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Crime Scenes
by Lucius Shepard
July 25, 2001

Every once in a while Hollywood screws up and a decent movie gets made. How can this happen?, you might ask. Surely a system controlled by bean counters, panderers, two-legged flies, australopithecines, and lawyers so devoid of humanity they haven't taken a leak in years must be incapable of producing even a marginally decent film.

Well, I'll tell you how.

Suppose you're an actor who has the ability to take a character part and do it so well that your performance will add a significant quality to whatever steaming heap of Hollywaste you participate in, enough to cause said heap to grow feet and walk into the theaters with a swagger and earn sufficient good critical mentions to put it in line for the bonus bucks that attend an Oscar nomination. Let's further suppose that you've made enough money and don't care about Oscars and Golden Globes and other such bowling trophies, and have directed a couple of movies and really are only concerned with doing interesting work.

Let's suppose you're Sean Penn.

Had almost anyone else but Penn brought a project based on an old Friedrich Durrenmatt novel to a major studio, they would've been laughed off the lot. But when Penn did exactly this, the studio's response was to say, Yeah, sure thing, Sean. We'll do your movie...if, that is, you sign on to appear in a few of the wads of used Kitty Litter we're preparing to funnel down the throats of the crud-addicted audience we've developed over the past couple of decades. What did Penn do? He said, Okay, and then, instead of turning out your typical half-baked vanity project, he went and snagged Jack Nicholson for the lead, put together a strong supporting cast featuring Sam Shepard, Aaron Eckhardt, and Robin Penn-Wright, then induced actors such as Benicio del Toro, Helen Mirren, Vanessa Redgrave, Tom Noonan, and Harry Dean Stanton, and Mickey Rourke to do small roles, and turned out a little thing called The Pledge, which happens to be the best movie released by a major studio in many years.

When The Pledge made its all-too-brief circuit of American moviehouses earlier this year, it went almost unnoticed and was dismissed by the majority of the toadying critical establishment as being dreary and too depressing.

Too depressing?

What depresses me and a growing segment of the movie-going audience is the soul-less techno-gunk upon which these punch-and-eberts lavish their slavish approbation. Most of us would give up our popcorn for a year if we could regularly watch high-quality studio films, however depressing their materials. As for "dreary," well, The Pledge is anything but dreary.

Jack Nicholson was once among the best film actors in the world. After he played the Joker in Batman, however, he entered a period during which he mailed in his performances, letting his smile and sly personal style take the place of craft. But as the retired police lieutenant, Jerry Black, Nicholson does his best work since the 1980s. Though he is an Academy favorite, though his portrayal of the troubled Jerry Black is infinitely more award-worthy than his tic-filled monochromatic Oscar-grabbing role in As Good As It Gets, he will almost certainly be neglected come next year's awards season because The Pledge is not an "important film", i.e., it didn't make any money. Of course the reason that it made no money is due less to audience dissatisfaction than it is to the fact that the studio gave it an advertising budget of about $5.99 ("We said we'd let you make it, Sean—we didn't say we'd support it"); but such subtleties are bound to be lost on folks who regularly hand out their accolade to mannequins like Julia Roberts.

The film begins on the day of Black's retirement, an event he has been dreading. During his retirement party, the mutilation and murder of a young girl is reported and Black attaches himself to the investigative team assigned to the case. When he learns that no one has yet informed the dead girl's parents, he volunteers for the job, and the mother persuades him to promise that he will find the murderer. Shortly thereafter, a mentally challenged Native American, Toby Wadenah (del Toro), is taken into custody and Detective Stan Krolak (Eckhardt) coerces him not only into confessing but also into believing he actually committed the crime. When Wadenah kills himself, the case is marked closed. But Black knows there is something wrong with the confession, and instead of going gracefully into retirement, he begins his own investigation and soon arrives at the conclusion that a serial killer is operating in the area, preying upon small blond girls in red dresses. Recognizing that the killer is operating within a triangular region of the state map (we are somewhere in the west—Colorado, it appears), Black buys a rundown roadside store/gas station at the heart of the triangle and moves in, hopeful that the killer, who drives a black car, will stop by for a fill-up. Along the way he befriends Lori (Penn-Wright), a barmaid with a young blond daughter who is being abused by her boyfriend. Lori and Black become lovers, and the three become a family. But Black is so obsessed with keeping his promise, he begins to use Lori's daughter as bait, placing a swing set out front of the building where she can be seen at play by every passing car. Eventually the bait attracts its intended prey, and when this happens, Black, who has been in mental decline, begins a downward spiral.

The narrative suppleness of the film is what sets it apart from the usual Hollywood fare. We are led to believe that what we are watching is only another serial killer movie, but as the film progresses we begin to understand that it is most of all a beautifully achieved character study detailing Black's deterioration into alcoholic dementia. The murders, so centrally posed at the film's beginning, prove to be merely the skeleton that supports the story of Black's disintegration, and the shift of focus is done so skillfully, with such economic use of dialogue and camera, it never jars, never pushes us out of the story. Only at the end do we realize what we have watched. The script by Jerry Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski never sounds a false note. The cinematography and Penn's direction are deft and atmospheric and—most pertinently—do not obtrude as they layer in the material pertaining to Black's accumulating mental difficulties. Penn has previously made two movies, The Indian Runner, a dark and effective piece based on the Bruce Springsteen song "State Trooper," and The Crossing Guard, an equally dark but far less effective film in which Penn's creative debt to John Cassavetes shows too clearly. But with this picture he establishes himself as a director of such quality that he will very likely have to get his future funding in foreign lands.

The Pledge is the sort of police/detective/crime movie that Hollywood used to turn out with a fair degree of regularity 20, 30 years ago (small films such as Remember My Name and Straight Time), but that stands in relation to the industry's current product as does man to the lower invertebrates. Those films, like The Pledge, valued story and character above all else, as did the noir films that preceded them. Today, though every studio hack will swear to you that those same values remain paramount, it should be evident to even the casual observer that story and character have been relegated to the same storage facility where the powerbrokers of Hollywood keep Style and Integrity, and as a result of this, the crime film has devolved into a glut of formulaic action pictures in which endomorphic Terminator types wreak havoc in the name of all that's good and true, and into equally formulaic films such as Morgan Freeman's Alex Cross pictures. Once in a while, something like David Fincher's Seven tries to capture lightning in a bottle, but "tries" is the operative word here. In other countries, however, the crime film is still a going concern. Great Britain, for example, has an unrivalled tradition of superior crime movies, starting with Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, and peaking, perhaps, with the two movies that made Bob Hoskins a star, Mona Lisa and The Long Good Friday. Britain's latest entry in the genre, Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast, may not be quite up to its predecessors, but it is nonetheless a quality picture and features the new Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone.

Winstone has only been seen in a handful of movies this side of the Atlantic, most prominently Tim Roth's somber tale of incest, The War Zone. His spectacular range is best observed in Gary Oldman's flawed but watchable, Nil By Mouth, in which he plays a violently abusive husband. He is, like Hoskins, everyman. Paunchy and unprepossessing, baggy-eyed and a bit long in the tooth to be considered a movie star. Of course, Winstone is scarcely a movie star—he is an actor, and despite the fact that Ben Kingsley has drawn most of the film's good press for his powerful albeit one-note performance, Sexy Beast is Ray Winstone's movie start to finish.

Gal (Winstone) is a retired mid-level British criminal living in mid-level luxury in a Spanish villa with his wife, whom he loves deeply, and palling around fellow retired criminal Aitch and his wife, Jackie. One morning as he stands beside his swimming pool, a boulder comes crashing down from the hill above the villa, nearly decapitating him and smashing into the pool, causing damage to the tiled bottom. Later that same day, Gal is almost incinerated by his barbecue. Director Jonathan Glazer shows us these events as signs of an impending disaster—that disaster soon manifests in the form of Don Logan (Kingsley), an amphetamine rush of a man who wants Gal to return with him to London to participate in a bank robbery engineered by Teddy Bass (Ian McShane). Logan's reputation is so fearsome that just the mention of his name casts a pall over the moods of the four expatriates, and when he arrives at the villa, their anxiety turns to outright fear. Gal rejects Logan's offer, but Logan refuses to accept this. He continues to harangue his host, to threaten him with the mere possibility of his rage. But after a tense evening redolent of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, during which Logan dredges up (among other unsavory bits) the porn-star past of Gal's wife, he leaves for the airport. Once on the plane, however, Logan's rage and frustration with Gal boil over. He causes a scene that results in his removal from the plane and soon he is on his way back to the villa. The resulting violent confrontation concludes with Gal going off to London to do the job and Logan disappearing. Teddy Bass suspects Gal of being responsible for the disappearance, but Gal claims to know nothing, and the robbery, which targets a bank vault containing a billion-pound treasure, goes forward.

Sexy Beast is a film that treats of evil. Logan's expression of that primal quality is potent enough, but he is a mere precursor to the evil incarnated by Bass, a king of the criminal class and a brutal, conscienceless man who—in his development of the robbery scheme—becomes the lover of the bank president, played by a suitably decadent James Fox. Bass knows that Gal has done something with Logan, and the suspense of the movie is sustained by our expectation that his vengeance is imminent, and that once the robbery is done, Gal will be done for. Whereas Logan is the fist of evil, Bass is its corrupted soul. In the role of Bass, McShane's leathery features seem to have acquired the cold rigor of a basilisk, and he is capable of achieving with a single stare a menace more frightening than that Logan creates by means of all his fulminance and profane temper.

Gal is an essentially good soul whose criminality testifies to the primacy of nurture over nature. He has always been a man who could do what was necessary to live, but now he doubts himself—he's been away from the game too long, and he does not know whether he can successfully resist Logan, and when events dictate that he must participate in the robbery, he is not certain that he can maintain his poise in light of what has happened to Logan. What brings him through is his goodness as it manifests in his love for his wife. The remarkable thing about this is that most of it is not stated in the script, but is externalized by Winstone, externalized so effectively that by expression and gesture alone he manages to convey the complex depth of what appears on the surface to be a rather simple man. Kingsley's performance as Logan, though less complex by script necessity, is nonetheless notable for its molten intensity and is the sort of performance that, despite Beast's low profile, might well earn him a Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy—he has, after all, won before. Seeing him in Beast makes you wonder why we haven't seen Kingsley in more substantial roles. Chances are, Hollywood has no idea what to do with him, other than to slot him into projects like Species.

For those enamored of Hollywood product, well, then you have a plethora of putrid treats available. Swordish, a film without any perceptible virtue that marks another downward step on John Travolta's career path, following hard upon last summer's Ed Woodesque Battlefield Earth. Then there is The Score, a bloated waste of Brando, DeNiro, and Edward Norton, three actors in search of a script. But if you enjoy good crime movies, instead of blowing your eight to twelve bucks on raw sewage such as this, you would be far better served to check out Sexy Beast or to seek out The Pledge at your local Blockbuster. I promise that you will not be disappointed.