene is made all the more repulsive by Wayne Gale’s roar for Scagnetti to shut up (because his gurgling is ruining a romantic moment) and by Mickey pointing a shotgun barrel at him (i.e. us, the audience) as if to fire. Eventually, it is Mallory who shoots him dead, and again, we experience the death from Scagnetti’s POV; Mallory is pointing the gun at us, and Scagnetti’s final scream of terror is like “the throwing up of a life badly lived, a life of insanity and madness” (as described by Stone on the commentary). We even feel scared for McCluskey when he dies at the end of the film, when we are locked in the prison along with him as an unimaginably large mob of prisoners bears down on him and a handful of innocent prison guards—whom we feel even more sorry for.
In fact, for me, one of the most harrowing murders in the entire film is the murder of Wayne Gale—in some way's, the film’s nastiest villain, but nevertheless one whom we hate to see go. Tarantino’s original screenplay had ended with Gale screaming in terror while Mickey and Mallory proudly pumped him full of lead. It is safe to assume that Stone found this ending to be too cruel, and that some of the poison needed to be taken out of it in order for audiences to accept such a grisly finale. He and co-writers David Veloz and Richard Rutowski rewrote it significantly, and the end result is my single favorite exchange of dialogue in the film, in which Gale begs for his life, and Mickey decides to do the decent thing and explain why he and Mallory feel the need to kill him:
Mickey: “You’re scum, Wayne. You did it for the ratings. You don’t give a shit about us or anybody except yourself.”
Gale: “Wait a minute, you fucking hypocrite. What about the Indian? You said you were done with killing—you said love beats the demon! YOU SAID THAT LOVE BEATS THE DEMON!”
Mickey (putting down gun, walking over): “I am, and it will. It’s just that you’re the last one, Wayne...”
Gale (crying): “No, man. Don’t fucking kill me.”
Mickey (consoling him): “This is not about you, you egomaniac. I kind of like you. But if we let you go, we’d be just like everybody else. Killing you—and what you represent—is… a statement. I’m not so sure exactly what it’s saying, but… you know. Frankenstein killed Dr. Frankenstein.”
I love this exchange for a number of reasons.
First of all, whenever I watch this scene, I always find myself agreeing with both Mickey and Gale. Mickey has a point that Gale is a ratings whore, and that if he is released he’ll probably return to his life of covering Mickey and Mallory’s exploits. He’s the one thing that’s still standing between them and a media-free underground.
On the other hand, Gale has a point, too: Mickey is a hypocrite, despite his firm belief that love beats the demon, which he himself outright confesses (“I am, and it will”). Even when Gale tries to make a run for it, Mickey doesn’t shoot him at that point; he and Mallory cock their shotguns instead, as a warning to convince him to stay put. They intend to kill him, yes. But they want him to “have some dignity” upon death, too; hence, their allowance for him to take a deep breath, spread his arms and let out an Eastern chant before getting shot dead. “I’m gonna miss him,” Mickey confesses. And, damn it all, so will we.
If there’s one major thing I differ with Stone on, it’s the way I respond to the movie’s ending. In a new documentary on the film’s 15th Anniversary DVD, Stone is optimistic that it’s possible for mass murderers to escape into a media-free underground: “I believe there is an underground that doesn’t watch necessarily Internet, or has a different approach to life, and I think there’s a lot of people out there who don’t go along with the system as it is, you know? But I would love them to get away with it—and I think they could.”
Stone would see such a thing as a cause for relief. I don't think it's a cause for relief at all. Stone, apparently, is happy that Mickey and Mallory succeed in getting away with their crimes, perhaps because he’s confident that a life free of a bloodthirsty media and devoted more to love and family (they’re shown raising children in the end credits) would effectively end Mickey and Mallory’s chain of violence. Well, it’s nice to think so, but I’m not so sure I’d be as happy about such an occurrence as Stone. After all, O.J. Simpson is among those featured in the film’s end-credit clips; what would Stone think if he, too, had escaped into the underground? If Simpson had somehow taken up a life of love and family after being acquitted in his trial, would it make people any less angry about the murders he seems very likely to have committed? I doubt it.
The film’s DVD includes an alternate ending, in which the “guardian angel” character of Otis (Arliss Howard from Full Metal Jacket) escapes prison along with Mickey and Mallory, and then murders them from the backseat of their car. Would this scene have worked better than the present ending? Or would it have detracted from Stone’s reminder that he wants the movie to be about an escape from crass yellow journalism? I, personally, think that the alternate ending is interesting on its own terms, but then again, it probably wouldn’t have suited Stone’s interests because it’d have been a more conventional ending. It reeks of the influence of Bonnie and Clyde. And it does detract from Stone’s message that love beats the demon, even if I’m not so sure I agree entirely with such a message. But, as with JFK, this is not necessarily a film where you need to agree with Stone’s personal beliefs in order to sense the brilliance of what he is achieving. He’s laying out all the options for you, and then leaving you to make up your own mind.
The final shot of Natural Born Killers, set to the tune of Leonard Cohen singing, “I’ve seen the Future, brother: it is Murder,” is something unexpected: a close-up of a rabbit. We recall, in his interview with Wayne Gale, that Mickey had mentioned he used to have nightmares about a creature named “Mr. Rabbit,” and that those nightmares led to his accidental killing of the Navajo Indian. This is one instance in the film when Mickey is in no position to blame his acts of violence on the influence of the mass media. No—this time, something of purity did it. A rabbit. A creature of love and aggression.
Friday, June 29, 2012
If there’s one thing Lawrence Kasdan’s films have in common, it’s dogs. The most famous is “Edward” in The Accidental Tourist, who bites strangers and whimpers at ghosts in the basement. The most iconic is the wounded dog in Silverado whom the Kevin Kline character is said to have tended to, much to the amusement of his old gang buddies. The funniest is the German Shepherd in I Love You to Death who won’t let Kline make love to his mistress. The saddest is the German Shepherd in Dreamcatcher who dies after ingesting a creature from another world.
Dogs play an important role in Kasdan’s films, and one of the great disappointments of his most recent film, Darling Companion—his first film in 9 years, after Dreamcatcher flopped in 2003—is that it introduces us to an unforgettable dog in its opening sequences and then relegates it to the background, never to be seen again until [spoiler warning!] a tearful reunion with its human owners at the end. Imagine if Pinocchio had been told from Gepetto’s point of view; it’s touching to see the old man wandering out in the dark, calling out for his missing puppet, but at the end of the day we’re simply more interested in the adventures the wooden boy is having on his journey to return home. This is the essential problem with Darling Companion, and by making a lost-dog movie about the dog’s owners instead of the dog itself, Kasdan misses the real story.
Kasdan and his wife/co-writer Meg based the screenplay on an incident that occurred in their lives shortly after the release of Dreamcatcher, when their adopted dog “Mac” got lost in the Rockies only to be found three weeks later. The dog in Darling Companion is named Freeway (played by the adorable mutt Kasey), and makes such a lasting impression on us in the opening scenes that I wish the Kasdans had figured out a way to structure the film around Freeway’s adventures in the mountains, rather than around the old, tiresome humans who are searching in vain for him—when they’re not bickering with each other, quarreling with the locals or complaining about the trials of old age, that is.
That the Kasdans would prefer to stick to the humans’ point-of-view is understandable; they cannot speak for what their own lost dog experienced on his mountain journey, and can only speak for the pain they endured during his disappearance. But surely this is where the imagination of cinema could have stepped in and lent a hand? I shudder to think of the limp, uninspired film Kasdan’s old Raiders of the Lost Ark buddy Steven Spielberg might have come up with if his animal-movie masterpiece from last year, War Horse, had stuck only to Albert’s search for Joey, and not shown us any of the profound encounters experienced by Joey during his sensational wartime odyssey.
There is only one scene in Darling Companion in which Kasdan offers a trace of what might have been: an animated dream sequence in which Freeway is shown fleeing from red-eyed mountain coyotes before tumbling off a cliff. An “entirely unexplained and unnecessary” scene, claims Roger Ebert in his sorely-negative 1-star review. Actually, I found it to be one of the most inspired scenes in the film, and I wish there had been more scenes of this kind. What if Darling Companion had been half a movie about the humans’ search for Freeway, and half an animated movie told from Freeway’s point of view? Oh, what a grand opportunity Kasdan missed.
Ebert’s 1-star dismissal of Darling Companion is, more than anything, an indication that he considers it even worse than Kasdan’s last film, Dreamcatcher, to which Ebert awarded a mildly higher 1 ½ stars back in ’03. Other critics consider Darling Companion a slight return to form for the director. “As Kasdan dogs go, this is light-years better than Dreamcatcher,” writes critic Keith Uhlich. “It’s not a disaster like Kasdan’s last film, Dreamcatcher,” writes critic Lou Lumenick, who actually gave Dreamcatcher a positive review back in ’03. This is where I'm in the strange position of disagreeing with everyone. While I admire Darling Companion more than Ebert, I would also argue against Uhlich and Lumenick’s assertions that it’s a better film than Dreamcatcher. For all its faults, Dreamcatcher afforded Kasdan the rare privilege of tackling big, challenging themes about mankind’s place in the universe, and was further benefited from a strong performance by Damian Lewis as a psychic trapped inside his own subconscious mind. By comparison, Darling Companion is—in Kasdan’s own words—“meant to be light,” and despite having a cast of veteran actors who are clearly having a good time, none of them deliver a performance quite as compelling as Lewis’ in the last film, and the picture looks rather small and ordinary next to something as big and brave as Dreamcatcher.
The most successful performance in Darling Companion is by Diane Keaton, whom Kasdan has never worked with before, but who delivers what might be her best acting work since Something’s Gotta Give. She plays Beth Winter, who first found Freeway hiding out beneath snowy branches on the curb of a highway, and leads the charge to find him even while the rest of her family begrudgingly puts their weekly plans behind to join her in the search. “There’s a moment, very late in the film,” writes critic Ty Burr, “where Beth stands in a field calling out for Freeway one last time. Keaton’s voice goes hoarse and breaks, and our hearts break with it, so profoundly do we understand this woman’s need for this dog — the mute optimism and uncompromised love Beth used to believe in until life and family betrayed her.”
For me, the second-best performance in the film is delivered by Ayelet Zurer as Carmen, a descendant of gypsies who claims to begin having visions that Freeway is alive. When the film came out, several critics moaned that such a character is unrealistic in this type of story, sounding a note of “no, I’m not kidding!” in their reviews before revealing Carmen as a gypsy descendant (including this critic, this critic and this critic). And I’d be inclined to agree with them—except that the Kasdans did, in fact, consult the advice of a possible psychic when their own dog got lost. Personally, I found Carmen to be an interesting character and was delighted to see Zurer in the role; I instantly remembered her as Avner’s wife in Spielberg’s Munich (could this have been a casting referral from Kasdan’s old Raiders buddy?). The presence of a psychic in the film also allows for Kevin Kline, as Beth’s back-surgeon husband Joseph, to deliver the film’s funniest zingers, as when Carmen advises everyone to “go to bed” and Joseph muses, “What? Are you closing for the night?” Or, after Carmen claims to have seen a vision of Freeway in a frying pan of bacon: “I lost a pair of reading glasses. Maybe you could check the French toast.”
During these scenes, I laughed. At other times watching Darling Companion I felt like the jokes were tired and pathetic, all-too-obviously aimed for a generation older than mine. The film’s target audience is obviously a more geriatric crowd, which explains why the cast is composed predominantly of actors in their 60’s and beyond (Keaton, Kline, Richard Jenkins, Dianne Wiest, Sam Shepard). I was the youngest in my audience on the day I saw the film, and while the older audience members seemed to be enjoying it, I could never quite shake the feeling that Kasdan was underachieving. I longed for the more complex, more invigorating Kasdan of Body Heat, The Accidental Tourist and Grand Canyon, and didn’t mind that he was making a film about old age so much as a film so simple-minded in its exploration of the subject. “Gettin’ old really sucks, Joe,” grumbles Shepard as the local sheriff. Okay, so why couldn’t Kasdan have made a whole film centered on this issue, instead of merely glossing over it in a film about a missing dog?
On top of that, Kasdan’s direction is not up to par this time. In one scene, Joseph’s nephew, Bryan (Mark Duplass), and brother-in-law, Russell (Richard Jenkins), fight a slovenly dog breeder out in the woods, and I didn’t believe this scene for a minute; it’s played for obvious laughs, and one cannot help but reflect that in real life, Bryan and Russell would probably be shot by the breeder for harassing him on his land. In another scene, Joseph is on the phone with his newlywed daughter, Grace (Elisabeth Moss from Mad Men), while she’s on her honeymoon in Bora Bora, and Kasdan and his lifelong editor, Carol Littleton, ruin the moment by cutting back and forth from Joseph in the Rockies to Grace back in Bora Bora, who is blissfully ignorant of Freeway’s disappearance. The scene would have been more powerful if Kasdan had held the camera on Joseph the entire time, uneasily struggling to keep himself from telling his daughter the truth.
Kasdan has better luck directing a scene in which Joseph and Beth take a tumble down a rainy incline at nightfall, and Beth finds herself having to carefully mend Joseph’s dislocated shoulder; the camera holds on Keaton and Kline for the entire shot, and the scene works. The Kasdans also have fun with sexual politics in the screenplay. When Freeway is first found by Beth and her daughter at the beginning of the movie, Grace mutters, “This is one of those occasions when I wish I had a man I could call.” After Freeway gets lost, Joseph warns his wife that such pressures can be hard on a woman, and Beth shoots back, “Oh, tell me about being a woman.” Bryan, who is falling in love with Carmen but is skeptical about her psychic abilities, muses, “Beautiful women get away with a lot of shit.”
Some of these scenes work, others don’t, and eventually it all leads up to the finale, which is yet another reminder of what this movie needed more of: the dog. Kasdan rather nicely escalates the suspense in the film’s final scenes, when the Winters sadly board a plane back home and Beth looks out the window, surveying the mountain lands she and her family have trekked for the past three days. At this exact moment, I could hear audience members squealing under their breath, “She’s gonna SEE FREEWAY!” and suddenly I realized: wow, clichéd as it may be, I sure as hell wanted her to see Freeway. And yes, dear reader, once Freeway came bounding over those golden fields and into Beth’s arms, I could feel myself getting a little teary-eyed. The best thing to be said about Darling Companion is that even though we can see the happy ending coming a mile away, we’re happy to get one.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
Lawrence Kasdan’s Dreamcatcher is a movie I have been defending ever since I was 12 years old. How I first saw it is a story unto itself.
One Sunday morning in the spring of 2003, I devised a scheme to get my sister and my father to go see a movie with me. I convinced them that the three of us should go to church that morning, and so we did, but the Lutheran minister’s sermons had done very little to restore our faith in the wake of a family death—which had been keeping us away from church for over a year. My evil scheme was as follows: if church couldn’t exorcise our demons, then a Hollywood bloodbath surely would.
So, after church, and after a pleasant donut breakfast on the road, I asked my father, hey: instead of going straight home, why don’t we catch a movie while we’re still out here? We did. I immediately selected Dreamcatcher, knowing that this was the only way I’d ever get to see it while it was still out, and, yes, successfully managed to get myself, my sister and my father into a movie theater to see it—without telling either of them it was R-rated. I wasn’t even aware that it was directed by the same man who wrote the screenplays for The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Ark, but no matter: I knew I was in for a real treat.
I loved it. My father and my sister disliked it, and were appalled—I recall—by how gory it was. In fairness to them, I pretty much knew what to expect from the movie when the three of us walked in; a couple of weeks beforehand, I had attempted to read the 800-page book by Stephen King but never managed to finish it. I was especially aware that by the time I would finish the book, the movie would no longer be in theaters, so I took my chances and dragged my family to see Dreamcatcher with half of the story already in my head. I knew how the movie would begin, but had absolutely no idea how it would end. Like Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, also released in 2003, it's a film about how an incident in the lives of a group of teenage boys leads to their even more unpredictable lives as adults.
The making of Dreamcatcher was a long, arduous 5-month shoot in Vancouver involving filmmakers who all felt differently about the material. Some of them are proud of the finished film. Consider Damian Lewis, who played the character of Jonesy. He suggests that the film is best appreciated while high ("All you need for Dreamcatcher is a big spliff, a nice comfy sofa and a bag of popcorn"), but confesses that he was often lonely on the set: "I was a young 30, very much on my own and a long way from home… I mostly just sat in my hotel room on rainy days not knowing anyone." Then listen to Lawrence Kasdan, who blames the film for doing damage to his Hollywood career: "With Dreamcatcher, the career was hurt. I was planning to do The Risk Pool with Tom Hanks... And it didn't happen. Then another one didn't happen. Meanwhile, two years have passed here, two have passed there... it is discouraging to go nine years without a movie when all you want to do is make movies." After a nine-long absence from moviemaking, Kasdan has finally returned with Darling Companion, and—unlike Dreamcatcher—it has been made and released independent of Hollywood.
Seeing Dreamcatcher again today, I am, admittedly, far more understanding (than I was at 12) of why it received such a harsh critical and commercial reception in 2003. The movie does have a fair share of problems, many of which I stubbornly ignored at the time, but which I willfully acknowledge today. The crass bathroom humor. The starkly-split narrative that tries to tell way too many stories all at once. The mean-spirited way in which a dog is killed off.
Be that as it may, I've never considered Dreamcatcher to be a bad film by any means. I still don't. But could it have been better? I would concede that, yes, it could have been a little better, especially when considering the experience the filmmakers had with this kind of material in the past. Kasdan co-wrote the screenplay with William Goldman, and the combination of their respective powers resulted in a hybrid that can be described as both a glorious trainwreck and a flawed great film of sorts. Kasdan brought to the script the dark atmosphere of Body Heat and the big-budget thrills of Silverado; Goldman brought to it the nightmarish elements of his scripts for John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man, Richard Attenborough’s Magic and Rob Reiner’s Misery—the latter, of course, being another Stephen King adaptation.
Dreamcatcher is really trying to be two movies: one, a story of four telepathically-connected childhood friends, whose retreat to a cabin in the woods of Derry, Maine goes horribly wrong; the other, a story about the U.S. military’s chaotic attempts to quarantine the area once a race of aliens begin attacking. Both stories could have made presumably good individual movies of their own, but they don’t coexist very comfortably in the same film. Nor, for that matter, did they in King’s ridiculously-overlong book, which is why one wishes that Kasdan and Goldman had tossed aside one narrative and kept the other—specifically, the one about the four friends on vacation. It’s when the military scenes come around that Dreamcatcher gradually begins to lose focus, a focus which Kasdan only just barely manages to regain during the film's exciting closing scenes.
Since the film doesn’t really come together as a whole, it should instead be appreciated for showcasing some of the most accomplished sequences Kasdan has ever directed. The first is the film’s most suspenseful scene, in which Jonesy (Damian Lewis) and Beaver (Jason Lee) are left alone to hunt outside their cabin. Jonesy nearly shoots a disoriented wanderer (Eric Keenleyside) out in the woods after mistaking him for a deer, and kindly lets this man inside the cabin for a nightcap—only for him to bleed all over the hallways and barricade himself inside the cabin’s bathroom. Jonesy and Beaver force their way in, finding that the bathroom walls have been caked with blood and red fungus, and that the wanderer, now sitting dead on the toilet, has excreted something that sounds as if it may be... living. What follows is a sequence of almost unbearable tension in which Beaver volunteers to stay put on the toilet seat, struggling to contain this monstrous "Shit Weasel" that literally breaks the water pipes upon its ejection. It’s a powerful scene, not just because it "does for toilets what Psycho did for showers" (to quote Stephen King on the film’s DVD), but also because it gains an unexpected irony if one reflects that, had Jonesy shot the wanderer out in the woods—instead of letting him inside the cabin—all of this madness could have been prevented.
The film’s second great sequence has Henry (Thomas Jane), one of Jonesy and Beaver’s friends, returning to the cabin and discovering, to his horror, that it’s been overtaken by the Shit Weasel and its many egg nests. When the eggs hatch, hundreds of little white worm larvae come squiggling out, and Henry resorts to burning them alive with liquid fire ignited by a single match—the only one that doesn’t come jingling out of the matchbox while the others collapse to the floor. This is a running theme in the film: single objects causing monumental damage. Another example is a single toothpick, untainted by blood, which tempts Beaver to his doom in the earlier bathroom scene. And the single surviving worm at the end of the movie, which—if it manages to infect Boston’s water supply—is lethal enough to "kill the world." It only takes one. One match. One toothpick. One worm.
The third great sequence in the film depicts a military strike led by Colonel Curtis (Morgan Freeman) and his right-hand man Owen (Tom Sizemore), as they lead a team of "Blue Unit" fighter jets in an air raid on the aliens’ mothership nestled out in the woodsy Maine wilderness. The sequence sort of feels like it belongs in another movie, but never mind: it’s well-done. I love how the aliens in this scene (who are all down on the ground before Curtis attacks them) start out looking like plain, innocent, human-shaped gray beings—before morphing into their true steely-jawed forms to protect themselves. And how they’re beamed up backwards into the mothership as it glows an angry red and self-destructs, engulfing several of Curtis’ men in a moment that reminds me of that scene in De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2000) where the planet’s "security system" rips apart the bodies of a couple of astronauts. All the same, this is the only military-related scene in Dreamcatcher that doesn’t take us out of the film somewhat.
As mentioned before, the film works best during the scenes with the four telepathically-connected childhood friends: Jonesy, Henry, Beaver and Pete (Timothy Olyphant), the latter being the only one of the four friends blessed with a magical index finger. The film’s opening scenes depict the four friends getting together after each has been shown experiencing a series of catastrophes made all the more complicated by their psychic powers. There is a fun scene of night-time dinner conversation at the "Hole in the Wall" cabin, early on in the film, in which the four buddies engage in the kind of indecent, pornographic dialogue that Kasdan has specialized in since Body Heat. They talk about Viagra, about getting erections, about a scene from the movie Promised Land in which Meg Ryan (who worked with Kasdan on French Kiss) complains about a "cat that shit in my mouth." So effective is the camaraderie in this dinner scene, in fact, that Kasdan makes the odd decision of replaying it during the film’s end credits. Perhaps this is an indication of the sort of film he might have been more comfortable making: a simple Hawksian hangout picture about horny male friends vacationing in the woods.
The four male friends are so sex-obsessed, in fact, that it was a search for a pin-up cartoon 20 years earlier that led them to committing a good deed that would change their lives forever: rescuing mentally-challenged, Scooby Doo-infatuated Douglas "Duddits" Clavell from a pack of high school football bullies. The four boys who play Jonesy, Henry, Beaver and Pete as young teenagers (Giacomo Baessato, Mikey Holekamp, Reece Thompson and Joel Palmer) are all—like their adult counterparts—very good actors, as is the young actor playing Duddits (Andrew Robb). As an adult, Duddits is played by Donnie Wahlberg, who gives an excellent performance of his own, but appears so late in the film he almost doesn’t get a fair chance to make an impression on the audience. The actress playing Duddits’ mother, Rosemary Dunsmore (she was the slap-happy doctor in Verhoeven’s Total Recall), has what is, in retrospect, the only significant female role in the whole film—a surprising shortcoming for Kasdan, whose films have usually offered meaty parts for women. Dunsmore does, however, have the warmest line of dialogue in the whole film: "Goodbye, Duddie. Be a good boy. Now, go save the world."
All of the four actors playing Jonesy, Henry, Beaver and Pete as adults are well-cast, despite the fact that none of them were household names when the film was made. Thomas Jane, as Henry, makes for a likable action hero (possibly convincing Frank Darabont to cast him as the lead in The Mist, also based on a King story), and Jason Lee and Timothy Olyphant, as Beaver and Pete, provide some welcome comic relief ("Jesus Christ bananas!"). But it is Damian Lewis, as the alien-possessed Jonesy, who delivers the greatest performance in the film. Lewis has the challenging task of playing a dual role; as Jonesy, he retains an ordinary, American voice, while as the sinister "Mr. Gray" he launches into a completely over-the-top Cockney accent, resulting in a performance that is at once hilarious and disturbing. The final scene, in which Henry is faced with the dilemma of whether or not to shoot Jonesy because of his possession, is made all the more eerie by Lewis’ suspiciously-enthusiastic response: "I knew you’d come, Henry! I knew you wouldn’t let me die!" Interestingly, all four actors went on to deliver some of their best work on television: Lewis on Life and Homeland, Lee on My Name is Earl, Olyphant on Deadwood and Justified, Jane on an episode of Arrested Development (in which he appeared as the aptly-named "Tom Jane").
The scenes featuring Morgan Freeman and Tom Sizemore are a bit more problematic. Both actors do a solid job with their performances, but whereas Sizemore is tailor-made for the role of Owen (hardened military types are the actor’s speciality), Freeman is a curious choice for Colonel Curtis; I suspect Kasdan cast him in the role as a litmus test, possibly to see if audiences would flock to a mainstream horror movie in which the leading star was black (Freeman’s name is billed first in the film's playful, shape-shifting opening credits). As Curtis, Freeman is required to deliver monologues in which he rationalizes his genocidal scheme to wipe out the alien threat: "Now, if anybody’s thinking, ‘Why, those poor, helpless little folk, all naked and unarmed beside their crashed intergalactic Winnebago! What kind of a dog—what kind of a monster—could hear that heartbreak and go in just the same?’ Well, I’m that dog! I’m that monster!" But is the actor credible as such a hawkish lunatic? Freeman is a fine actor, and is sometimes effectively menacing in the film (as in a scene where he fires a bullet into the hand of an insubordinate Blue Unit soldier), but never quite makes for enough of a convincing villain to carry the scenes involving the military—which, again, feel like they all belong in a different film. Of all the actors Kasdan has worked with, perhaps William Hurt would have been an angrier, more unpredictable presence in this role, perhaps even enough to justify the film’s military segments.
Other flaws in the film include its excessive bathroom humor, which works only when it’s reserved for the characters’ dialogue, as in the dinner conversation between the four friends. It’s when we begin hearing actual burps and farts on the soundtrack (emitted mostly by bloated victims of the Shit Weasels) that Kasdan goes overkill with the bathroom humor—after awhile, it just gets obnoxious. It’s not the first time Kasdan has used a fart joke in one of his movies (Kevin Kline’s Italian-food constipation in I Love You to Death comes to mind), but in the case of Dreamcatcher it’s a case of "too many farts for a movie that keeps insisting, with mounting implausibility, that it is intended to be good," to quote from Roger Ebert’s sorely-negative 1 ½-star review. One of the most unpleasant moments in the film involves a kidnapped German Shepherd dog, named "Ike", who dies while defecating a Shit Weasel; his death is, essentially, ignored in the background while the onscreen action is reserved for the human characters alone. It’s a startlingly mean-spirited way to kill off a dog in a movie, especially since Kasdan used to have a track-record as a dog-friendly filmmaker. Edward in The Accidental Tourist certainly would not have stood for what Ike has to undergo here.
I could probably go on and on listing the film’s flaws. I haven’t even gotten yet to its plot holes, such as how Duddits is arbitrarily revealed to be an alien himself during the climactic battle with Mr. Gray (a very different finale from the book’s ending, which I have forgotten). There is also, as Ebert complained in his review, the film’s failure to fully engage its ideas about telepathy: "The problem of really being telepathic is a favorite science-fiction theme. If you could read minds, would you be undone by the despair and anguish being broadcast all around you?" The film, alas, ignores such questions, although a joke is made out of the four friends’ strangely-inadequate telepathy abilities when Henry exclaims in one scene, "You could have run me down!" and Owen, driving a vehicle, deadpans, "Figured you’d read my mind, and get out of the way."
Dreamcatcher is, yes, a seriously-flawed film. It’s got a lot of problems. But oh, the good things about it! There are many. Kasdan admits on the film’s DVD that this was his first truly effects-laden picture, despite having written the scripts for Empire and Raiders, but whatever inexperience he may have had with CGI certainly doesn’t show in the finished film, which contains some of the best and most convincing CGI effects I’ve seen in the past decade. The film’s "creatures", designed by Crash McCreery, are inspired creations, beautiful to look at in all their lurid glory. The Shit Weasels, disgusting as they are, are frightening little devils. And the final reveal of Mr. Gray’s true form is absolutely terrifying; he’s like a shark crossed with a centipede, and his teeth unfold ferociously across the screen while James Newton Howard’s score signals their arrival with an ominous brass orchestra.
Another special aspect of the film is the cinematography by John Seale, which gleams a dark orange during the imaginative "Memory Warehouse" sequences inside Jonesy’s subconscious, its rooms containing—among other things—Duddits' secret files and the all-important lyrics to Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou". Seale's camera also takes advantage of blinding white wintry landscapes that remind us of the most famous King adaptation of them all: Kubrick’s The Shining, which King, of course, notoriously hates, but which Kasdan has cited as a film he admires.
But Dreamcatcher is more than just a visually-enticing film. It’s an emotionally-involving film as well, and, damn it all, my 12-year old self still holds a special place in my heart for it. It was better than the book. It was incredibly well-acted and directed. It had a screenplay that, while overly-complicated, still contained enough interesting characters and thought-provoking themes to make it an impossible film to dismiss. While we’re on that subject, I very nearly forgot one of the film’s central themes: a subplot involving Owen’s late military father, whose last words were, "Sometimes, we have to kill, but our real job is to save lives." That’s what all of the human characters in this movie are doing. They’re all committing sacrifices to save lives. Even Curtis, the bad guy, just wants to save mankind. Ultimately though, the two characters in the film who make the most vital sacrifices are Owen, who gives his life for Henry and Duddits; and Duddits himself, who gives his life for Henry, Jonesy and mankind, too. Soon, though, it’s just Henry and Jonesy left alone with mankind, and, well... after that, are there any more sacrifices left to be made?
Of course there are. There’s still that one last worm to be squashed. "H!" whispers Jonesy, before crushing the worm beneath his shoe. "Jonesy!" grins Henry with an affirming smile. It’s little intuitive moments like this that make Dreamcatcher, flaws and all, arguably one of Lawrence Kasdan’s most intense works, and one of the best films he’s ever made.
Friday, May 18, 2012
“It’s a story about two prize fighters who are in love with the same woman,” said Francois Truffaut. “I like that picture very much.”
“Yes,” agreed the Master of Suspense, “that was really an interesting movie.”
They were talking about The Ring, Alfred Hitchcock’s boxing picture released in 1927, at the tail-end of the silent era. “You might say,” Hitchcock himself suggested, “that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture. There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause. It was the first time that had ever happened to me.”
“The next Hitchcock picture?” A boxing movie? Really? I was mildly intrigued. I had barely even heard of The Ring before, even though I owned it as part of my treasured “Alfred Hitchcock: The Legend Begins” box set, and had never bothered to sit down and watch it until fairly recently, when Truffaut and Hitchcock’s ecstatic comments about it caught my eye. I was having a difficult time imagining how a boxing movie could be one of Hitchcock’s major works, especially since—as Truffaut conceded—“It isn’t a suspense film and has no crime ingredients.” Sports movie melodrama just didn’t sound at all to me like Hitchcock’s forte.
I’ve now watched The Ring (not to be confused with the overrated Gore Verbinski/Naomi Watts horror movie) in its entirety, and my feelings about it are… mixed. From where I stand, it’s good but minor Hitchcock, with some rather lame acting, an even lamer storyline and a punishingly boring first half, justified only by a second half that, surprisingly, offers a good deal of legitimately exciting cinema. The film’s second half, in which Hitchcock’s gift for montage comes vividly to life, includes a visually-stunning sequence in which the hero (an underdog boxer) is plagued by blurry hallucinations of his wife embracing his antagonistic rival, juxtaposed with crazed images of party guests engaged in a mad dance while a pianist’s fingers jump up and down on a keyboard. This, I’d bet you dollars to donuts, is the “elaborate montage” which Hitchcock claims received a round of applause at the movie’s premiere.
The story? Not nearly as exciting. A banal love triangle plot involving a boxer’s pathetic spiral downwards into jealousy when he discovers that his wife has been cheating on him with an Australian champion. Yes, “boxing” and “jealousy,” but don’t get your hopes up—this ain’t Raging Bull. It’s more like the 1927 version of The Room, with some boxing, some elaborate montaging and even a happy ending thrown in for effect. Is that a harsh comparison? Sure. Hell, if I listened very closely I could probably even hear Hitchcock spinning in his grave if he heard me writing this. But come on: when the hero of this movie is uttering corny lines of dialogue like, “I shall always be ready to fight for my wife against any man!” and “It seems as though I shall have to fight for my wife, after all!” well… you can see why somebody like Tommy Wiseau would have had a field day with this script.
The film’s casual racism is another concern. In the opening sequence, set at a carnival, a crowd of jeering white people is shown dunking a black man sitting in one of those water-filled booths that you usually see reserved for clowns. Time and time again, the black man is dunked into the water when a ball is thrown. His routine is to fall into the water, get out of the water, roar with laughter and then ready himself for the next dunking. I’m sure that Hitchcock filmed this scene only with the best intentions and that audiences in 1927 must have smiled at its depiction of mischievous fun at a carnival, but in 2012 scenes like this can only be met with a weary cynicism. The black man is obviously getting paid to be dunked, but we’re left wondering: what’s his story? How does he feel about a having a job that requires him to be humiliated by privileged white people? Why does he laugh every time he’s dunked? Is his laughter sincere, or is it a cover for his embarrassment? Will he be fired if he doesn’t laugh? The film, of course, addresses none of these concerns; Hitchcock treats it like stock footage, included in the film merely for decoration, completely irrelevant to the story.
Later in the film, the hero, jealous prize-fighter One-Round Jack (Carl Brisson), is planning to fight his way to the top in order to win back the love of his wife, and one of his trainers offers a bit of sly advice: “If you win this next fight with the nigger, you’ll be in the running for the championship.” Win this next fight with the what? Mind you, it’s not the mere use of this word that is offensive, but the fact that Hitchcock—who co-wrote the screenplay—brings it into the movie and then treats it casually, regarding it with the least amount of importance. If the use of this particular word in the film were to inform us of anything substantial about these characters and their prejudices, of course, then one would understand why Hitchcock chose to use it; indeed, one of One-Round Jack’s own personal trainers is a black man (seen above) who blends in perfectly with the rest of Jack’s white trainers, dining with them, drinking with them, celebrating with them. But because of this, it doesn’t make much sense for Jack’s trainers to be speaking in racist lingo when they’ve already accepted a man of color as one of their own.
I am not proud to admit that the film’s racism immediately made me think of D.W. Griffith, whose films I admire (for the part) but, alas, seem to have largely influenced Hitchcock in the wrong way here. It is no secret that Hitchcock was a Griffith fan (“Like all directors, I was influenced by Griffith,”), and in a sense that ought to be a good thing, but somehow the dunking scene, the jeering white crowds, the amazingly casual use of the N-word, etc., reminded me of the worst aspects of Griffith; the Klan’s glorified executions in The Birth of A Nation and Donald Crisp’s ridiculously sinister close-ups in Broken Blossoms both came to mind. Even a wedding scene depicting the marriage of One-Round Jack to his wife is spoiled by a crass shot of the ring-bearer (one of Jack’s trainers) picking his nose; I was reminded of a Southern maid (in blackface) in Birth of A Nation who does the exact same thing. To be sure, the guilty nose-picker in The Ring is a white man, but what difference does it make? Why does Hitchcock show him doing this in the first place? Is it supposed to be funny? What’s so funny about nose-picking?
The Ring is more successful, actually, whenever Hitchcock comes up with shots that seem to be of his own creation, rather than the ones that reek of Griffith’s influence. Had Luis Bunuel seen the film, he likely would have coveted the memorable sight gag of a pair of conjoined twins in the pews during the wedding, one struggling to pull out, the other begging to stay. I also liked the scene at the banquet following the wedding, in which the ring bearer, intoxicated, collapses at the table while witnessing a playful spar of fists between One-Round Jack and his rival; Hitchcock goes for a blurry POV shot that nicely illustrates his drunkenness. And there is a neat moment in the film’s final climactic boxing sequence when Jack looks over his rival’s shoulder and spots his wife down in audience; Hitchcock tracks down to her devilishly smiling up at him, and Jack, frozen with surprise (because he dreamt she’d be here), is so distracted that the rival knocks him down with one punch. POV shots of lines and orbs fill his blurry vision, foreshadowing that famous POV shot in Spellbound (1944) in which a revolver is turned around to fire at the camera (implying a suicide), and a burst of blood-red fills the screen. The boxing scenes themselves are intense and well-done for a silent film, although it’s unlikely that they influenced Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese once went on record as claiming that Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler was the only boxing picture that ever impressed him).
Is The Ring a great Hitchcock film? No. Its characters, for one thing, are too thinly drawn. One-Round Jack is not an interesting protagonist, his wife is too much of a hateful, scheming ice queen, and his Australian rival never comes into focus as anything more than a cardboard cut-out. And the first half, as mentioned before, is a chore to sit through. Truffaut claimed to have seen the film “several times.” I can’t imagine why. Maybe he kept coming back to the movie because he was fascinated with Hitchcock’s use of montage. Or perhaps because he liked the symbolism of the title; “The Ring” could mean anything, from the opening shot (a circular drum being beaten) to the fighting ring itself, to the bracelet worn on the shoulder by Jack’s wife—a secret gift from her Australian lover, who is surprised when the wife ditches it for an innocent gym employee to find (“Look what I found at the ring-side, Guv’nor!”).
Because the film’s first half is so dull, for awhile I dreaded the thought of even finishing it, worried that it might fall into that rare category of Hitchcock movies that have actually managed to bore me to tears (Jamaica Inn, To Catch of Thief). The Ring has its dull stretches, yes, as well as a dull story, but in the end, the exciting second half is what redeems Hitchcock’s effort with this material. I can’t quite figure out whatever must have compelled Truffaut to want to revisit the film “several times,” but ultimately, I myself am still happy to have seen it at least once. Maybe you, like Truffaut, will want to revisit it with multiple viewings. Maybe not.