Thursday, October 30, 2008

It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World

The following column is reprinted from the November edition of Providence Monthly

By Scott Duhamel

One of the prescient charms of the movie westerns that once flourished in both the Hollywood studio system and beyond was that the genre’s central characters typically succeeded in displaying their back stories, convictions, and psychological make-ups through movement, action and response rather than through any sort of extended dialogue. Whether it was Randolph Scott or John Wayne, Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood less was always more, and it was understood that within the western setting, with civilization silently encroaching and the call of the wilderness ever beckoning, words carried much more import when spoken plainly and applied directly. As the movie western progressed, turned sideways, and even circled back unto itself a sort or prairie-speak was created, laconic and lean, pregnant with the constant implication of impending violence, spare and colloquial, yet strangely poetic.
Ed Harris, the co-writer, director and star of the latest contempo Western, Appaloosa, has obviously latched onto that aspect of the storied genre, and his valiant go at it has some fine moments when the camera eye settles on the simple (but meaningful) back and forth between Harris and co-star Viggo Mortensen. The actors, who share a similar steely-eyed rectitude, play lawmen-for-hire Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, riding into Appaloosa, New Mexico in 1882, and a town well under the yoke of an erudite but thuggish landowner named Randall Bragg. Jeremy Irons is cast as Bragg, and as soon as you note his tendency to preen and speechify you’ll easily identify both his place (oily villain) and his fate (the wrong end of a main street shot-out). Neither Cole (Harris), dressed far too neatly and notably clean-shaven (which helps hint at a touch of psychopathology in his lawman’s soul) nor Hitch (Mortensen), sporting a dandified mustache and an ironic bent as the film’s sparse narrator, place much faith in talk. They act like a long married couple, filling in each other’s thoughts and finishing off short sentences, interacting in a Zen-like manner with the essential addition of six guns, of course. Harris is being faithful to the structures and rhythms of the Western, and most of the movie benefits from his adherence.
Renee Zellwegger is the movie’s wild card, a widow that arrives in town and immediately courts the indomitable Cole, then suddenly (and inexplicably) makes a play for Hitch. She’s a modern concoction in a throwback effort, an invader from the East, half whore/half Madonna, who throws the longtime partners equilibrium off and promises to take the movie down a newly trodden road. Threats are made and carried out, guns drawn and fired, the dusty streets of the town are left behind for encounters with Indians, a train sequence, and an excursion to Mexico (replete with a Mexican stand-off), and Harris the director strains to forge a genre exercise that is simultaneously faithful and exploratory and in turns facile and portentous, but it doesn’t quite jell, while Zellweger’s character remains a cipher which puts a strain on the proceedings.
Harris (getting behind the camera for the second time in his career, some eight years after helming 2000’s Pollock) gets a lot right here--the emphasis on Western and male codes, the underlying pull of the constraints of civilization versus the freedom of the wilderness, the utilization of violence as an example of professionalism, the great wide open spaces between horses, riders, and small talk. Appaloosa is venerating enough, but far too stolid and open-ended to resonate beyond its outlines. It ain’t no Western classic, but it’s a valid addition to the genre as a whole.
Although Ridley Scott mostly cashes his chips in the plush surroundings of the Hollywood high-falutin’ popcorn movie, he is, above all else, a stylist of the first order. Hand Scott the first class cast, the well draw setting, and an entertaining script that grafts on even an intimation of some kinda weighty theme, and he’s home free, pounding and tapping an infectious backbeat through the heart of the mainstream action drama(whatever it’s permutation), ala Alien (’79) ,Blade Runner (’81), Thelma and Louise (’91), Gladiator(’00), Black Hawk Down(‘01), American Gangster(’07). Body of Lies, his latest, sets him up with the blue ribbon teaming of Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, award winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed), and lets him play with the accruements of the spy thriller, zipping through a big budget actioneer that’s part Syriana and part Bourne Identity, with a touch of 70’s paranoid political thriller thrown in. It’s bravura filmmaking, more entertaining than significant, a good and efficient jigsaw puzzle that satisfies but leaves one wanting for more, hoping for substance over style.
Body of Lies is a globe-trotting romp, largely set in the Middle East (which has so far been box office poison), and Scott fills it out with whomping explosions, edge-of-your-seat torture, spy-in-the-sky camera work, all of it underling the foreboding presence of the political and spy thrillers most well known villain-the omnipresent government. Crowe, pasty and fattened up, is Ed Hoffman, a CIA handler and puppet master, who, from his suburban digs and his Langley, Va. office tracks, sacks, and smacks field agent Roger Ferris (DiCaprio) through his hide-and-seek machinations. Much of what Scott fluffs up for display is cliché-ridden and old hat, yet he has the directorial flair to punctuate the predictable with his finely honed editing skills and deep dish camerawork. DiCaprio’s agent hopscotches from one frying pan to another, a mini-soldier in a maze of a war game, and the lack of original plot and a few more deep-seated secondary characters makes the movie veer towards staleness.
Both Crowe and DiCaprio deliver the goods, the latter working up quite a head of furrowed brow consternation and flop sweat while the former lays way back, smothered in a southern accent, a rambling duck walk, smugly armed with his own brand of weaponry--a laptop and a cellphone. A romance between Ferris and a Jordanian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani) is plot stroking at its worse, and the only other character who even seems to register is British actor Mark Strong, simmering with malice as the chief secret policeman, although one has to wonder why this pivotal role wouldn’t be played by a true Middle Easterner?
The central question about Body of Lies remains: Does Scott (alongside the TNT combo of Crowe and DiCaprio) have what it takes to break the losing streak of Middle Eastern war movies (Redacted, The Kingdom, Stop-Loss, Grace is Gone. Lions for Lambs, Rendition, In the Valley of Ellah, Home of the Brave)? I can’t help but admire the Scott’s sure handedness, or the way he puts some muscle (and maybe even some brains) behind his cinematic eye candy, but its obvious Body of Lies packs some nice punches and combos but comes no where close to a knock-out. That film still remains to be made.

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