Spoiler Warning

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

Friday, March 29, 2013

Thorne: Sleepyhead

I continue to be amazed at the amount of solid crime stories the BBC is putting out. Not being terribly familiar with David Morrisey until his recent turn as The Governor in "The Walking Dead," his "Thorne" series slipped completely beneath my radar. Based on the novels of Mark Billingham, they cover familiar territory, with enough twists on the formulas and care taken with the characters, that it easily takes its place among the top quality crime series. The three episode miniseries format, gives the events room to breath but isn't so sprawling that the viewer loses focus.

In the first series "Sleepyhead," Tom Thorne is the star detective at his police station, having fairly recently cracked a big serial killer case. Thorne's elevated status affects everyone he works with as we see when rookie detective Dave Holland (O. T. Fagbenle) makes a mistake and compares himself unfavorably to Thorne, who is rumored to have caught a serial killer with only his intuition during a hand shake. The story is mocked by Thorne's fellow detective and former partner Kevin Tughan (Eddie Marsan) who tells Holland that the handshake is the story Thorne's whole reputation is based on. When a new series of bodies starts piling up, the entire department is out to catch a new killer. However, when a fourth victim is found, not dead but paralyzed with "locked in syndrome" Thorne questions whether murder is the intent at all. He makes many attempts to communicate with the paralyzed girl who is after all, an eye witness.

When it's clear that the new killer has ties to Thorne's last serial killer, and knows more about how the previous case was handled than he should, Thorne must reexamine everything, including the role of Phil Hendricks (Aidan Gillen,) Thorne's friend and the Department's forensic examiner, as well as the only person to witness Thorne's showdown with the previous killer. Thorne himself is knocked out by the killer and when he wakes up later, reasons that the killer doesn't want him dead, but wonders about his intentions. Tensions increase in the Department as Tughan's resentment over Thorne's successful status prompts him to take over the investigation, eager to take Thorne down a peg. Thorne and Hendricks must settle the secret they share, and their best lead remains the paralyzed girl, who with great effort starts communicating with her eyelids. Thorne and Phil's secret becomes pivotal to solving the case although Thorne can't afford it getting out.

Thorne: Sleepyhead presents an interesting case, a serial killer that isn't out to kill at all, but to "save" his victims. Of course his method of "saving" is perhaps more cruel than death would be. The Killer's knowledge of Thorne's last high profile case limits the possible suspects and when the most obvious is ruled out, it leaves only perplexing possibilities. Thorne's search is complicated by the tension that arises when the killer's clues suggest to his fellow police officers that Thorne himself is a murderer. This sends loyalties in all different directions. Rookie cop Dave Holland sticks to playing it by the book, as he doesn't think himself comparable to Thorne yet. Hendrick's relationship with Thorne becomes strained to it's limit, as the secret he and Thorne share has been bothering him for years, and is now being thrown in his face in the worst possible way. Kevin Tughan however, welcomes the chink in Thorne's armor, and when Thorne is sidelined by his encounter with the killer, he attempts to shut Thorne out of things completely, wanting to get the credit for solving the case, as well as hoping for evidence to prove he's the better cop, making up for his feeling of being slighted by Thorne's celebrity.  Eventually the goal of incriminating Thorne for murder becomes more important to him than the main case.

Thorne simply continues to investigate as best he can, understandably obsessed with solving all the mysteries involved. His persistence in questioning Allison Willetts (Sara Lloyd-Gregory)  the victim with "Locked In Syndrome" pays off, although no one including the doctors (or Tughan) believes that it will. The viewer is given access to Willetts' thoughts, an interesting effect which shows her confusion and limitations and underscores the depravity of the killer who would intentionally leave her in that state. Despite the lack of clues the killer remains active and it becomes more personal when Thorne's love interest, Anne Coburn (Natascha McElhone) finds her daughter in possible jeopardy, even as Tughan is convinced they already have the killer in custody.

Morrisey plays Thorne's understated obsessiveness very well, giving us a detective with a sharp mind and keen intuition, who is still vulnerable to the harsh circumstances of his work. He has to balance his own celebrity with the fact that there's more to the story than he ever wants to be known, as his legend would certainly be compromised. He has a tough time maintaining relationships due to his lack of attention to subtleties required to keep everyone's egos settled. Tughan and Hendricks his closest associates, each have axes to grind of different sorts but both are stung by his aloofness and his rigid belief in his own judgement, so much so that he won't even entertain another's idea if he doesn't like it. Tughan's resentment builds and builds to the point of mania. Hendricks comes across as more hurt than anything else, and tired of carrying the secret. Thorne's introversion doesn't come across as intentionally hurtful, he simply doesn't see the effort to be sociable as worth the the time wasted going in the wrong direction. And whether those around him like it or not, without his skills they have little hope of solving the case.

Compared to other recent BBC TV detectives, Detective Inspector Thorne is not dripping with despair like "Wallander," or ruthlessly and brilliant like "Luther." He's as obsessive as either, but without those qualities, he's more vulnerable than both. He seems as surprised by his intuition as anyone at times, and he gets frantic when he knows he's right. He's still surprised by atrocity, and in flashbacks we see what it takes to push him far enough to step over the line of proper police conduct, and it isn't hard to sympathize. His flaw (if it''s a flaw, it certainly complicates his life) is that his reasoning is overtaken by his identification with the victims. Throughout the series he can't shake images from the victims of his last case, who have much in common with the incapacitated Allison. Likewise, he can't abandon his attempts to get through to her.

The "Sleepyhead" series is directed wonderfully by Stephen Hopkins. Touches like voiceover thoughts of the paralyzed victim, and the slow build up of conflict between Thorne and his former partners, reinforce the very real sense of mounting danger. Thorne's  world is presented as stark, hard, and cold. We witness Thorne from all angles, being pursued by his past and those attempting to dig it up, every bit as thoroughly as he pursues the killer. Hopkins also presents Thorne's love of classic country music beautifully, using songs from The Louvin Brothers, Slim Whitman and Waylon Jennings to great effect when Thorne has a moment alone. Certainly Thorne understands the dark world where those songwriters live, as the tone of their songs fits his own situations. Morrisey, Gillen and Marsan, all in fine form, present us with a kind of makeshift dysfunctional brotherhood, illustrating that small slights can cause more malice than direct insults. All in all I highly recommend "Sleepyhead" to anyone interested in detective stories.  I only hope they get to more of them eventually. It doesn't reinvent the Detective/Serial killer dynamic but it has more than enough personality to keep you watching.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ten Irish Crime Movies

When someone mentions the Mafia in America, chances are you think of the Italian Mafia. They certainly have the most movies made about them, although the Irish mob has been around longer, evolving from street gangs in the early 1900's. However, if you're talking about Boston, or Hell's Kitchen, it's typically the Irish that get the focus. While there are some truly great films about the Irish mob, the Irish mob doesn't have a "The Godfather," yet, although perhaps Scorsese tried to provide one with "Gangs of New York"  It's only a matter of time though, as the Irish mob presents too many story possibilities to be ignored. Since it's St. Patrick's Day, here are ten films I think are worth a look.

Kill The Irishman
Based on the story of Danny Greene, (Ray Stevenson) a low level Irish thug in Cleveland, who makes a sort of rise to power starting with a local union. Greene is a hothead who looks out for his friends and takes care of his own neighborhood. He refuses to play by the local mob rules, quickly setting off a number of assassination attempts.It's worth a watch just for Ray Stevenson's wonderfully entertaining performance as a guy who won't be cowed by anyone, at least not while he's alive. Greene goes to work for Jewish mobster, Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken) and crosses paths with cop, Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer) who grew up in the same place. Maybe you can kill him, but you'll sure have to work for it.

Gangs of New York 
"Gangs of NY" is the only Scorsese film that I didn't care for at all. While it's certainly a sweeping look at the Irish street gangs that would evolve into the Irish mob, I found the characterizations way too over the top to be believable, as if it was meant to be a musical but then lost the music routines. The single biggest problem is the incredible mismatch between the protagonist, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis.) Lewis of course does an amazing job making his character monstrous and formidable, while Dicaprio comes across like a slight little boy that should't be able to take on Bill even armed with all the luck in the world. It's an ambitious film, and I like what it was trying for, but if the characters don't work, I can't really get into the story.

Boondock Saints 
Connor (Sean Patrick Flannery) and Murphy (Norman Reedus) MacManus are two Irish brothers seek to avoid "the indifference of good men." They run into a conflict with some Russian mobsters out to kill them and discover what they feel to be a new calling, ridding Boston of "sinners" (which includes more Russian mobsters.) They come up with their own calling card, and say a prayer while they do the Lord's work, "And shepherds we shall be, for Thee, my Lord, for Thee. Power hath descended forth from Thy hand, That our feet may swiftly carry out Thy command. So we shall flow a river forth to Thee And teeming with souls shall it ever be. In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spirits Sancti." Their murder spree is investigated by FBI agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe) who tries to track them down as they intersect with another killer, "Il Duce" (Billy Connolly) who ends up having something in common with them.

Road to Perdition
Michael Sullivan Sr. (Tom Hanks) is an efficient hitman who was taken in at a young age by Irish mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman) Rooney's biological son Connor, (Daniel Craig) isn't happy with Sullivan's favored status and believes himself untouchable because of his father. Connor's reckless actions on a business outing with Sullivan are witnessed by Sullivan's young son, Michael Jr., who snuck in the car to see what his father does. Connor is paranoid that his actions will come out and he kills Sullivan's whole family only missing Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. When John Rooney is unwilling to take action on Michael's behalf, Michael takes his son on a road trip to go over Rooey's head to get revenge for his family.

State of Grace
Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) is a cop sent back to his home town in Hell's Kitchen, NY to infiltrate the Irish mob headed by Frankie Flannery (Ed Harris.) Frankie's brother Jackie (Gary Oldman) is an old friend and helps Terry get set up. Terry also starts seeing Kathleen (Robin Wright) the Flannery's sister, complicating the arrangement considerably. Also complicating things, is Jackie's psychotic behavior. He kills three members of an Italian gang, damaging his brother's business arrangements. Terry's loyalties are tested by enmity between the brothers and his police assignment soon becomes a relatively minor concern.

The General 
Several films were made covering the life of Irish crime figure Martin Cahill, and "The General" is easily the best of them. Directed by John Boorman who was a real life victim of one of Cahill's (Brendan Gleeson) heists, it begins with his assassination and then goes back to cover his life up to that point, starting with growing up in the slums. He picks up a theft habit at an early age to provide for his family and his heists only get bolder in time, undaunted by arrests and incarceration. He's pursued by police Inspector Ned Kinney (Jon Voight) who can't understand why Cahill doesn't leave his neighborhood. The police however, aren't his biggest problem, as he finds out when a certain heist puts him on the wrong side of the IRA.

Ash Wednesday
Word on the street is that Francis Sullivan's (Ed Burns) brother Sean (Elijah Wood) is back in town. This upsets some people as he was supposed to be dead for a reason, he killed some members of the local mafia and his return could start a war. Of course Sean's return upsets arrangements with his supposed widow, Grace (Rosario Dawson) who also has to reevaluate things. If Sean is alive, Francis needs to find out why and get him to disappear again before the handles it their own way. Guys with guns are closing in from all sides and the Sullivan brothers as well as everyone around them need to make some serious choices if they want to stay alive..

In Bruges
Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) are two hit men sent to visit Bruges by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) who imagines it as the ideal place to have a relaxing vacation. Ray made a mistake on his last job accidentally killing a kid, which goes against Harry's code. Ray and Ken discuss this situation and investigate local culture until Ken gets word on his next hit, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. However his plan is changed a bit when he not only doesn't do the job, but feels compelled to stop Ray from committing suicide. Harry decides to get personally involved as his code is very important to him leading to one of the most interesting and darkly comic face off scenes I can remember.

The Departed
Billy, (Leonardo DiCaprio) an undercover cop infiltrates the Irish mafia, while Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) a mobster in training, infiltrates the police force. Both of their efforts are centered around Mafia leader Frank Costello. (Jack Nicholson) Both sides are aware that someone among them is working for the other side, and each must try to find the other before being exposed himself. Costello proves himself a force to be reckoned with and both undercover guys are forced to take big risks and decide what's most important to them, which gets tougher when the both fall for the same woman.

On the Waterfront
Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) is a has been ex boxer who listened to his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) too closely, taking dives and making himself a joke. Charlie is closely tied to Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) an Irish mob boss who controls everything that happens on the docks, including who works and who doesn't. When Friendly has Terry call an old friend outside to have a talk with his men, Terry is surprised when his friend falls off the roof to his death. He starts questioning what he's doing and his qualms are pushed forward by local priest, Father Barry (Karl Malden) and Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) the sister of the man he lured to his death. Their efforts to make a difference struggle against the dock workers commitment to silence and Terry realizes if he's to make a stand it will be on his own.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


Mass murderers are certainly nothing new. Unfortunately they have a special place in American mythology, building on the revered "outlaw" figures in our folklore going all the way back to the American revolution, where everyone on the side of independence was an outlaw for a time. Of course this fascination was never more fully explored than in our stories of the old West. Figures like Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and John Wesley Hardin were both killers and folk heroes, leaning to either side depending on who you asked. That made a certain sense, as they lived in a rough environment, not as civilized as the more established territories. Something about that pairing clicked and inspired a whole genre of film where even the best of the good guys would likely have to kill someone.

With the depression and prohibition, new avenues for the outlaw opened up. The outlaw from the old West changed into a gangster, and the likes of Al Capone and John Dillinger took over again inspiring countless films. The outlaw figure was usually a lone man, until Bonnie and Clyde entered public consciousness. There was a certain appeal to a couple willing to set themselves against the whole world. Despite a lot of killing of innocents, their image captivated the public and still does today. It's easy to have a soft spot for the romantic robbers, especially when many at the time felt the government had completely let them down. We're quick to distance ourselves from their habit of murdering people, but that isn't the whole story. Like Capone or Dillinger, or the Jesse James, they were working at something else, the killing was just a side effect.

The serial killer is another figure entirely and not celebrated one in the same way, although popular culture has as much fascination with them. While we can somewhat rally behind an outlaw championing our independence, few of us would willingly celebrate someone who kills for no reason other than some compulsion. They champion nothing, only provide us with an example of extreme human behavior. We see them and wonder how they got that way. Was it how they were raised, mental illness, a traumatic incident that caused them to snap? We don't know, and the most terrifying aspect about them is that they look just like us until they're caught and exposed. We're shocked but we can't look away. They achieve a celebrity of a different sort and every serial killer with a catchy nickname has a movie out about their story.

The case of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate is a kind of intersection of these different types. With a name that seems like blatant foreshadowing, Starkweather seemed suited to the sparse and unforgiving environment that hosted his life. We know that Starkweather was bullied by his classmates due to a birth defect affecting one of his legs as well as a speech impediment. Starkweather began building himself up in gym class in order to turn the bullying tables around. Starkweather tried to reinvent himself, imitating James Dean's look after seeing "Rebel Without a Cause" He dropped out of high school and had a hard time holding a job. His father kicked him out of the house and he found work as a garbageman. His life changed profoundly one day, when an altercation with a gas station attendant ending with Starkweather shooting the man dead. Once he'd crossed that moral line he continued to follow where it led, killing the parents and baby sister of his underage girlfriend, Caril. He then took her along with him on a reckless killing spree through Nebraska and Wyoming until the cops caught up to him. Initially, Starkweather claimed that Caril hadn't killed anyone, although he changed his mind later, claiming she was more bloodthirsty than him. He was eventually executed and Caril served a long prison sentence for her role in the killings.

Terrence Malick chose Starkweather and Fugate as the inspiration for his first film, changing their names to Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) perhaps to avoid lawsuits from Caril Fugate who was still alive and serving time. How true he was to the story is difficult to say, since only Starkweather and Fugate knew many of the details, but it's clear that Malick has his own meditation in mind, using the Starkweather story as a springboard for his own ideas. We don't witness Kit and Holly hanging out in Holly's house after stowing the bodies of her family close by. Instead we see Kit facing down Holly's controlling sign painter father (Warren Oates) who wants to keep Kit from his daughter (demonstrated by a scene in which her father shoots her dog as punishment for hanging out with Kit.) Kit seems as surprised as anyone when the gun goes off, even though he brought the gun and pulled the trigger.

Holly comes across as an innocent, narrating over the events as if remembering a story she's fond of telling. She seems to know this is a temporary story, which has no happily ever after. She's decided, however, to go along with Kit, come what may. They burn down her father's house and hit the road. Their lack of knowledge about the world informs their road trip and for a brief while they live out a part of a fairy tale, living in a tree house in the woods and living off the land and whatever live stock they can get their hands on. It doesn't last long though as there's a bounty out on them and they're discovered by a man who returns with armed friends who end up as more murders on Kit's belt. Kit reasons that killing these men was fine since they were bounty hunters and not lawmen, who would only be doing their job.

He soon puts less effort into justifying his actions, killing an old friend and co worker and then possibly killing a young couple who came to visit him. Kit doesn't seem to celebrate murder, he simply gives it no more thought than where they're going to sleep that night. Murder is very simply something Kit has realized he can do and he's lost any incentive to refrain from it. Kit's lack of anger and of any compassion suggest a young child playing cowboys and Indians. We see him many times stopping to take a look at dead animals as if curious, at what makes them stop moving, but his human victims don't even draw that interest.

He leaves Holly behind as the law starts closing in and once caught, he makes small talk with the officers arresting him as if they're just playing the game too. He even compliments them, saying they acted like heroes bringing him in. In the film, Holly tells us that she was sentenced to probation and marries a lawyer who defended her while Kit was sentenced to the electric chair and executed. In reality, she served seventeen years, but that divergence is Malick's choice, and it makes Holly a more interesting storyteller.

"Badlands" is a remarkable work, particularly for a first film and it's no surprise that Malick went on to an acclaimed film career. It's a beautifully shot vision of the open west, that makes it easy to understand how someone could feel small against the environment. Malick doesn't gloss over the killing but doesn't dwell in the details either, as if tempering the act of murder with the way Kit sees it, one moment to happen and then it's forgotten. Holly presents the killing very matter of factly, her narration giving the feeling of a school report on what she did for the summer. Any reservations she has don't stop her from going along for the ride. It's as if the morality of their actions never occur to them at the time. To Holly, living with Kit is simply an extension of playing house although a grotesque version perhaps. Kit is like a dog who suddenly discovers he likes to bite. It doesn't even seem to matter that he gets caught, as if this was the only way he could think of to be visible in the great wide open spaces. With all the time and effort he puts in to come off like James Dean, at least he can finally get some attention. The press and the cops are happy to oblige him.

One of the officers even tells him he doesn't need to apologize, since his actions didn't bother him personally. None of it is personal, except to those who are dead. There are only so many things you can do in a lifetime, as Holly points out with her ruined fairy tale narration: "One day, while taking a look at some vistas in Dad's stereopticon, it hit me that I was just this little girl, born in Texas, whose father was a sign painter, who only had just so many years to live. It sent a chill down my spine and I thought where would I be this very moment, if Kit had never met me? Or killed anybody... this very moment... if my mom had never met my dad... if she had never died. And what's the man I'll marry gonna look like? What's he doing right this minute? Is he thinking about me now, by some coincidence, even though he doesn't know me? Does it show on his face? For days afterwards I lived in dread. Sometimes I wished I could fall asleep and be taken off to some magical land, and this never happened."

She tells the story the only way she can, after the fact, and it's still a kind of fairy tale because she didn't have the gun, she just went along because Kit was handsome and interesting. He listened to her sometimes and they thought they loved each other. His actions may have even made some sense, as her own father wasn't terribly given to kindness, shooting her dog as a punishment for being with Kit. We can sense that Kit himself has endured some cruelty but that isn't the focus of the story. He doesn't complain much and or contemplate aloud to give away his motivations. We can only guess based on what he does. Kit's not surprised at the prospect of his own bad end. As he tells a deputy, "I always wanted to be a criminal, I guess. Just not this big a one. Takes all kinds, though." It's hard to argue with that. As much as we like to find explanations to explain away such people and their actions, sometimes there isn't a good one, except to say that as a result of the unshared circumstances of his life, he's just that kind. It's hard to live with the idea that Starkweather is not a monster, just a confused kid with no compassion or concern for consequences, but that's what Malick shows us in "Badlands" and it's a lot to think about.