Spoiler Warning

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

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mother Night

Howard Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte) is an American playwright living in Germany. His plays are very successful there and he's married to a popular German actress, Helga (Sheryl Lee.) Although World War II is around the corner he thinks himself as entirely unconcerned with politics and frequently socializes with the higher ranks withing the Nazi party.

He's approached one day by an operative of the US, Major Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman) who asks him to go to work for them. Campbell declines, citing his lack of interest in politics, but Wirtanen tells him to think on it and rather than looking for a yes or no, tells him they'll look at what he does withing the Nazi party as his answer.

Campbell moves up in the Nazi ranks becoming a crucial part of the propaganda machine, giving regular broadcasts designed to turn American sympathizer to the Nazi cause and to incite hatred against the Jews and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This position also puts him in a unique place to broadcast important information to the Allies, through a code made up of coughs, pauses and emphases that an inside man places within his speeches. Campbell has no idea what the information is himself.

His broadcasts are very effective in rallying the Nazis. Campbell tells himself he's only concerned with his life with Helga, referring to it as their "nation of two." This changes when Helga is killed while entertaining some troops. He abandons his position and travels the German countryside, stopping to see Helga's father who reveals that he always suspected Campbell was a spy but in the end decided it didn't matter, because his broadcasts served the Nazis better than anything he could have done could have helped the Allies. He's soon back to touring Germany when he's caught by the Allies, and forced to take a tour of Auschwitz so he can witness what he helped create. Wirtanen intervenes and has Campbell set up in New York City with a new name. He soon abandons his alias and nobody seems to know the difference, until he knocks on a neighbors door for help after he's cut himself. His neighbor gets him bandaged up, but his mother asks about his name. Campbell plays dumb and the mother reveals that she and her son were both at Auschwitz.

Campbell makes friends with another neighbor, a painter named George Kraft (Alan Arkin) who tells him he recognized him as part of "the brotherhood" explaining, what he means, "The Brotherhood of the Walking Wounded. It's the largest organization in the world. You don't even know it exists until you're in it. You get your membership card when you lose the one thing that gives your life any meaning, the thing that binds you together. The thing that holds the group in one piece is the fact that the members are absolutely incapable of speaking to one another." Campbell soon reveals his true past to George Kraft.

Campbell is then visited by a Neo Nazi group, who revere him, and bring with them a surprise, Helga, still alive. Campbell is overjoyed, but finds after spending a night with her, that Helga is actually Helga's younger sister, Resi, who was in love with him for years. He comes to a certain peace with that, but their reunion is interrupted by the fact that the Israelis have found him and want him for his war crimes, announcing as much on the front page of the news.

Campbell is visited by Wirtanen who informs him that George Kraft and Resi are both working for Soviet Intelligence and planning to take him to Russia. He confronts them with this knowledge and Resi swears that she wasn't going to go through with it, planning to go to Mexico instead. Campbell explains that it doesn't matter since the authorities have the place surrounded. Resi tells Campbell she's only only been living "for love." and asks him, if he doesn't love her, to give her something else to live for. When he fails to answer, she tells him she'll give him something to live for, "a woman who died for love." He watches as she takes a cyanide capsule. He's released back onto the street and realizes "I took several steps down the sidewalk when something happened. It was not guilt that froze me; I had taught myself never to feel guilt. It wasn't the fear of death; I had taught myself to think of death as a friend. It was not the thought of being unloved that froze me; I had taught myself to do without love. What froze me was the fact that I had absolutely no reason to move in any direction." He stands in the same spot for many hours until a cop convinces him to move on.

He returns to his apartment to find it ransacked and then goes to see his Jewish neighbors. He tells them he wants to turn himself over to the Israelis and thought he'd surrender himself to Auschwitzers. They help him with this and he's soon imprisoned and given three days with a typewriter to write his memoirs before his trial. He's placed in a cell within talking distance of Adolph Eichmann.  He receives a letter from Wirtanen who tells him that he's bending policy to testify on Campbell's behalf, that he was acting as a spy for the Allies. This comes as little relief to Campbell, and he finally decides to settle the matter himself.

"Mother Night" is an adaptation of a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, who is largely considered unfilmable. The exception makes sense here, as "Mother Night" is as close as Vonnegut came to a conventional novel. Unlike many of his works which confront the absurdity of the world on a grand scale, he described Mother Night as "the only story of mine whose moral I know" saying, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."  He also adds two more possible morals "When you're dead, you're dead." and, "Make love when you can. It's good for you."

The character of Campbell is in an interesting position to examine some of the problems inherent in World War II behavior especially among the Nazi party. Campbell himself asks Eichmann jeeringly "Were you just doing your duty?" Eichmann is not your average citizen, and has no interest in washing his hands of the holocaust, but the question is pretty well known. Campbell's situation takes it a step further, in his position, he could actually say his part in the Nazi propaganda machine was helping the Allies. Even that however, doesn't erase the very real assistance he gave the Nazis. Even if Campbell's addresses were "pretend" in his mind, they had a very real effect. His father in law, a high ranking Nazi officer tells him that it was his broadcasts that convinced him that Germany hadn't gone crazy, solidifying his commitment to the cause. Campbell is able to witness what he contributed to first hand when Allied officers give him a tour of Auschwitz. This is something that stays with him as we see when he turns himself in to his neighbors who spent time there.

Campbell knows better than to claim he was "doing his duty" for the Allies, since this doesn't erase the fact that he was doing the same thing for the Nazis. He was only in a position to help the Allies because he'd already decided not to leave Germany. As he freely admits, everything he does is in service to his "nation of two." rather than to the Axis or the Allies. Assuming a position in the Nazi party allows his lifestyle with Helga to continue as it was, attending fancy parties and having his work celebrated by all around him. The fact that he can use his position to help the Allies is a condition that just falls in his lap, so he complies. This falls in line with his estimation of himself as "not political." since he can tell himself he's in the middle of both sides. He learns though that by serving evil in order to serve good,he's still serving evil.

Eventually all of Campbell's motivations come under scrutiny, even his firmly held conviction about his "Nation of Two." We're forced to question the reality of his conviction when he accepts Resi as a version of Helga, suggesting that he was more loyal to the idea of his lover than the person herself. Once again, he simply takes what is thrown in front of him, doing the justification required to make it acceptable to himself. When he discovers that Resi is a double agent, it's too much for him to accept. Although she begs him to, he can't offer her the conviction he once espoused, that one can live for love. She gives him the last answer he would ask for and shows him, as if taking her cue from a character in his plays, "a woman who dies for love." Her action shakes up what little belief he had that his actions were passive. The inspiration from his words once again creates a very real action. This action is not to the same scale as his wartime activities, but feels as profound to him because of how personal the action is. Resi dreamed of Campbell writing a character based on her in his plays, and in a sense he did, by failing to act and allowing her to play the part.

It's no accident that Campbell is a playwright, since this gives him a larger capacity to "pretend" than most, making his living entirely on the stories he invents. He has his art as a justification for not taking a side in the war, thinking himself in service to a non political master. He also has his Helga, who is certainly intertwined with his idea of "art," serving as his muse at the very least.  When Resi asks if Helga caused him to write, he corrects her assumption, saying that Helga didn't make him write, only made him write in a certain way. His capacity to pretend and his compulsion to write were there before Helga, she just lent direction.

Nick Nolte does a wonderful job of playing Campbell as a quiet, cerebral man, knowingly heading towards his own doom. Wrestling with a share of the blame in unspeakable atrocities is not something easily conveyed by outbursts  In his character, we see someone who tries very hard to shelter himself from responsibility even while trying to carry the weight of what he's done. As Wirtanen points out, his plays tell us enough about his character for his story to make sense. Good and evil are important to him, and he can't act like he doesn't see them in himself forever.

Sheryl Lee carries her two roles well. Helga comes across as more an ideal than a person, and we don't really grasp her importance until she's absent. In hindsight, Campbell's loyalty to her ensures his effort to keep their life as it is. We get little sense of her character. Resi is another story, and she's far more complicated than Helga. We know that since the end of the war she became a Soviet spy. Yet, over the years she never forgot Campbell, or the envy she had over her sister's place as his muse. As with Helga, her death changes Campbell's direction, and shakes up his knowledge of what he thinks he believes. He becomes a character stripped of all motivation, and we see him very literally stopped in his tracks while everyone walks around him. When the cop tells him "Don't you think it's time to move on?" he agrees completely, knowing that as he himself wrote, he has a "full life behind him."

Alan Arkin is also very entertaining. he's a believe friend and fellow member of the "brotherhood of the walking wounded." While he's really a Soviet spy the bond he builds with Howard still rings true in many ways. They're both spies, just for different causes and governments. When his identity is revealed, he tells Howard, "This is how things are, not who I am." a sentiment Campbell may well have considered himself, when reflecting on his own career.

"Mother Night" is a bleak meditation on the moral it states, "We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be." Although on paper there is an urge to balance bad and good, to justify evil by looking for the greater good, but in this case the evil is too great to be balanced and his influence was an integral part of the darkest crimes imaginable, even if he managed to help the Allies while doing it. He could argue that he never killed anyone with his own hands, but being a successful playwright, he knew the influence that his words could have. He also had the effusive praise of the Third Reich and American neo-Nazi groups who continued to idolize him after the war. In Vonnegut's novel, Campbell tells us he's going to hang himself "not for crimes against humanity, but for crimes against himself," the one person who never really bought his pretending.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Seven Psychopaths

Two hit men discuss their intended victim, the boss' girlfriend. One of them tries to recall if John Dillinger was shot in the eye, leading to a discussion with his about the probability of people getting shot in the eye in general. The other hitman doesn't think it's likely as it requires very good aim, but the other counters that in situations where hundreds of bullets are fired, it's very likely that many people end up shot in the eye. Their discussion is halted by the arrival of the film's first psychopath the "Jack of Hearts Killer" who approaches shoots both hitmen in their heads and leaves a Jack of Hearts playing card on each of the bodies before running off.

Marty (Colin Ferell) is a successful screenwriter who is having a hard time writing his latest script. He has a title, "Seven Psychopaths" and an idea to find some interesting psychopath stories, as the only one he has so far is in mind so far is a Buddhist pacifist. This may explain his trouble getting anything written. He knows his girlfriend Kaya (Abbie Cornish) is angry with him, but she won't tell him why.

He's soon joined by his friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) a big fan of Marty's writing, and a constant reminder to Marty that he drinks too much. Billy suggests the Jack of Hearts killer as a possible psychopath for the script. Marty agrees that a killer who only kills members of the mafia "and yakuza" would be a great addition to his cast of characters. Marty also comes up with the idea of a Quaker psychopath, (played in the story by Harry Dean Stanton) who stalks the man who killed his daughter for decades, long after he serves a prison sentence and reforms. The man is finally so determined to be free of the Quaker that he cuts his own throat, thinking that Hell may be the only place the Quaker can't follow him. However, the last thing the man sees is the Quaker cutting his throat as well. The Quaker's story prompts Billy to question Marty's alcoholism, since he recalls telling Marty the Quaker story not long ago, although Marty sincerely believes he wrote it.

Billy is a struggling actor, who loses a job by punching his director. To make money, he and his friend Hans (Christopher Walken)  kidnap neighborhood dogs and hold them until the owners post rewards, which they claim when returning them. Their operation is interrupted when they steal the Shih-Tzu of local psychopath and mobster, Charlie (Woody Harrelson.) One of his men has heard of suspicious dognappings, which points them in the direction of Billy and Hans, as well as Marty who's staying with Billy after his girlfriend kicks him out of the house.

Billy puts an ad in the paper asking for psychopaths willing to tell Marty their story. This ad is answered by a man named Zacariah (Tom Waits) who shows up carrying a rabbit. He tells Marty that he once rescued an injured girl from a judge's basement, and the two fell in love and became serial killer-killers, until he got tired of the cruelty and bloodshed causing his girlfriend to leave him after they dispatched the Zodiac killer. He asks Marty to put a message to his girlfriend in the movie when it gets made, and Marty promises to do so "on his life."

It isn't long before Charlie's men close in. They question Marty and Hans at the dog kennel although they're saved unexpectedly by the Jack of Hearts killer. Charlie himself starts looking for Hans, finding his wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay)  in the hospital. Realizing that Hans is about to enter the hospital for his daily visit, she angers Charlie, who kills her, and leaves the room, which tips off Hans in time to keep from getting spotted.

Marty, Billy and Hans decide to retreat to the desert.  On the way they discuss Marty's screenplay, Marty states that he wants to make a movie without a conventional shootout ending, as he told Billy earlier, " I'm sick of all these stereotypical Hollywood murderer scumbag type psychopath movies. I don't want it to be one more film about guys with guns in their hands. I want it, overall, to be about love, and peace."

Billy insists that a shootout is exactly the way to go, even pointing out a spot along the way that would be perfect for the final shootout. Marty reveals that he's having trouble finishing the story of one of his psychopaths, a Vietnamese man who was Viet Cong and journeyed to America after the war, to take what revenge he can for the brutality and destruction of his village. Marty can't get past a scene of the man in his hotel room dressed as a priest, with a hooker arriving, as he plots his next move. They toss it back and forth along and Billy also contributes his vision of an over the top final showdown scenario. All the while, their own showdown approaches, as Charlie discovers where they are, and we wonder whose ending will happen Billy's or Marty's.

This film has seen a lot of comparison to Quentin Tarantino's work, a comparison I really don't get, other than using crime as a story point, and offbeat dialogue. McDonagh clearly has his own style and concerns which are a long way away from Tarantino. In "Seven Psychopaths" he both tells a story about a number of psychopaths and takes a look at our preoccupation with them (and violence) in the movies. This is not however, a movie that aims to solve any problems, but I didn't expect it to do so. I was satisfied with the effort to talk about these things, examining them from many different points of view.

The character of Marty seems, to some degree to be a stand in for McDonagh. He watches everything unfold as an outsider, to his own detriment sometimes, as this detachment doesn't do his relationship with his girlfriend any favors. I would resist the urge to view the character as too autobiographical though, since McDonagh is clearly aware that he's telling a story and must keep it entertaining.  Marty is obviously successful at his screenwriting trade, enough that he can sell a script based on nothing but the title. The fact that the title is "Seven Psychopaths," is it's own statement. Clearly that's a movie everyone wants to see, unfortunately for Marty, he doesn't have the heart for it anymore. He'd rather write about peace and love, but the pacifist Buddhist character he has in mind won't fit into his story.

More than anything else, the film centers on the friendship between Marty and Billy. Billy ends up being the most prominent psychopath in the story, but that doesn't call his sense of friendship into question. Billy is a fan of  "Seven Psychopaths" and wants to see it done the way he imagines, with lots of shooting and an unbelievable showdown. This makes sense, as Billy has a secret life, seemingly designed to be a good part of   Marty's story. His enthusiasm for Marty's project leads him to put his own, and everyone around him in danger. Whether he's a textbook psychopath or not is debatable, since despite his strange and reckless behavior he does have a very real devotion to Marty, most evidenced by his constant encouragement for Marty to quit drinking.  Sam Rockwell is perfect in the role, coming across as both likable and deranged, and sometimes both at once, depending on the situation.

Christopher Walken's presence is also very large in this film. His Hans is an interesting foil for Billy Bickle. We learn that he once leaned towards the psychotic side himself. Marty tells the story about the Quaker who avenged his daughter by stalking a man until he killed himself and Hans reveals a scar across his neck. Unlike Billy though, Hans isn't sure anymore that that was the right thing to do. He reveals to his wife that he isn't sure of a lot of things, including heaven and hell. He quotes Gandhi's "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." which Marty agrees with, and Billy insists is wrong. After taking some peyote in the desert, he has a vision of his now dead wife, "in a grey place" with a bullet hole still in her head, making him doubt his beliefs even more. He leaves Marty and Billy and walks into town. Running into Charlie's men, he's told to put his hands up, as they have guns. "No." he replies confounding them. Those are the rules after all, the man with the gun says "hands up," and you put them up. Hans, however is done with those rules and his refusal makes it their dilemma to solve, not his. He does manage to leave a possible solution for Marty's Vietnamese priest storyline, suggesting that the whole hotel room scene was in the imagination of a monk preparing to immolate himself. As he's urged by those around him not to do it, as "it won't help," the monk only replies "It might." before lighting a match.

The monk's story is the first glimpse that Marty has of making the movie with the ending he wants, violence subverted into a hopeful act, which may or may not make any difference, except to keep the conversation open. While "Seven Psychopaths" has a lot of fun poking at all the conventions of psychopath movies, including Marty's sparse and badly written female characters, and the hypocrisy of studios approving the killing of those same female characters, while refusing to suggest violence towards a pet. At one point, Marty tells Charlie that he "doesn't believe in guns." Woody Harrelson's Charlie, laughs and says "They're not leprechauns." an amusing conversation which seems to highlight McDonagh's insistence that like it or not, believe it or not, the guns are there, and when they shoot bullets, people get hurt and bad things happen. Charlie and Billy embrace this fact, but Marty and Hans are just tired of it. In another exchange Charlie and Marty discuss the situation and Charlie tells Marty to cheer up, pointing out "I've lost five of my friends, you only lost two." pointing back to the earlier Gandhi quote from a different angle.

The other psychopath of note, is Tom Waits as Zacariah, the tragicomic ex serial killer-killer who lost his true love when he lost his stomach for killing. While he is something of a peripheral figure, his stories parallel to that of Hans reinforces the idea of regret as the logical consequence of violence. Of course. it's also just a lot of fun watching Tom Waits telling absurd murder stories with the style that only he can bring. Woody Harrelson is perfect as the cold blooded mob boss with his own sensibilities. Colin Ferrell is perfect as the center of it all, and manages to remain detached even as he's prodded to take action.

"Seven Psychopaths" is a movie about a movie. I don't fault it for not presenting any solutions, since it never pretends to be anything but a dark comedy, and succeeded at making me laugh quite often. McDonagh seems to enjoy the climactic shoot out as much as anyone, but at the same time asks why it always has to go that way. I don't see this as a contradiction, as much as the way a conversation works, and it should be obvious to anyone that conversation is the most important element at work here. Throughout the conversation, McDonagh does insist on one thing though, that the bullets don't just disappear, each one has consequences. Even a flare gun is there for a reason.

I was quite happy to consider all the points brought up in the film, without expecting McDonagh to put the problematic questions to bed. He doesn't claim to have a solution to our attraction to violence and violent movies, and neither does he deny his own interest in this tug of war between possible endings. Certainly the reality of guns and gun violence have been on the minds of many lately and we could benefit from more conversation, and movies that wonder why people can't just go into the desert and talk things out. The quick answer is an easy one, that movie wouldn't make any money. But to go a step further and ask why that is, is much tougher. Even the monk didn't know, but he did something with the question, because "It might" make a difference. If everyone waits to speak until they've solved these problems, there won't be much talking at all. I appreciate that McDonagh trusts his audience to do their own thinking, while keeping an interesting conversation going. It's especially easy to follow along with such a smart script, and fantastic actors batting these ideas around.