Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Offence

What About It?

The Offence is a masterful character piece by Lumet, the settings are spare and foreboding, highlighting the focus of the piece, which is Det. Johnson's conversations with others. The film was based on a play by John Hopkins and it retains the best qualities of a play while adding cinematic advantages, such as the long shot on the girl about to be abducted, illustrating what long odds the police force is working with, and adding some terrific detail to Johnson's flashbacks, giving us a graphic representation of the horrors he replays in his head.

Connery is at his best here. Just done with his James Bond roles, he has such an intimidating physicality that we believe he can knock a room full of police officers around without much trouble.  We see the anger and frustration in his character in his casual conversations, along with the sense that we are only seeing the very surface of his dilemma. Connery stews and broods with force. His facial expressions are more than enough to show how close to the edge this character is. The fleeting look of panic in Johnson's eyes, when his fellow officer's find him comforting the little girl gives us a far more disturbing picture than I would think possible. Although he is doing nothing wrong, he is clearly concerned that others can see his thoughts.

Vivien Merchant is also terrific as Maureen, his wife who would really love to help him, but has no idea what she's dealing with. Her sincerity, offering to listen is as convincing as her disgust, retreating when she can't bear the details he shares with her. Johnson has kept his gory memories as a secret he treasures replaying again and again. They serve the dual purpose of keeping his anger going and masking deeper questions which he is only beginning to acknowledge. When he tells Maureen "You're not even pretty" he reveals that his desires are not something he understands anymore. He only knows that what he thought would work, no longer does, leaving a big question mark at the center of his being. When he says "You didn't make me happy." he isn't insulting her as much as he's realizing how far away he is from where he thought he would be in his marriage and in his life.  When he accuses her of making Baxter happy (although she has no idea who Baxter is) he begins to reach his moment of realization, although it's clearly more than he can deal with. Baxter has nothing to do with it, but his emotions towards what Baxter represents (in himself) are the real threat to the idea of tranquility that he may have had years ago. To others, Maureen included, Johnson is a powerful bully, and he himself seems to enjoy forcing his will on all around him.

Trevor Howard is a great foil to Connery. His Lt. Cartwright treats Johnson with barely concealed contempt. He isn't intimidated and regards him as merely a job he has to do. When the bully in Johnson arises, Cartwright dismisses it as a nuisance. His insistence that he doesn't know what happened in the interrogation room, and thus needs Johnson's account, is damning to Johnson's insistence that he knows 100% that Baxter was the child rapist. This sentiment was brought up previously by Lt. Cameron, who asked "How can you be sure." When Johnson justifies his gut instinct by claiming he's dealt with hundreds of such cases, Cartwright counters by reminding him that he has never had Baxter in an interrogation room before, and thus can't possibly have known for sure. Johnson has no defense against Cartwright, who rejects his every justification for his actions, notably the notion that he is the only one who lives with these memories and thoughts, pointing out that they all do, but most of them don't live in them finding ways to divide work from the rest of their lives. Cartwright is always in control, and the threat of force which Johnson has learned to rely on is completely dismantled, illustrated very well by Cartwright forcing him to let go of his wrists, sending Johnson falling ungracefully to the floor.

The main conversation however is the one between Johnson and Baxter. Showing selected scenes from the interrogation and then revealing the full scene at the end of the film has an interesting effect, changing a typical attempted forced confession scene to a deeply disturbing moment of revelation and self revulsion. Ian Bannen is superb in his portrayal of an odd, decidedly creepy suspect who is well acquainted with being bullied. His masochistic outlook towards this is perhaps something that Johnson has never encountered, presenting the bully as one who gives him pleasure, by needing him as the object of "affection." It's never revealed definitively that Baxter is the child rapist, but Johnson's  thoughts reveal that he is lost to urges that he can't explain. While he may not be a pedophile, he has fantasies which place him only a step away.

Baxter witnesses Johnson completely losing hold of his grasp on sanity and alternately pities and mocks Johnson for his predicament, speaking frankly only when he realizes that Johnson does not intend to let him leave the room intact. Johnson pleading for Baxter to help him is a truly moving scene, showing all of his strength and defenses as utterly useless. He's no better than the child rapist and when Baxter says "I would not have your thoughts" we can't help but see his point. Johnson is a building about to implode, tormented from so many different directions that he couldn't begin to choose one to focus on. Baxter perhaps underestimates the danger present in the midst of Johnson's breakdown, and his revulsion towards Johnson's pitiful state is enough to trigger a last fatal act of violence.

While on the surface "The Offence" appears to be a police movie, the case is nothing but a way to illustrate how fragile the psyche can be and how intricate and flawed our defenses are. Johnson wrestles his demon's all by himself until they're too much for anyone to help him with. His "toughness" is what secures his fate. He believes that he is powerful, and his job gives him a sense of rightness, but he remains unfulfilled. He is unable to give voice to his struggle until alone in a room with a man who represents what he thinks he despises, he realizes that his trouble is deeper than he ever admitted, only because the bullying he's come to rely on is proven useless and in fact turned against him. Sadly, his bullying (and reactions to it) has become the one constant in his life and without it, he's forced to evaluate everything he thought he could keep submerged, finding that he himself is the monster he has always despised.  

What Happens?

Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery) has been doing police work for over twenty years. During that time he's seen some horrific things that he can't shake from his memory. The best he can do is focus on putting the bad guys away. However, a real danger when dealing with the darker elements of society is the effect it has on you. As Nietchze said "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster."

The Offence begins with the police station in a panic, with an officer running for help in slow motion, his expression indicating that something terrible has happened. We find Sergeant Johnson in an interrogation room, fighting with fellow officers attempting to restrain him. He then looks around in disbelief, perhaps realizing what he's done, saying "God, Oh my God."

We then flash back to Johnson and some fellow officers staking out a schoolyard hoping to catch a glimpse of a child abductor/rapist. Johnson walks the area while his other officers wait in a car. He catches suspicious glances from parents waiting outside the fenced in yard to claim their children. They aren't aware that he's a cop, only that a strange man is lurking near the schoolyard. A group of kids walking home is escorted a safe distance away, although one of the girls is shown leaving the group to head towards her own house. Getting in the car with the other officers, Johnson establishes very early that he's frustrated and isn't satisfied with police efforts.

One of the girls is abducted nonetheless, a short time after leaving the safety of the group. She is quickly reported missing and a search party is organized. It's Sgt. Johnson who finds the girl in the woods. She screams when he finds her, still in shock, screaming. She's been raped, clothes torn and covered in mud. Johnson comforts her, quieting her down, wraps her in his coat. He seems to visualize the abductors actions almost putting himself in the criminal's place. He's panicked when the moment is broken by the search party finding them, acting for a moment, startled, as if he himself is the rapist. He insists on escorting the girl to the hospital, snapping at his Lieutenant Cameron (Peter Bowles) who tells him the girl is not in any state to handle questions. He's furious when a possible witness comes in to file a report, twenty hours late. Officers are directed to search everywhere for the rapist.

Other officers later pick up Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen) for the crime when they find him covered in mud and scratched up, wandering around town, barely coherent. When Cameron's questioning goes nowhere, they decide they can't charge him. Johnson is somehow 100% certain that Baxter is their man, although Cameron reminds him that "you can't be certain. Even you can make mistakes." Johnson gets agitated convinced that Baxter is laughing at them.

He takes the opportunity to question the suspect himself (although he is completely unauthorized to do so) Johnson has decided that this man is the culprit and can't bear to think of him going free. Johnson brings Baxter a cup of tea and finds his attitude has become more resistant to questioning. He begins pressuring Baxter, manhandling him and intimidating him in any way that he can. Cameron is directed to charge him or let him go, unaware that Johnson has started his own questioning. Johnson starts hitting Baxter and Baxter, tries to get to another door to escape the room angering Johnson even more. Cutting between the station and the questioning we find Baxter more bloody and beaten each time. The officers respond to screams and we find Johnson called out to sign a statement, then suspended and directed to go home until he's called. Cameron mentions that it's unlikely Baxter will live.

Johnson drives home. and his mind starts recalling graphic and bloody images from past cases. We see him in beat cop uniform uncovering a particularly gory murder, which expands to include many other brutal scenes including a man falling from a rooftop and a body hanging from a tree in the woods. At home he heads straight for the liquor and starts drinking. His wife Maureen (Vivien Merchant) wakes up due to the noise he makes. She's initially angry that he's drunk and has broken her China doll. He remarks on seeing her in her bathrobe "You're a mess! What happened to you? You never used to be such a mess." He tells her he may have killed a man, and explains that pain was the only thing the man understood. He talks about the girl who is also in the hospital, and when Maureen says "at least she's alive"

He starts recalling other cases saying "I've seen them dead too you know." Maureen reminds him that he's not on his own. He says "Why aren't you beautiful. You're not even pretty." She continues attempting to help him, but he says he's always made a point of not talking to her." "Who will you talk to then?" she asks. He starts rambling about the images in his head that he can't stop, going into graphic detail about victims of brutal crimes, his anger building with each detail. Maureen can't take the details and runs off to be sick. Angry that she couldn't listen after offering, he holds her down telling her "You promised to make me happy and you didn't" revealing his frayed sanity by implying that Baxter was the person she made happy. Fortunately for Maureen, the outburst is interrupted by the Cameron, who tells him he has to return to the station as Baxter has died in the hospital.

 Johnson meets with Lt. Cartwright (Trevor Howard) at the station, who is charged with performing an inquiry into the murder and obtaining the truth. Johnson attempts to describe the interrogation, but is cautioned by Cartwright when he starts describing what was going on in Baxter's mind. Johnson loses his temper several times with Cartwright, which doesn't seem to intimidate him in the least. Cartwright insists that Johnson can't know that Baxter was guilty. Johnson insists that he does know, and recalls his own handling of the girl in the woods to calm her down. "What's happening to me?" he asks Cartwright, describing all the disturbing pictures in his mind, revealing that he can vividly see the incident through Baxter's eyes. He grabs Cartwright's arms roughly but Cartwright forces him off and gets him to attempt to recount the scene. Johnson implies that Cartwright can deal with things more easily, because he doesn't get his hands dirty, having subordinate officers find the bodies. Cartwright takes offense reminding him that they've all had to do these things. Johnson keeps visualizing the girl again as is he were Baxter (with his own face) imagining her happy as he approaches in the woods and touches her face. Cartwright concludes that he has what he needs and as he's escorted down the hall, we see a flashback to the full interrogation scene.

Johnson asks about Baxter's marriage, complaining that his own wife in bed seems like she's "doing him a favor" Baxter explains that in his marriage there are other things that are more important. Baxter then refuses to discuss his wife, threatening to report Johnson and talk to his lawyer. When Baxter stands up offended at a comment. Johnson starts handling him, comparing his handling to how he handled the girls. He makes Baxter very uncomfortable reaching his hands beneath Baxter's jacket in a clearly intrusive way. He tells Baxter that he'll make him feel like the little girls. He strikes Baxter and tells him to get up. Baxter tells him he's mad. Johnson's explanations of Baxter's actions, make it increasingly clear that his own repressed desires are angering him more than what Baxter may have done. Baxter exclaims "You sad, sorry little man." prompting Johnson to strike him again. Baxter realizes that Johnson won't let him leave, Baxter starts speaking personally telling Johnson that he's always felt alone. He recounts a bully from high school, and the feeling he got from being bullied, that the bully "needed him" saying that this gave him pleasure and the bully never knew that Baxter was "having him." Johnson starts laughing hysterically when Johnson segues from the bullying into asking if his father was a big man. When he can't stop laughing Johnson says "Do you think you're having me?" Baxter calls him pathetic which prompts another beating. Baxter exclaims "I know you!"
When Johnson begins thrashing him again Baxter says "Nothing I've done can be half as bad as the thoughts in your head. I wouldn't have your thoughts." Johnson calms down momentarily as if he's had a realization while listening to Baxter. Baxter puts on his coat as if to leave, but Johnson asks Baxter to help him with the thoughts in his head, recounting some of them as he squeezes Baxter's hand. He sobs "Help me." but tired of having his hand squeezed, Baxter yells "Help you bloody self!" which prompts the final beating.

Johnson recounts the scene as he waits saying "He knew. I had to kill him." We then arrive back at the beginning seeing Johnson fight off his fellow officers and coming to his senses saying "God, oh my God."

Saturday, September 25, 2010


"My name's Charles Bronson, and all my life I've wanted to be famous." the title character announces to an imagined audience, before instantly appearing in a prison cell conducting his rigorous workout routine. When many guards move in and attempt to move him, he starts a fight with them, landing quite a few hits before he's subdued.

"Bronson" (Tom Hardy) then recounts his past, explaining that his parents were good decent people, but "like most kids, he got into trouble" We watch young Bronson having violent outbursts, but on the stage, he claims he wasn't "bad, bad." He gets in trouble at his first job, stealing from his employer and then attacking the cops who confront him at home. He reveals that he was born Michael Peterson but took "Charlie Bronson" as his "fighting name" and alter ego.

We see Bronson/Peterson get married and settle down in England. He explains that he and his wife Irene, "Didn't have it bad." but qualifying that "they don't give you a star in the walk of fame for not bad, do they?" We see Bronson sawing off the barrel of a shotgun to hold up a post office. He gets caught and sentenced to seven years in prison. We see him crying in his new cell only to flash to Bronson in white clown make up laughing hysterically that we believed he was crying. He explains that to him prison was a hotel room.  He saw it as a place of opportunity to "sharpen his tools."  and make himself known to everyone in the place. He quickly starts fighting with guards over petty issues, which earns the admiration of the other inmates, who cheer as he walks down the hall.

He comes back to the stage in different suit and make up, and tells us that his parole was about to come up just as he'd started to make a name for himself. (eliciting a disappointed sigh from the audience) When an audience member challenges his claim, he snarls that "inside, I am somebody no one wants to fuck with. Do you understand? I am Charlie Bronson. I am Britain's most violent prisoner." We see news style clips of his gruesome and violent escapades, including newspaper headlines, reading "I Always Wanted to Be Famous"

He recounts transfers to different prisons, describing the merits and troubles of each, as more news clips flash by. He then explains that he finally ended up in "the funny farm" where we see a fellow inmate playing with his own shit, to illustrate the insanity, to Bronson's dismay. The attendants there seem to have an easier time handling him.having drugs at their disposal. They keep him so sedated that he's barely coherent, easing up over time but not enough that he can walk without stumbling. He decides that he needs to get out and comes up with a plan which involves strangling another inmate.

Back on stage, he reenacts a conversation with a nurse, using make up on half of his face to represent her, and trading profile views to play both parts. He had assumed the murder would mean he got a trial, but the nurse informs him that there will be no trial, only a transfer to another institution. He claims he spent over twenty years in solitary confinement at the new hospital, and breaks into a song "When I'm a Rock and Roll Superstar" as the screen behind him shows a conflict between the guards and inmates.  He boasts that he was now "Britain's most expensive prisoner."  According to Bronson, the system was tired of what he cost them so they certified him sane, and released him.

We see his release and his parents picking him up and bringing him home. He looks around at his parents things and asks about his old things, surprised that his parents haven't kept his old bed with them. He heads to Lewton, his hometown to see his Uncle Jack. He tells a woman on the train there, that he's off to make a name for himself by killing the Queen. Unfazed, she just remarks, "so, off to London then?"  He finds his Uncle in the middle of a cocktail party, but nevertheless happy to see him. The guests are all fascinated by him, remarking that he's a real celebrity inside. Uncle Jack invites him to stay at his house. He connects with another ex inmate, who suggests that he can make a lot of money if he can pick a "fighting name" and they agree on Charlie Bronson. His friend from prison sets him up with underground fights, building up his name and the crowd he draws.Upset that the his cousin, who he is now in love with, has a boyfriend, he steals a ring from a jewelry store to propose, but she tells him she's already getting married to her boyfriend, Brian.

He gets arrested for stealing the ring. The warden question him about his choice of using an American actors name, finding this odd. He asks what Bronson did with his 69 Days free. Bronson answers that he was building an empire, prompting the warden to tell him "You're ridiculous."He takes the prison librarian hostage when he brings books to his room" Bronson shouts out of the hole in his door that they'd better send help. The warden calls him in his cell and asks what the problem is. Bronson tells the warden that he'll kill the librarian if he doesn't get what he wants but when the warden asks what he wants, Bronson can only ask 'what have you got."  Neither coming up with anything prompting Bronson to hang up. The guards stop him from hurting the librarian, and administer a severe beating. restraining him so the warden has a chance to talk with him again, again getting nowhere.

He starts taking art classes in prison. One of the instructors comments on his work and suggests he find the piece of himself that doesn't belong in prison. He starts drawing constantly, and his art instructor puts in a good word for him with the warden who suggests he continue focusing on his artistic endeavors. The instructor tells him he believes he'll get a release date, because he's a brilliant artist and he'll be a star, priding himself on knowing this because he''s a good judge of character." Bronson then attacks the art instructor which brings us back to the Bronson on stage, with the audience wildly applauding.

Back in the prison events, Bronson strips and covers himself in paint, demanding music from the warden or he'll kill the instructor. We see that he has tied up the instructor in a chair and put a blanket over him, as Bronson listens to music and plays with the art supplies. The instructor says he isn't feeling well, but is ignored.  Bronson, naked in paint and a top hot, starts painting the instructor himself, putting an apple in his mouth, and painting eyes on his eyelids. He then tells the guards to come get the instructor and attacks them as they enter in riot gear to subdue him. As he falls, the Bronson on the stage flashes a smile.

We see text on the screen announcing that Charles Bronson is Britain's most famous prisoner, and has spent 34 years in prison, 30 in solitary confinement. We then find Bronson badly beaten and barely able to move, enclosed in a cage not much larger than his body. The guards close the doors.

Nicholas Winding Refn has produced an interesting work here. While posing as a character study, and based in some manner on the true story of "Charlie Bronson"  Britain's most violent prisoner, watching it you have little choice but to be skeptical. It raises a lot of good questions, but to most of them the answer is left up in the air. Tom Hardy portrays Bronson very well, and his performance essentially is the movie. Even in flashbacks, we're being treated to his show. He does have enough presence to fascinate. He's a believable narcissist, with limited goals and shortsighted ambition. He is menacing, and threatening but hardly reliable.

Bronson is obsessed with becoming a celebrity, and seems quite pleased when he makes the newspapers as "Britain's most violent prisoner." We don't really know why he's obsessed with him. As he mentions, he doesn't claim a troubled home life, or any obstacles that most people don't face. He throws away his own steady home life, self described as "pretty good" because "pretty good won't get you on the Walk of Fame." He doesn't complain of money troubles, yet feels that holding up a post office is a sensible thing to do. From an early age he attempts to show that violence is his most trusted method of gaining attention. However, Bronson in make up, addressing an imagined audience is a pretty direct way of questioning the narrative. Everything we're told is intentional and largely for show. And on his imaginary stage, he seems the biggest fan of his own celebrity.

Even in his own retelling however, he has no direction at all.The idea of being a celebrity is his only real goal, rather than a means to an end. He doesn't know what to do with celebrity when he has it. This is a guy who takes hostages and then can't come up with demands, hoping the warden will help him think of something. Even his means of attaining celebrity, violence, is portrayed as the most pointless example that could be imagined typically. The majority of his violence is directed at groups of guards who typically beat him down in short order. The only way to look at this character is as an aimless, self styled performance artist. His stage presence (in his own mind) and his elaborate preparation for the arrival of the guards indicates that he is always giving a performance.

While you might imagine that choosing a "fighting name" like "Charlie Bronson" would suggest a fascination with violence in pop culture, he doesn't even choose the name himself, and has no similarity with the actor Charles Bronson, or even the parts he played. The actor is known for his stoic men, rarely speaking, but becoming deadly when pushed too far. "Charlie Bronson" here is the opposite, a mess of senseless noise, looking to be noticed at all costs. He isn't that aware of pop culture, he's far too self obsessed to take any real interest. The distance between his fighting name and the man he took it from, is another indication of his shallowness.

His later dabbling in art are only another means of attention seeking. When his instructor hails him as a star, he flirts with the idea of behaving himself even painting a picture for the warden, much like a child giving an apology. When his art seems to gain him unusual trust, from the warden, he is then outside his comfort level and falls back to hostage taking and violent confrontation. His art is as unimportant to him as his fighting, both are only means of gaining celebrity. The self destructive nature of his acts don't bother him because they make him further known. The audience has little choice but to agree with the Warden who says "You're ridiculous"

Bronson does badly when able to live his own life. He ends up being used and discarded, and despite his efforts to build an intimidating personal, it makes little difference to most people, who readily use him. We expect an outburst when his cousin says she's getting married to her real boyfriend, but he accepts like a powerless child, only taking out his anger on the guards who he knows will take him down shortly. Prison becomes his safe place, a small, ordered community that requires less independent thought, and provides predictable reactions. He's a big deal "on the inside."

While the "based on a true story" element, including reminders of the time spent in prison, in  most movies are used as part of a cautionary tale, highlighting the inhumanity of the prison systems, in this movie, it serves as a matter of fact piece of the picture. It's no inhumanity to keep Bronson in prison, as he works so hard to stay there. He has achieved the celebrity he wanted, which sadly is not surprising in our reality TV obsessed culture. Everyone wants to be a star, Bronson simply chose a way to get there that has consequences most of us wouldn't be willing to tolerate. The closing shots of the film, with Bronson in a cage of nearly his own size suggests that his true prison isn't the institution, but his own limiting obsession.

It's a film that frustrates in that our character makes no progress, serving simply as Bronson, revelling in himself, making no progress and arriving at the same place he starts. While many viewers may ask "so what?" at the end, Nicholas Winding Refn has constructed a film that mirrors the characters self obsession and pointless journey.  Violence may get you your celebrity, but most would ask, "Then what?" Bronson doesn't ask, so there's no answer to show.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Apostle

What About It?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")

The Apostle is a movie which Robert Duvall is almost entirely responsible for. He wrote, directed, and played the lead role. The settings and the details included are amazingly authentic, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if his church services served as real services, down to the choir, the frenzy, and the sermons. The enthusiasm and zeal of this particular type of church is astonishing. Duvall comes across as completely believable as a fiery intense preacher. He also presents a compelling sincerity, that permeates the character, even through all of his mistakes.

While it's no surprise to anyone that an evangelist can be flawed, it is a surprise to see such a sincere and authentic examination of a man's struggle with them. While he does contain the traits of a con man, he isn't out for money, he genuinely wants to serve his God and do something good for others. He knows what his problems are and doesn't deny them. In his view, God knows exactly what he is and the same goes the other way. He isn't hesitant to yell at God when he's angry. His relationship with God is the one constant for him, even when he doesn't like it.

Watching others react to him is an interesting part of the movie. Sonny knows how to manipulate people. He knows very well how to talk to let someone know he's a preacher, and we do see him using this to his advantage. His goals, however, are not predatory, and his influence is used for things like a pup tent to sleep in and help in building a church for the people to use. His first introductions to people in the Louisiana church are met with skepticism, everyone having dealt with or heard about scam artist evangelists. The factor that convinces them to believe in him is his work, which shows his true sincerity. Once that is established, the people tend to place him on a pedestal, believing everything he says without question. This also causes other reactions, such as Billy Bob Thornton's character, who sees his elevated position and due to his own pain, wants nothing more than to tear him down. John Beasley as  Rev. Blackwell  also turns in a wonderful understated performance, his character's quiet kindness and dignity, lending weight to Sonny's effort's in the community. His unconventional attitude towards Sonny once the facts of his past are revealed, shows a rare trust, and strength of character.

The only person who really knows him inside and out is Jessie, who knows all about his wandering eye and other bad things he's done. She has her own ideas, and stops seeing him as a holy man, realizing it isn't as simple as that. While she claims a faith of her own, she doesn't share his flamboyance, and after years, even seems to find it tiresome. She is comfortable treating their church as a business, which to Sonny would be unthinkable. He feels the church is more like a part of himself, and it's likely he could have handled the idea of a divorce more easily than the loss of his church.  Farrah Fawcett gets the character perfectly. She presents a more balanced approach, with her faith as a part of her life, rather than Sonny's all consuming type. His zeal becomes too much for her to handle, particularly when she is well aware of his many flaws.  She can no longer put him on the pedestal, she no doubt fell for initially, and resents that she had ever elevated him, which leads her to resentment.

Sonny doesn't feel bound by convention. Perhaps due to his faith, he feels as if he can run from his crime and get a "new start." His baptising of himself indicates that belief, likewise, going by another name, E.F., the Apostle is more to him than an alias to escape arrest (although that is certainly also a factor.) He asks for another chance, and from his point of view he gets not only one, but two, as his interactions with his fellow inmates suggests.

One crucial reason that Sonny is so relatable is his style and his message, which show through his actions as much as his words. He doesn't tear anyone done or present himself as anyone's superior. He eagerly gets his hands dirty to get things done which help others.  While he isn't opposed to beating somebody that's in his way, he does so out of necessity, not malice, both seen in his dealings with Billy Bob Thornton's character. He is not however immune to anger, particular when things are "taken from him" He has plenty of failings, his anger and his eye for women, being foremost. However, the fact that he does not spend his time attacking others for his failings, keeps us from finding him a hypocrite. He is flesh and blood after all, and those things are his own cross to bear. He does pay for them severely, and doesn't grumble when he's forced to pay up.
His faith is a personal one, and he seems to regard God as someone who knows him and where he messes up, so doesn't bother trying to pretend otherwise. Rather than a force to be feared. he talks to God as you would an old friend, who has your best interests in mind.

This isn't a film which requires any religious belief, but neither is it a film which attacks that belief. This is quite simply, an authentic story about a man striving sincerely to serve a cause he firmly believes in, although his own human nature gets in the way. We can help but sympathize with his earnestness and compassion. While religion can be attacked for many evils, a man's faith is his personal business. We walk with Sonny when no one else is around, so we don't question what he really believes. Is a man's faith invalid because he isn't perfect? I can't imagine anyone would say so. What we don't like is hypocrisy, acting out faith for a baser agenda, a phenomenon that's been attacked many times and hopefully always will. I can sympathize with a failure or celebrate an accomplishment equally if there is sincerity behind each of them.

Duvall's performance can't be overpraised. As Sonny, he cares about people far more than lining his own pockets, and that's what makes him so compelling. That, and his enthusiasm, Sonny is a character of extremes, faith, sincerity, love, anger, stubbornness, lust, he has them all, but he also has a purpose driving him, which mostly allows him to accomplish his goals. God isn't an act that Sonny puts on, but the driving force in his life. He may talk like a scam artist, but that's only because it's Sonny's sincerity and passion that the scam artists imitate to fleece the people. He's the real thing, not an imitation. Duvall has constructed a complicated and riveting character that you feel like you've actually met by the end of the film.  It's that performance that makes this a brilliant film, helped by attention to detail that makes his world as realistic as Sonny is. We end up with a celebration of the marvelous complexity that can sometimes make up a real human being.

What Happens?

Watching a movie about an evangelist, we expect an expose on the hypocrisy of men of the cloth. As any real life televangelist scandal indicates, we are eager to see those who claim they are holy exposed, especially when their actions show them so far from holiness. It's easy to forget , that despite your own beliefs, every man of faith is not necessarily a charlatan. We all have our flaws, but wrestling with your nature does not make you a fraud (although it could appear that way) It can however, make a compelling story.

Sonny Dewey (Robert Duvall) is a man of faith. At the beginning of the movie we see him as a little boy (and the only white person) attending an enthusiastic black church, where the preacher speaks with fervor and the whole congregation hangs on his words in excitement . We then skip to Sonny as an older man driving down the street with his mother (June Carter Cash)and noticing the scene of an accident. He stops the car and has his mother wait. He finds a man and woman who were in the accident, in terrible condition. Unsure if they'll live or die, he speaks to the man, who was driving, encouraging him to "open his heart to Jesus, and he'll stand by you whether you go home or stay here with us." The man can barely move or talk but he musters a sincere "Thank you." before Sonny pulls his head out of the window to comply with the police request. The officer confronts him

Officer: "I guess you think you accomplished something in there, huh?"
Sonny: "I know I did. All I know is I did not put my head through that window in vain."
Officer: How do you know?
Sonny: Well, I'll tell you. I would rather die today and go to heaven, than live to be a hundred and go to hell."
Sonny asks "Momma" to pray for the couple, and we see the wife who didn't stir in passenger's seat, move her hand to clutch her husband's arm.

We then find Sonny at home, singing gospel songs with his two kids and Momma and his much younger wife, Jessie Dewey (Farrah Fawcett) Sonny has a flashback, recalling the church from the beginning scene, only now a little older but still a young boy, preaching at the congregation, with great intensity. He goes outside to say goodbye to his kids, as Jessie is taking them to camp, driving along with Horace, the youth pastor. (who is much closer to Jessie's age) Sonny is due at a tent revival meeting, where he and several other preachers have an adoring crowd, thrilled to hear of "the Holy Ghost Power"

He makes several other appearances at different types of venues, but his message and enthusiasm are the same every time. He refers to himself as being "on the Devil's hitlist." In the middle of his tour, he wakes up in the middle of the night, forcing his fellow preacher and travelling companion, Joe, to wake up as well. Joe tells him they're going the wrong way. Sonny tells him "If someone's in my bed that's supposed to be there, we'll be back on the road in twenty four hours in the right direction."

Joe: "Who, Jessie?"
Sonny: "Yeah, my sweet wife Jessie. You bet!"

Sonny finds his bed empty however, and tucks a gun into his pants, before heading to Horace's house where Jessie is sleeping with Horace. Sonny attempts to force the door halfheartedly, walking Horace. Jessie tells him to go back to sleep, but suspects it's Sonny. Sonny returns to the car, considering leaving, but reconsiders and throws a rock through the bedroom window.

The next morning he meets with Jessie, who tells him she wants out. She asks him not to make a big ordeal out of it, reminding him that she knows a lot about what he's does and has done. He asks her to pray with him, but she isn't interested. He leaves saying "God bless ya. You're gonna need it." He soon finds several people from his church waiting for him, who tell him that Jessie is going through proper channels to take his church away from him, by having him voted out.

Later that night, Sonny starts yelling at God, in his room, saying "If you won't give me back my wife, give me peace. I don't know who's been fooling with me, you or the Devil.I don't know! I won't even bring the human into this. He's just a mutt, so I won't bring him into this, but I'm confused, I'm mad. I love you Lord, but I am mad at you! I AM MAD AT YOU!"

He then reveals a little more about his history, telling God (still yelling "I know I'm a sinner every once in a while, a womanizer, but I'm your servant. Since I was a little boy and you brought me back from the dead, I'm your servant. What should I do? Tell me. I've always called you Jesus, you've always called me Sonny, so what should I do. This is Sonny talking now!"

Momma gets a call from a neighbor complaining that it sounds like a wild man over there and people need to get their sleep. Momma says "That's Sonny, sometimes he talks to the Lord, sometimes he yells at the Lord. Tonight he just happens to be yelling at him" The neighbor starts demanding that she tell him to quiet down, but Momma hangs up smiling. Sonny then decides to show up at the church despite being voted out. He jumps up on the stage and starts dancing with the singers and enjoying himself. He informs some of the people, that weren't aware that he's no longer the pastor. A few of them offer to go with him if he starts a new church, but he leaves.

He shows up to see one of his sons at a ball game. Jessie tells him he shouldn't have come and soon Horace confronts him mildly, asking if everything's alright. Horace attempts to grab Sonny's arm, to prevent him from getting closer to Jessie and the game. Sonny changes his calm attitude.

Sonny: "Well I want to see my beauties, if you don't mind."
Horace: "Listen Sonny, I'm really and truly sorry about what's happened here. I really am."
Sonny: Well, let me tell you something. Why don't you just butt out of here before I take my boot here and tear you another asshole, right where your nose is at. You understand me?"
Horace: There ain't no call for that kind of talk now."
Sonny: We'll see about that.

Sonny joins his kids, putting his arm around Jessie, as if she's coming with him. When Horace starts after them, they end up shoving, but Sonny grabs a baseball bat from one of his kids and hits Horace in the head with it, killing him. He says, "One for the road." and then attempts to drag Jessie home with him, though he gives up when the kids start screaming and she gets away. The crowd gathers around Horace, panicked.

He tells Joe what happened, that he suspects Horace is dead, and asks Joe to say hello to his kids and momma, as he can't tell them what he's done and has to go. Sonny drives to Louisiana, abandons his car and starts walking down the road, constantly talking to God about his situation. He tells a very abbreviated story to a man he finds fishing, who thinks he talks like a preacher. He eagerly offers Sonny the pup tent in his back yard that his grand kids play in. Sonny starts fasting in the pup tent, remembering the voices of Jessie and Momma. He "baptizes himself as an Apostle" in the river. The man offering the pup tent, tells him of a cousin who's a retired pastor, named Charles Blackwell. He sets off to find Blackwell on Bayou Boutte, Louisiana. Not knowing anything about the town, he asks God to lead him "every step of the way." He happens on a mechanic, struggling to fix a truck problem, which he solves for him. This turns into a job offer for him.

He then continues looking for Charles Blackwell (John Beasley) He knocks on Blackwell's door, announcing himself as the Apostle E.F., and telling Blackwell that the Lord sent him to have fellowship with him. Blackwell invites him in. He tells Blackwell that he had a dream from the Lord which directed him to speak with Blackwell about starting a church. Blackwell is skeptical, and tells him that he's got to watch for the devil. He tells Sonny that before he considers starting a church with him, "the Lord will have to lead him too."

He says he'll pray about it and keep an eye on Sonny with the idea in mind. Sonny heads to a the radio station (which is run by Elmo who also owns the garage) to see about getting promotion for his church idea. Elmo tells him, due to being unpaid by preachers in the past, he offers radio time on a "pay before you pray deal." Sam, the mechanic he helped, offers to let him stay at his place, prompting Sonny to tell God, "I'm not mad at you, and I'll never be mad again."

Blackwell shows him an old building he could use for his church. Sonny starts working and saves money for supplies to renovate the building for the church. He calls Joe, who informs him that Horace is in a coma, and that Momma is in the hospital. Sam and Blackwell help him with his efforts. He starts preaching on the radio, fascinating the attractive and young radio station receptionist, Toosie (Miranda Richardson, who has also caught his wandering eye) Kids in the community show up to help with the church. He meets Toosie for dinner and she reveals that she's "kind of separated"

After calling Jessie, just to hang up, he sits in front of his church at night, now complete with a lighted arrow sign pointed upwards, saying "One Way Road to Heaven" He thanks God for helping him "Do something." and asks him to let Horace live. Sonny and Blackwell drive around in a bus they'd restored, picking people up to bring them to church. Blackwell laughs telling Sonny (realizing his congregation is almost entirely black) that when people hear him preach on the radio "Most all the white people think you're black. Most all the colored people know you ain't black, but they sure do like your style of preaching." Blackwell adds: "So, what you see is what we got." Sonny adds, "And what we got, the Lord sent." His first service, is a fairly empty room, but everyone enjoys it. Using the radio, and through word of mouth, his services grow and he starts a program delivering food to people who need it.

A service is disrupted, by a "Troublemaker" (Billy Bob Thornton) who interrupts a service demanding him to know why he's called E.F. When he refuses to leave, Sonny takes him outside and beats him up, although the troublemaker threatens to "come back and see him" He explains to the people, that he knows you should turn the other cheek, but he isn't going to let anyone take his church. Toosie shows up at a service and seems impressed with what he has going. He drives her home, in the the bus, and makes his intentions very clear, saying "I'm not like other preachers. I'm a man and you're a woman and I like you." He's persistent trying to get her to let him in the house, but she says "next time."

He calls home to learn his mother isn't doing well and wants to see him. He tells her he'll try to get up there and Joe says he needs to do it soon. He tells Joe to tell her about his new church. We see Joe looking at Momma in an open coffin.

The church is now completely full and during an outside celebration, the Troublemaker comes back with a bulldozer, telling Sonny, "I told you I'd come back." He tells Sonny he's going to take the church out because they don't want it there anymore. Sonny puts a Bible down in front of the bulldozer and tells the troublemaker he'll have to run it over. His associates, refuse to move the Bible, afraid of being struck down by God. He gets off the bulldozer to remove the Bible, but is clearly hesitant with fear. Sonny kneels down at the Bible with him, and comforts the man as he breaks down and reveals his motives are deeper, than wanting to knock the church down.

Working at his part time cook job, Sonny sees Toosie having dinner with her husband and kids, and quits on the spot, saying he'll never serve food through that window again. He reveals his whole story to Rev. Blackwell (Sam, the mechanic is listening outside) and asks him, what he wants him to do. Rev. Blackwell says, "Whatever you want to do. We love you. You've helped many, many people in the town"

Sonny tells Rev. Blackwell that if they come for him, to sell the things he leaves behind to make money for the church to keep it alive."

Rev. Blackwell says, "He places us right where he wants us to be, in all times and in all places. You believe that?"
Sonny: "Amen, brother, I do."
Sam is clearly distressed at what he's heard, though neither is aware that he's there.

Sonny is soon to be a victim of his own success, as the radio show has picked up more followers, and Jessie hears him on the radio and reports him to the Bayou Boutte, Police Department. In the middle of a service, a police officer shows up for him. He tells the officer to wait until the service is over and he'll be right with him, but he's rattled, and opens up the service to the audience. The officer waits patiently at the door as Sonny tries to give everyone he can a chance to speak. Soon however, more police officers show up, the radio telling them he's considered armed and dangerous. Sonny works himself up into a real sermon. Outside, we see officers with their weapons out and waiting. When he calls people to came forward and accept Jesus, Sammy, comes forward. He announces that he's leaving them, and promises to meet them in heaven. He walks over to the officer willingly. When Sammy follows him out he gives him his jewelry, for Rev. Blackwell and gives Sammy his Bible. Sammy goes inside and Sonny is driven off to prison. During the credits, we see Sonny leading his fellow inmates in a call and answer recitation, where they yell, "Jesus" to questions he calls out.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Taxi Driver

When the word "anti hero" is used, odds are that in short order Travis Bickle comes to mind. He's definitely a character that stays with you, thanks to the painful story and DeNiro's amazing performance. Travis is the modern anti hero, not smooth or polished. He can't put a wisecrack together unless it's in front of the mirror. He's just a guy that wants to amount to something yet either doesn't have the character or the opportunity, only the painful awareness of everything he isn't. His only solace is his own convictions, he has strong opinions about many things most notably that the streets of NY are infested with scum, and need to be cleaned up.

We begin the movie with an introduction to Bickle's world view, a close up on his eyes in red light, while soothing music plays, interspersed with the world out the windshield, which is little more than bright and busy lights scored by the more ominous music of building drums.

We find Travis interviewing for a job at a cab company. His interviewer clearly suspects his and possibly anyone's motives for wanting to drive a cab.
Personnel Officer: So whaddya want to hack for, Bickle?
Travis Bickle: I can't sleep nights.
Personnel Officer: There's porno theaters for that.
Travis Bickle: Yeah, I know, I tried that.
Personnel Officer: So now what do you do?
Travis Bickle: I ride around most nights - subways, buses - but you know, if I'm gonna do that I might as well get paid for it.

When asked about his driving record, Bickle says "It's clean, as clean as my conscience." He gives his education as "a little, here and there." and also states that he was honorably discharged from the Marines. The interviewer tells him to check back when the next shift starts. We next find Bickle at home in his apartment writing a letter, which he starts by thanking god "for the rain, which helps wash away the garbage and trash off the sidewalks." He states he's working long hours, six-seven days a week, and he's happy that this keeps him busy. He continues:
"All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take 'em to Harlem. I don't care. Don't make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won't even take spooks. Don't make no difference to me."

We see Travis pick up a businessman with a prostitute, who promises a big tip if "he does the right things." he tells us that every night he has to clean bodily fluids from the backseats of his cab. We see Travis popping pills after his shift before heading for a porno theater. He makes an advance at the girl selling refreshments the theater, who rejects him, threatening to call the manager. Resuming his letter, he says,
"The days go on and on... they don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people."

He then goes on to describe seeing Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) for the first time, at Palantine campaign headquarters. He sees her as angel appearing in the midst of the filth in the streets. We see Betsy at work for the Palantine campaign, stating to a coworker, "push the man first, then the issue." She points out that "the taxi driver" is staring at them through the window. He speeds of startled when Betsy puts her coworker up to confronting him.

Travis meets his his fellow drivers at a diner after a shift. While they're very friendly to him, he has a hard time staying socially engaged drifting off between comments, forcing them to repeat themselves to get an answer from him. They swap fare stories, and Travis mentions some news he heard about a cabbie getting cut. One of the drivers, noticing that Travis handles some rough neighborhoods tells him that if he ever needs a gun, he can get him a good deal. Travis declines and seems content to sit at the table drifting into his own thoughts.

Travis gets dressed up in nice clothes, and shows up at Palantine campaign headquarters, volunteering to work for Palantine's campaign, insisting that he speak directly to Betsy. When she questions him, finding he knows nothing about Palantine, Bickle tells her she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen, then continuing:
Bickle: I'll tell you why. I think you're a lonely person. I drive by this place a lot and I see you here. I see a lot of people around you. And I see all these phones and all this stuff on your desk. It means nothing. Then when I came inside and I met you, I saw in your eyes and I saw the way you carried yourself that you're not a happy person. And I think you need something. And if you want to call it a friend, you can call it a friend.
Betsy: Are you gonna be my friend?
Bickle: Yeah.
She seems charmed by his unconventional approach and agrees to meet him for a cup of coffee at 4:00. They talk about Betsy's work and Travis brings up her coworker:
 Bickle: I would say he has quite a few problems. His energy seems to go in the wrong places. When I walked in and I saw you two sitting there, I could just tell by the way you were both relating that there was no connection whatsoever. And I felt when I walked in that there was something between us. There was an impulse that we were both following. So that gave me the right to come in and talk to you. Otherwise I never would have felt that I had the right to talk to you or say anything to you. I never would have had the courage to talk to you. And with him I felt there was nothing and I could sense it. When I walked in, I knew I was right. Did you feel that way?
Betsy: I wouldn't be here if I didn't.

Coffee goes pretty well and Betsy seems fascinated with Travis. She agrees to go to a movie with him at another time, telling him before going back to work,

 Betsy: You know what you remind me of?
Travis Bickle: What?
Betsy: That song by Kris Kristofferson.
Travis Bickle: Who's that?
Betsy: A songwriter. 'He's a prophet... he's a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.'
Travis Bickle: [uneasily] You sayin' that about me?
Betsy: Who else would I be talkin' about?
Travis Bickle: I'm no pusher. I never have pushed.
Betsy: No, no. Just the part about the contradictions. You are that.

Travis runs out to buy a Kris Kristofferson album, and looks forward to meeting Betsy for a movie. He happens to pick up Senator Palantine in his cab, and when Palantine asks him the one thing in the country that bugs him the most, he inspires a rant from Travis comparing the city to a cesspool.

An underage prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) gets in his cab to get away from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) who pulls her out of the cab, when Travis doesn't take off fast enough. Sport throws a bill onto his seay and tells him to forget about it. Travis meets Betsy, dressed up in a suit jacket and tie and reveals that the Kristofferson album was for Betsy. He surprises Betsy, by bringing her to a dirty movie. She attempts to sit through it, but leaves quickly, offended and not willing to talk about it. He calls her and finds she's not interested in seeing him at all. He sends her flowers which she won't accept and end up sitting in his own apartment. Desperate, he storms into Palantine headquarters only to be escorted out.

Travis picks up an odd fare, who has him park across the street from an apartment building so he can look at his wife in another man's window. The fare explains in detail that he's going to kill her, explaining what a 44 Magnum will do to a woman. This clearly rattles Travis. He meets with the other cabbies at the diner again, and he pulls "The Wizard" aside, looking for advice, stating he has some bad ideas in his head.

The Wizard: Look at it this way. A man takes a job, you know? And that job - I mean, like that - That becomes what he is. You know, like - You do a thing and that's what you are. Like I've been a cabbie for thirteen years. Ten years at night. I still don't own my own cab. You know why? Because I don't want to. That must be what I want. To be on the night shift drivin' somebody else's cab. You understand? I mean, you become - You get a job, you become the job. One guy lives in Brooklyn. One guy lives in Sutton Place. You got a lawyer. Another guy's a doctor. Another guy dies. Another guy gets well. People are born, y'know? I envy you, your youth. Go on, get laid, get drunk. Do anything. You got no choice, anyway. I mean, we're all fucked. More or less, ya know.
Travis Bickle: I don't know. That's about the dumbest thing I ever heard.
Wizard: It's not Bertrand Russell. But what do you want? I'm a cabbie. What do I know? I don't even know what the fuck you're talking about.
Travis Bickle: Maybe I don't know either.

Travis starts watching Palantine on TV at home, and continues looking in on campaign headquarters while driving by. He recognizes Iris on the street and starts following her, observing as she picks up a john before speeding off. His despair increases and he refers to himself as "God's lonely man." also commenting that "there is a change. Travis takes advantage of his fellow cabbie's offer to hook him up with a gun. Rather than choosing a gun, Travis takes all the guns the salesman shows him. He starts a meticulous workout program, stops eating junk food, getting himself "organized" for a mission taking shape in his mind. He practices pulling his guns in the mirror, and taping a knife to his boot. He chats with a Secret Service agent at a public appearance and practices, intimidating banter while now pointing his gun at Palantine posters. He defines his mission to himself:
 "Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up."

Travis happens to be in a convenient store, when it's held up, and shoots the would be robber in the face. Concerned because he doesn't have a permit, the store owner takes the gun and beats the robber to death with a steel rod, telling Travis to take off. Travis starts watching TV with his gun in hand. He writes a card to his parents, claiming that he's working for the government and so can't reveal his address. He also claims he has a girlfriend named Betsy.  Palantine's people are ramping up for a big appearance. Starting to feel edgy Travis kicks over his television. He sees Iris on the street again and this time approaches her. She directs him to "Matthew"(Sport) Sport takes him for a cop, but after talking comes to an agreement. Iris takes him to a room, but rather than have sex, he talks to her. He reminds her of the day she got in the cab trying to get away. He offers to help her get away, but she doesn't understand, explaining that she must have been stoned when she tried to get away. He asks to see her again in a non professional way and she agrees to breakfast tomorrow. At breakfast he tries to talk her into going back to her parents. Iris rebuffs him.
Iris: God, you're square.
Travis Bickle: Hey, I'm not square, you're the one that's square. Your full of shit, man. What are you talking about? You walk out with those fuckin' creeps and low-lifes and degenerates out on the streets and you sell your little pussy for peanuts? For some low-life pimp who stands in the hall? And I'm square? You're the one that's square, man. I don't go screwing fuck with bunch of killers and junkies like you do. You call that bein' hip? What world are you from?

Iris starts considering leaving, but insists that something must be done about Sport, so he can't do the same thing to other girls. Iris asks him to leave with her, to go to a commune in Vermont, but he says he wouldn't hang out with people like that. Travis tells her, that he's working for the government and may be going away for a while, but tells her he'll give her the money to go.

Iris confronts Sport, telling her she doesn't like what she's doing. Sport talks to her like she's his girlfriend, convincing her to stay. Travis starts to make final preparations, making up an envelope with money for Iris and burning all the dead flowers which came back from Betsy. He arrives at Palantine's big rally, and we see that Travis has shaved his head leaving only a mohawk. Pushing through the crowd to meet Palntine, he's spotted by the secret service agents just before he can pull out his gun. He runs back to his apartment and then heads out to see Sport. After having a few words, in which Sport claims he doesn't know and Iris. He shoots Sport and the man running the rooms where the girls take their Johns. Sport isn't dead however and runs up behind Travis in the hallway shooting him. Travis kills him and another man runs into the hall shooting Travis again, before Travis kills him too. Iris witnesses the whole scene. Travis tries to shoot himself, but finds he has no bullets left, so he sits and waits for the cops.

Travis battle with Sport, makes him a hero in the newspapers, and we hear Iris' parents lettter, thanking him for saving Iris and sending her home. Travis goes back to driving his cab, and ends up with Betsy as a fare. Betsy reveals that she read about him in the papers and downplays his ordeal. He lets her off, and when she asks about the fare, he takes off . We resume seeing the city from Travis' point of view as he drives off.

"Taxi Driver" is a brilliant character study. Scorsese does a brilliant job filtering the world through Bickle's eyes, while at the same time keeping the facts in the real world. We see what happens and then get Bickle's take on it. Scorsese makes the world very dark and gritty, the streets covered with literal trash to match the human element that bothers Bickle. His use of through the windshield scenes are remarkably effective, showing us the world as Bickle moves through it viewing through the glass, almost like a child visiting the zoo. He is even isolated from his passengers, seeing them only through his rear view mirror. Whatever they do, doesn't affect him in the front seat. Bernard Hermann's score is also amazing, involving us in Bickle's precarious mental state shifting from dreamlike to threatening and back as needed, serving as an echo of his condition. It's notable that once Bickle finds his mission, the music disappears, as if for a moment, he's quieted the noise in his head.

DeNiro is amazing in this role, becoming Bickle inside and out. It's tough to admire DeNiro for it though, since his performance is so flawless we don't really see him, only Travis Bickle. For all his flaws and disturbances DeNiro's Bickle also has a certain dignity. This is a remarkably complex role, but we never see DeNiro acting, only Bickle struggling. The supporting cast is also terrific, Cybill Shepherd portrays Betsy believably as a woman who may as well exist in a different universe from Travis.  She is lonely, as Travis surmised, but she doesn't live with her loneliness like he does. The difference between them is largely one of background and social skills, but those two factors are quite significant. She also has aspirations, Palatine's campaign is a cause she sees as greater than herself, and perhaps this also attracts Bickle, the idea that she has found such a thing. His first chosen cause, is Betsy herself. As he puts it, "She's appeared like an angel. Out of this filthy mess..."Whether devoting himself to her beauty or to the idea of Love itself, this is a cause, which could make him great. His social ignorance however, makes this impossible, and for Betsy, who rarely travels outside convention, his social faux pas is unforgivable. He lured her outside her comfort zone, and then, in her thinking, insulted her, so she ran right back. While she recognizes that Bickle is full of contradictions, she can't imagine that anyone could bring her to a porno movie with innocent intentions. Young Jodie Foster is wonderful as Iris, making the most of her fairly limited time. Harvey Keitel as Sport is charmingly sleazy, and his exchanges with DeNiro are remarkably entertaining.

Travis Bickle is not a man plagued by a great outside evil. He is rather plagued by his own mind  and the absence of anything great in his life. He blames "the filth" that infests the streets, but at the same time, he drives around at night as if he's seeking it out. For a man bothered by the darker elements, he always ensures that he's surrounded by them. He makes it very clear that he want to be "something."  yet he can accomplish little when he lives most of his life inside his own head. He attempts to be social, hanging out with the other drivers for example, but he can't contribute easily to conversations, always getting caught up in his own lonely thoughts. It's notable that the other drivers don't find Bickle that strange and take his idiosyncrasies in stride. He's socially awkward, but not unique in that. He's a character that anyone could run into anywhere. He's lonely and frustrated but the intensity isn't obvious.

Bickle needs to "make a stand." Of that much, he is certain. He just doesn't know what he should make a stand for. His world doesn't offer easy black and white answers. How he chooses is another interesting point. Bickle is intelligent, but not educated. He comes to ideas and believes them but doesn't examine them through books or even conversation. He believes what feels right and "makes sense" to him, not much further than that. Intellectually, he chooses killing Palatine as his cause. The obvious reason would seem to be that he's identified Betsy as "like all the rest." and so determined her cause is not worthy either, and so deems it worthy of being eliminated.

My feeling is that Bickle also recognizes Palatine's insincerity, instinctively feeling insulted by Palatine's condescension when he was in the cab. Palatine says "I've learned more in cabs, than in all the limousines" While on the surface, Bickle accepts that, we sense his Bickle's belief straining, although at the time it stays in place because he still sees a chance with Betsy. It's worth remembering that while Bickle seems oblivious, he hears what's going on and doesn't forget, as evidenced several times, such as in the diner with drivers he was offered a good deal on guns, which he seems to disregard, but picks up on later. Another example is his brief first encounter with Iris, which he initially doesn't act on, but does a little later. He recalls what Palatine told him in the cab, agreeing with his own assessment of  New York as a cesspool, and stating that, yes, something should be done, but it would require drastic changes. He later sees Palatine on television, stating that he feels the people have answered his demands and risen to meet them. The two ideas are contradictory, and it's likely that's enough to tell Bickle that Palatine is a liar, or at least give him a justification to be angry. Keeping a liar from being President is a far more likely cause for Bickle than revenge against Betsy, a cause that goes against his reasoning (although that feeling is certainly there, he can't act on it for that reason.) We know from the beginning of the movie that he prizes his clean conscience, and while he may be capable of anything, it seems likely that he would need to justify his cause to himself.

A man who doesn't see himself as good, couldn't pass judgment as he does on the streets of the city. He doesn't see himself as evil by any means, only lost and confused. His moral center however can't be defined by an "average" moral center. We see him shoot a robber in the face without hesitation, only concerned that the cops will bother him about his lack of a permit. We don't know where he's been or what he's done in the past. He claims he was a Marine, but given all his claims later on of working for the government, this may be suspect. His sloppiness when killing Sport and his crew, suggests that if he was, he was never in the habit of killing. Whether or not he was a Marine, killing is not a problem for him at all, and neither is dying. It's implied that he thinks he'll be killed after shooting Palatine, given his questioning the secret service agent about his gun and his statement to Iris that he'll be "going away." His attempted suicide after shooting Sport's crew confirms that he's ready to die.

It's only by luck that he fulfills his secondary cause, freeing Iris from Sport. It seems likely that if he had indeed killed Palatine and been killed himself, Iris would've kept the money, but not gotten free. So even after finding the cause to give himself to, it's only his failure that allows him to accomplish anything truly worthy. Whether he would've accomplished this if he didn't believe they'd catch him for trying to shoot Palatine is uncertain. His sense of borrowed time, spurs him to make a last action and almost by accident he ends up accomplishing something good.

One very unsettling part of the movie, is the fact that Bickle has not changed. He played out his messiah fantasies and came out as a hero. He's celebrated, since no one knows of his attempted assassination. The loneliness that plagued him, doesn't show any indication of having gone anywhere. In fact, his perceived heroism, would likely increase his sense of isolation and give more credibility to the urges he struggles with. We don't know what he'll do next, but I would wager it won't be comforting. It's only a matter of time before he runs into another woman he needs to "save."

This isn't a film about morality. It doesn't condemn or praise Travis Bickle, just shows us a picture of who he is and what he does. We wonder, is Travis Bickle a product of his circumstances, is he just mentally ill, or both? While he's clearly psychotic, some of his concerns are valid in the context of the movie. He knows what his own problem is when he states,  "I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people." He clearly believes that he should be like other people but he doesn't know how. He can't get past the lack of something to stand for. He wants to be admirable, so much so that he'll give his life to achieve it. He's terribly misguided and naive in certain ways, but given what he sees in his life, it's not much of a stretch to think that his quest is not only to make himself worthy, but to prove that something worthy exists. (not that his mind would accept the prrof if he found it) If the film gives any answer, it's that sometimes good exists, but rarely does it happen due to your plans. The true tragedy is the ease with which Bickle walks through the word without raising a single red flag, finding himself a hero as a result of his psychosis being again unnoticed by the system and society around him.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Proposition

I read an article not long ago that stated as one of its qualifications for an anti hero "being able to tell the story of your life through any Nick Cave song." The Proposition is a movie that puts that idea to the test, as it's written by Nick Cave himself, and it proves to be a valid theory.

The film is about three brothers; Charlie (Guy Pearce,) Arthur (Danny Huston)and Mikey Burns, who once rode the wilds of Australia together as a criminal gang. We open with Charlie and Mikey holed up in a tin shack with prostitutes and their gang, as bullets come in from the outside. Mikey is useless, panicked and also mentally impaired. Charlie keeps cool and fires back, while trying to calm Mikey, but the situation appears hopeless as the prostitutes and his gang fall to the gunfire.

Charlie and Mikey are soon seated at a table with Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) Captain Stanley tells Charlie that he really wants to bring in Arthur Burns, the older brother. Charlie tells Capt. Stanley, "You're a copper Stanley, not a judge and jury." Capt. Stanley answers, "Well clearly Mr. Burns, I am what I wish to be."

When Charlie says that he doesn't ride with Arthur any longer, Capt. Stanley makes a proposition. He tells Charlie that if he kills Arthur, he can save his simple brother Mikey from being hanged, as well as a full pardon for Mikey and himself.Capt. Stanley calls Arthur a monster and mentions a horrific murder scene at "The Hopkins place" which is somehow more gruesome because one of the victims, Eliza Hopkins was pregnant. He informs Charlie that he knows where Arthur is, apparently a desolate place where "the blacks" won't go. He gives Charlie 9 days, ending on Christmas day and sets him free to find Arthur. Capt. Stanley brings Mikey into town, announcing him as one of the Burns gang, and declaring "I will civilize this place."

He deposits Mikey in a cell and is surprised when his wife Martha (Emily Watson) visits him at the jail, reminding her that she wasn't to visit him at work. She reminds him that he hasn't been home in three days and persists in asking when he;ll be coming home until he says he'll be home later. Although speaking somewhat sternly, he addresses his wife with respect. When Martha leaves, he chastises his officers and warns of consequences for making an off color innuendo about Mikey Burns being "plenty man enough." At home later Martha asks about Eliza Hopkins death being swift and Capt. Stanley evades the question. They share a tender moment lying in bed when Martha asks him to share his burden with her, and says she believes in him.

The next day, Charlie, en route to Arthur, happens upon Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) a bounty hunter looking for Arthur Burns who has settled into a little house beneath the cliff where Arthur is hiding. Jellon makes a bad impression immediately by continously making craacks about the Irish, prompting Charlie to put a gun to his head. Jellon is incorrigible, however. He continues with the Irish jokes and pushing for Charlie's name. Charlie tells him his name is Charlie Murphy.

Charlie Burns: Do you pray, Mr. Lamb?

Jellon Lamb: Good Lord, son, no, I do not. I was, in days gone by, a believer. But alas, I came to this beleaguered land, and the God in me just . . . evaporated. Let us change our toast, sir. To the God who has forgotten us.
Jellon rambles about Charles Darwin, scoffing that white men and the aboriginal people could have a common ancestor. He reveals that he's waiting for Arthur,
Jellon Lamb: "Oh, he sits up there in those melancholy hills; some say he sleeps in caves like a beast, slumbers deep like the Kraken. The Blacks say that he is a spirit. The Troopers will never catch him. Common force is meaningless, Mr. Murphy, as he squats up there on his impregnable perch. So I wait, Mr. Murphy. I wait.
Charlie knocks Jellon out and says: "Aye, you wait. You wait here... bounty hunter." and sets out up the mountain towards Arthur.

Capt. Stanley and Martha are dressed up like proper English people, having a civilized breakfast, and talking about what they miss about England. One of Capt. Stanley's officers shows up to interrupt their breakfast to tell them about some aboriginals that were found hiding in the ranges. Capt. Stanley has an aboriginal man translating for him as he asks them about Arthur. They tell him that Arthur can't be caught, and that he can turn into a dog. Capt. Stanley doesn't find this useful. Capt. Stanley's men sit outside in the meantime, joking about having sex with Martha.

Charlie is making his way up the mountain, and after catching and eating some dinner, he's surprised to have a spear run through his chest by an aborigine, who Charlie can see is shot in the head, before blacking out. He wakes up in a camp with a woman tending to his wound. We see Arthur show up, watching Charlie as he sleeps. Martha is taking a stroll though town, standing out like a sore thumb, by dressing as a completely proper lady. One of the shop owners gives Martha some news to ask her husband about.

Arthur finds Charlie awake and they discuss family. Arthur asks why Mikey isn't there and Charlie tells Arthur that Mikey met a girl. Arthur seems amused asking many questions about the girl. Charlie says: "He worships you know. There was a time we both did." Arthur tells Charlie that he was right to leave as Mikey deserves better. Back at the jail, the police taunt Mikey changing the "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to reference his hanging.  At home, Martha asks what Sgt. Lawrence meant by saying Mikey was "man enough"
She insists that he tell her what he did to her friend Eliza, and he insists she doesn't want to know. Their argument is interrupted by Eden Fletcher arriving to meet with the Captain. Eden informs him that one of his men was killed by aborigines in retaliation for the killing of one of their group. Eden goes on to talk about reciprocity and says"If you're going to kill one, make sure you kill all of them."

Eden also informs Capt. Stanley that he plans to have Mikey flogged with 100 lashes. Eden confronts the Captain about the proposition, the rumour having spread via the lower officers. Capt. Stanley expresses serious problems with this, stating that he doesn't believe Mikey was responsible for anything due to his simple mental condition. Eden criticizes the proposition he offered Charlie, particularly the pardon offered to Charlie and Mikey, asking Capt. Stanley again "Who do you think you are, the judge and the jury?"  Stanley defends his position stating that he holds Arthur responsible for the atrocities, and knows that Charlie will do anything to protect Mikey. Martha listens outside the door as Eden shows outrage over the rape and murder, and declares again that he's to have Mikey lashed, and Charlie hanged if he returns. Martha is visibly shaken with outrage, as the Captain tells her to stay there.

He heads to the jail and finds his officers taunting Mikey. Capt. Stanley has a hard time containing his anger, knowing their talking has led him here.  He dismisses them at gunpoint and when Mikey asks where Charlie is, he answers that he doesn't know in a reassuring tone. Soon he hears the townspeople arriving at the jail. He goes outside to meet them. When they demand Mikey, he threatens to shoot the first person to lay a hand on him. Eden arrives as well, but Capt. Stanley doesn't back down. He is surprised that his wife shows up as well, joining in the demand. "What if it had been me?" She asks. Capt. Stanley drops the jail keys, but clearly knows this is a bad idea. Before they reach 50 lashes the crowd is sickened by the lashing's  effects on Mikey. Martha collapses with revulsion. Capt., Stanley takes the whip and flings it at Eden, getting blood on his face. "You're days are through here Capt. Stanley." Eden responds.

Leaving men at the jail to tend to Mikey, Capt. Stanley and Martha head home. He closes the doors up trying to seal the house, obviously aware that there are consequences coming. He tries to convince Martha to eat while she sits in bed still shocked. He apologizes to her for the ordeal, explaining that it was all to protect her and that whatever idea of justice he had, he isn't sure of anymore.

At Arthur's camp, Samuel Stote, Arthur's sidekick, sings a song for everyone, prompting Arthur to say "You could shame a nightingale." Arthur announces to the group, "Love. Love is the key. Love and family. For what are night and day, the sun, the moon, the stars without love, and those you love around you? What could be more hollow than to die alone, unloved?" Samuel is startled by gunfire in the distance, but Arthur explains that it's miles away. Sgt. Fletcher and the aboriginal tracker helping them head off towards smoke in the distance, as they search for rebel aborigines. Arthur's camp sleeps, while he sits up in the night staring at the moon. Fletcher's crew has killed a family and taken over their house for the night.  Charlie wakes to find Arthur burning everything int heir camp. Arthur leaves Charlie to recuperate, rushing off with Two Bob to grab a horse for Charlie. They find Sgt. Fletcher outside relieving himself. Fletcher reveals that Charlie is out to kill him and offers to help. Arthur's response is to stomp him to death.

While Arthur is out, Jellon Lamb has found the camp and has Charlie tied up as well as the other members of the gang. He parades Charlie around bragging about his abilities and insulting the Irish. He reveals that knows Charlie is one of the Burns brothers. Lamb stops in his tracks and we see blood appearing on his shirt, shot from a distance, as Arthur appears. Lamb collapses, spouting poetry, which Arthur answers:
Lamb: There's night and day brother, both sweet things. Sun and Moon and stars, all sweet things. And quiet, there's a wind on the east. Life is very sweet, brother.
Arthur Burns: Life is very sweet, brother, who wish to die.
Jellon Lamb: Ah.
Arthur Burns: George Borrow, I believe. A worthy writer, and a beautiful sentiment sir. But you're not my brother.
Arthur stabs him, and leaves him dying. Charlie gets disgusted when Arthur starts torturing Lamb with the knife, and pulls a gun on Arthur. Arthur exclaims "Why, can't you ever just stop me?" Rather than shoot Artur, he puts Lamb out of his misery, and tells Arthur that Mikey is going to hang on Christmas. "When's Christmas?" Arthur asks. Charlie just says "I've got some riding to do." Arthur calls out "Brother!"

Capt. Stanley and Martha are looking through Christmas decorations that she procured. Stanley is amazed at the things she she has, including fake snow. The doctor knocks at the door, which Capt.. Stanley opens very carefully at gunpoint. He tells them that there's nothing he can do for Mikey, as he's too far gone.

Arthur, Samuel and Two Bob follow Charlie, conversing on the way:
Samuel Stote: What's a misanthrope, Arthur?
Two Bob: Some bugger who fuckin' hates every other bugger.
Samuel Stote: Hey, I didn't ask you, you black bastard
Arthur Burns: He's right Samuel. A misanthrope is one who hates humanity.
Samuel Stote: Is that what we are, misanthropes?
Arthur Burns: Good lord no. We're a family.

Officer's return to town with "rebel aborigines" However it's soon clear that the officers are Charlie and Arthur and the gang in disguise. They overtake the jail easily and find Mikey suffering. Eden is appalled to finds the jail empty and the guards only a dead and bloody mess. Martha and Capt. Stanley try to cat civilized as if nothing's wrong at home, while Samuel and Arthur get cleaned up and Charlie and Two Bob bury Mikey who has died. Two Bob tells Charlie it's his fault for leaving the gang. The Stanley's begin carving a bird for a nice quiet candlelit dinner. They sit down at the table and Martha prays ironically "For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful." This is punctuated y Arthur and Samuel blasting through the door. Arthur takes Capt. Stanley into another room, leaving Samuel to guard Martha. Samuel starts eating their dinner as they listen To Capt. Stanley struggling in the other room. He then drags Martha into the room to watch as Arthur shoots Capt. Stanley. Samuel then throws Martha on the table intending to rape her as Arthur sits calmly close by.  Charlie walks into this scene, telling Arthur that Mikey's dead. Arthur remarks on Samuel's singing while he holds Martha down, saying "Listen to that, he sings like a bird!"
Charlie places his gun to Samuel's head and kills him, then shoots Arthur in the gut. Arthur says "Not the gut Charlie." Charlie shoots him in the heart and says "No more."

He leaves the Capt. Stanley badly maimed and struggling to get up and Martha still shocked on the table and says "I'm going to be with my brother." He finds Arthur outside sitting on the ground looking towards the horizon. Charlie sits down next to Arthur as the sky gets dark. Arthur says "You got me Charlie. What are you going to do now?"


John Hillcoat makes the picture look completely unpolished, not as in bad looking, but the dirt and dust of these characters is apparent in every frame. The  movie is at heart a western using the elements of the Australian setting and culture to best effect, feeling a bigger and more inhospitable than a modern western otherwise could. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score the picture, making the music very much a part of the characters, at times laying back ground, at others impressing us with urgency or creepy mysticism, but never in a way that pulls us out of the picture.

Guy Pearce's Charlie is terrific, stoic and a man of few words, but a man of utmost seriousness. His underplaying works terifically here as the bridge between the well intentioned but naive, Capt. Stanley and the charismatic but twisted Arthur Burns. Danny Huston is tremendous as Arthur, portraying a man who contains the greatest poetry and the greatest of atrocities simultaneously. We see why his brother loves him, and why his brother would leave him just as clearly. Ray Winstone is pitch perfect as a man who really more than anything wants his wife to feel safe and respectable but makes the mistake of taking on too much alone and overestimating his own abilities and foresight. Emily Watson also shines, her Martha clutching principles and causes she doesn't fully understand, and don't apply in her new environment as she would believe they would. Her persistence, while endearing has consequences she can't face, and she is believably oblivious to that fact. John Hurt's Jellon Lamb is an instant character classic, loathsome to the core, if somewhat of a bit player here.

At heart, this ugly movie is an appreciation of the depth of connection that the idea of family has. Charlie must kill one brother to save another. While Arthur may clearly deserve to be killed, we can't eliminate the fact that they do not have a superficial relationship. Charlie may despise Arthur, but he also loves him deeply. His problems with Arthur's brutality surfaced long before the proposition was presented to him, but he was content to part company, as this would keep these facts from facing him and Mikey. Protecting Mikey, is his main responsibility, and while it's implied that Mikey participated in the atrocities, there's no question that he is too simple to know what's right and wrong. Charlie doesn't have that purity, but wants to protect it, because he doesn't have Arthur's apathy. He's forced to assume the role of protector because his older brother is depraved.  Charlie doesn't journey anywhere in the movie that he hadn't already considered. He had likely considered killing Arthur before but wasn't eager to do this. Both Arthur and Charlie seem difficult to surprise, as if they knew this is how things would go eventually but hoped to avoid it. When Charlie kills Arthur, despite the fact that Mikey is already dead, yet refrains from killing Capt. Stanley, it shows that he has a good sense of where responsibility really lies. Capt. Stanley just stepped into a situation that was far above his station or ability to control.

Capt Stanley is a man who has come a good way through determination and assertiveness. But, much like his wife, he treats this hostile territory by the rules he would use in England. He's also surprised that Fletcher would talk behind his back, showing that he generally expects men to be good. This also shows why he would be so determined to bring in Arthur, who he calls a monster. It isn't the deeds that bother him as much as people's perception that Arthur is more than a man. He wants to reveal that no one is beyond the natural rules, as this would reinforce the fantasy that he carefully builds with Martha. If the rules can apply, they can have their civilized life here. Sadly, he wants this too much and overreaches ensuring that fantasy's destruction. Ironically it isn't Charlie or Arthur that are beyond him, but Eden, the face of civilized authority. Eden's capacity for cruelty is on par with Arthur's as his sense of the rules is not tempered with happiness as Captain Stanley's is.

Watching Captain Stanley dote on Martha, never speaking a word to break her suspension of disbelief is very moving. He knows that they will very likely be dead at any moment, yet he plays along, while watching the door, perhaps enjoying the moments as he knows they are limited. He never blames Martha, for her part in inciting the lashing, knowing that she didn't understand the ramifications of her actions. He instead apologizes for not being able to protect her. Capt. Stanley is the one profoundly changed by these events, as the fantasy he helped to build is forever disrupted and his sense of justice broken.

These are all fully human characters, as likely to be deranged as kind. The true of heart can be misguided, the weak used as pawns in struggles between stronger men, most of which happen below the surface. Everyone in "The Proposition" struggles, although some more than others. The struggle is not to be right or wrong but only to be able to live in an oppressive environment with your understanding of the world intact. The monsters don't know they are monsters, and good men don't call themselves that. Every motive is simple and perhaps even reasonable, but they won't make room for each other and therefore can't exist together. And there is also the question of evil, the one fact that all motives agree on is that Arthur must be stopped. Charlie knows this better than anyone, but he doesn't forget, that in stopping Arthur's madness, he also kills something of beauty, because both exist in the same man. He has to kill him and he does. Charlie doesn't have to sit with him as he dies, but he does, perhaps feeling Arthur's earlier comment:

"Love. Love is the key. Love and family. For what are night and day, the sun, the moon, the stars without love, and those you love around you? What could be more hollow than to die alone, unloved?"