Spoiler Warning

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

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Bad Lieutenant

There aren't too many completely unsympathetic characters out there. Even the most irredeemable protagonists in the movies have a trait or two that allows us to latch onto them, whether to cheer a little or feel bad when they take a fall. Sometimes it's just that our flawed lead is more clever, witty or determined than anyone else. Although sometimes entertaining in a morbid way, it's hard to watch someone who has nothing at all to redeem himself. But that is the character we look at in this film.

Harvey Keitel is the "Bad Lieutenant" of the title and he is bad in every way you can imagine. He's a junkie, thief, and killer, with a serious gambling problem. He blatantly uses police power to further his vices. This is a man who can't help but snort cocaine in his car moments after letting his kids out at school. His dialogue with his young kids is also telling. When they blame their lateness on their Aunt taking over the bathroom, he reminds them that he's the boss, not her. He tells them to throw her out of the bathroom or call him and he'll do it.

The Lieutenant responds to a robbery in progress and rather than arrest the robbers, he takes the money they stole and sends them away. He watches a carjacking across the street with no interest whatsoever, rather than interrupt his cup of coffee. He does drugs with hookers in a hotel room, and shoots up with a junkie friend. All of these activities occur within a matter of minutes. All the while, he's placing bets on the World Series, which due to his bad picks, increases his debt to a mafia bookie. He also convinces his fellow officers to place their money with him.

Despite his aggressive tendencies and blatant abuse of power, the Lieutenant is clearly in pain and irreparably broken. He sometimes can't keep himself from moaning. He identifies himself as a Catholic, and Catholic iconography is prominently displayed throughout the film. When a young nun (Frankie Thorn) is raped on the altar by two young thugs, he shows apathy to his fellow officers on hearing of it, yet finds himself drawn in, visiting her (unseen) at the hospital and later spending time at the church where the crime scene occurred. The rape itself is symbolically horrific, even involving a crucifix.There is also a $150,000.00 reward offered to find the rapists.

His  increasing debt is accentuated by the the results of each World Series game, coverage of which is played on the radio consistently throughout the movie. He can't help but sob as he listens in his car, even shooting his car radio at one point. He attempts to conceal the situation from everyone, but his bookie makes sure to give him reminders. In one confrontation, where he reminds the bookie's guy that he's a cop, they remind him that being a cop will only protect him so far and that 'the bookie may well come by and blow up his house. "No one can kill me. I'm blessed. I'm a catholic." he says, before giving the Lieutenant the bookie's direct number, as he no longer wants to be involved. The bookie's guy reminds the Lieutenant of the reward for the rape case as a possible way out.

His anxiety increasing, the Lieutenant runs deeper into drugs, alcohol and depravity, his debt and the rape case clearly pushing at him constantly. All the while, reminders of his faith are everywhere, like Jesus watching from a blanket draped over a couch and rosary beads in his car. To balance his turmoil he continually turns to drugs and alcohol, Retreating to his fellow junkie and mistress Zoe (Zoe Lund), she offers this commentary on his dilemma while helping him shoot up:
"Vampires are lucky, they can feed on others. We gotta eat away at ourselves. We gotta eat our legs to get the energy to walk. We gotta come, so we can go. We gotta suck ourselves off. We gotta eat away at ourselves til there's nothing left but appetite. We give, and give and give crazy. Cause a gift that makes sense ain't worth it. Jesus said seventy times seven. No one will ever understand why, why you did it. They'll just forget about you tomorrow, but you gotta do it. "

He meets with the nun shortly afterwards and tells her that if she gives up the names of the guys who raped her, he'll punish them. He begs her to let him "revenge it." The nun responds by telling him that she has already forgiven them. He can't accept this and even asks her if she has the right to forgive them as her forgiveness will "leave blood in its wake." by allowing them to do this to others. She tells him to talk to Jesus and pray. The Lieutenant is completely overwhelmed at this gesture, and actually sees Jesus appear before him in the church. He finally faces some of his torments, initially accusing Jesus and finally revealing his guilt in what may be in my opinion one of the most moving acting experiences I've ever seen. Click the link to watch it:

  The Lieutenant sees Jesus

Instantly after this experience, someone directs him to the boys who raped the nun, In a strange twist on ritual, the Lieutenant corners the boys in their room at gunpoint and smokes crack with them, as perhaps his own version of communion. (The World Series plays in the background) As if to confirm the authenticity of his new understanding, he escorts the boys to the bus station and tells them to leave town rather than arresting them. He reveals his continuing bafflement, addressing the boys on the ride to the bus:
"You raped a holy thing. You destroyed that young girl. And she forgives you. Ya hear that? She forgives you. You fucking heroes. Ya like holding her down and shoving your dick into her? While she couldn't do nothing about it. Did you like that? Watch this motherfucker! Watch this you cocksucker! Look at that! You can't do a thing about that can you? Can you? Look at me! Can you? Can you fuckface?"
He doesn't completely understand what's happened but it has profoundly affected him. He moans in misery watching them get on the bus. We might wonder if he's really changed or just glimpsed a moment of grace, but it's clear that the consequences of his actions are still waiting for him. How much is one moment of forgiveness or goodness worth? I don't think that's the point, so much as a representation that this man, as far as he had fallen, was not beyond a moment of grace.

Be advised that this film is quite graphic and not for the easily disturbed. But if you can tolerate that, it's a true masterpiece. Ferrara mixes the iconic in his gritty scenes in a way that's almost surreal yet completely believable. And Keitel's performance can't be compared to any other in it's commitment and vulnerability. He's astonishing.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A History of Violence

Is violence in our blood, our biology? And if it is can we escape it? Perfect questions for Director David Cronenberg to ask, and a natural progression in his history of examining the body's place in life via his twisted exaggeration.

The movie opens with a long scene focusing on two remorseless killers leaving a brutal and bloody mess behind them in a minor robbery, even thoughtlessly killing a child, as if to let us know that there are some ugly men in the world who will hurt and kill whatever they need to get what they want.

We are quickly given the contrast of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen)serving customers at a small town diner which he owns. The warm and meaningless small talk tells us that this is definitely the flip side of the coin we opened with.

Tom is living out a low key American dream. His wife Edie (Maria Bello) is beautiful, his kids are well behaved and they're all crazy about each other. Tom knows all of his customers and things couldn't be happier. While there's no shortage of action in the film, this isn't a traditional shoot 'em up. Cronenberg uses Tom's family to look at violence from many angles. After the benign diner set-up we quickly move to another threat of violence, with Tom's son Jack getting bullied in a locker room.
When confronted by the alpha bully, Jack keeps his cool and dissects the bully's intimidation tactics.

Jack Stall: Yeah, you're right. I'm both little and a faggot. You got me dead to rights.

Bobby Jordan: Come on, chickenshit, let's do this!

[He pushes Jack back against the locker booth]

Jack Stall: What would be the point? I mean, you win. You win, you win. You've established your, uh, alpha male standing; uh, you've established my unworthiness; but doing violence to me just seems

[clears throat]

Jack Stall: pointless and cruel.

Bobby Jordan: Don't you think! Let's do this, you punk bitch!

Jack Stall: Shouldn't that be "little, punkass, chickenshit, faggot bitch"?

Once he gets a few laughs the situation is defused, but not for good of course. Jack has most likely only stalled the inevitable confrontation and perhaps made it worse for humiliating them. Later on that night the bullies see Jack and a friend hanging out outside, while driving by and resolve to stop and kick Jack's ass, until distracted by the killers from the opening, who almost run into them as they head to Tom's diner.

Things get more serious at the diner, where the killers stop in for a cup of coffee and the chance to make a couple bucks by relieving Tom of the money in the register. We already know these guys have no qualms about killing anyone. After the older killer gets antagonistic, Tom tries to  keep things calm and send his waitress home. They don't let her leave and as they're about to kill her to prove they're serious, Tom jumps into action and quickly kills both men. The event makes the news and soon Tom is a celebrated local hero.

Before long the media attention draws out Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) claiming he knows Tom from the past in Philadelphia. He also refers to Tom insistently as "Joey Cusack" even arguing when Tom corrects him. Tom keeps cool despite Fogerty's clear menace. Edie is bothered and threatens to call the cops, prompting Fogarty to leave. She calls the cops anyway reaching the sheriff, Sam Carney, (Peter MacNeill) who stops them on the way out of town. After looking up their ID's, Sam shows up at the Stalls house to warn Tom and Edie that they're dealing with organized crime "Bad Men" he says. He finds no information on Joey Cusack but does find a Ritchie Cusack, the leader of a Philadelphia crime syndicate. Sam asks Tom if he's in a witness protection program, but Tom insists he knows nothing about anything going on.

The next day Tom sees Fogarty's car pass the diner headed towards the house. He calls Edie and tells her to grab the shotgun before running home. It turns out to be a false alarm, as no one shows up at the house. Jack notices that Tom is shaken however and questions his dad about it. Tom insists they have him confused with someone else. They are still being watched however as Edie discovers when she runs into Fogarty at the mail when her daughter Sarah is missing for a moment and Fogarty happens to be "keeping an eye on her."  Edie is angry of course, but Fogarty tells her to ask Tom about Ritchie,and to ask him why he's so good at killing people. Edie runs off angry and shaken.

Meanwhile Jack is at school facing the bully again. When the bully forces a confrontation, Jack cuts loose and beats him savagely, putting him in the hospital. Tom is very angry, insisting that his family does not solve problems by hitting. Jack responds by saying "No, in this family we shoot them" Tom slaps him across the face and Jack runs off leaving Tom and Edie to discuss her talk with Fogarty. Before they can finish talking they hear a car pull up and Tom (with shotgun) and Edie run out and find Fogarty and a few thugs outside holding Jack, insisting that Tom put down the gun and go to Philly with them. They let Jack go when Tom approaches them unarmed. Jack and Edie are both watching the scene from the window when one of the thugs pulls a gun to Tom's head presumably to shoot him. Tom quickly kills the man with his bare hands, takes his gun and shoots a second thug leaving only Fogarty who shoots Tom. Fogarty asks Tom if he has anything to say before he's killed. And Tom say "I should've killed you back in Philly."  Fogarty isn't able to follow through however as Jack shows up and kills Fogarty with the shotgun, firmly establishing the idea that violence comes easy to the Stalls (or rather Cusacks)

Edie confronts Tom in the hospital, telling him that she saw "Joey" the killer Fogarty mentioned. She asks him why he killed people. Tom responds that 'Joey" killed people, but he thought he'd killed Joey, as if he and Joey were different people. She realizes that every aspect of their life together was made up. She storms out, unable to cope at the moment. Tom recovers quickly and returning home, deals with the same issues with Jack. The Sheriff shows up concerned about the incident. He finds it hard to believe that the mobsters would risk so much if he was the wrong man.Edie shows up while they're talking and despite her anger she defends Tom completely.

Of course it isn't long before Tom gets a phone call from his brother Ritchie (John Hurt), who asks if Joey is coming to see him, or if he'll have to go see Joey. Tom of course realizes he has to settle things and heads for Philadelphia to see his brother. The outcome of the meeting leaves the question of violence open. Clearly Tom/Joey has a gift for killing. Is it a part of his nature that he can't escape? And if so, what about his son? Is it a tool that can be used for the right or wrong ends? The only thing clear is that it couldn't be hidden forever, and once revealed it changes everything making a really big mess.That, and that once it starts it doesn't just go away.

Cronenberg does a brilliant job contrasting the warm and pleasant tones of the idyllic small tone, with the ugliness of violence, changing to almost black when Joey heads to Philadelphia. The performances are all flawless. Viggo Mortensen gives Tom as much likable small town charm, as he gives Joey cold blooded and efficient menace. John Hurt is tremendous as his selfish psychopathic brother. Although it's a very brief role Hurt gives it enough weight that we begin to almost understand where the Tom/Joey conflict came from. Maria Bello plays her complex emotions concerning the pull between Tom and Joey masterfully. And of course Ed Harris is great in his also brief role. A wonderful movie that thoughtfully examines the issues it deals with and has enough respect not to pretend to answer them.