I once saw about the middle third, maybe even half, of this film by chance and was sucked in pretty quickly. I felt a queasy unease and distaste throughout what I saw as everyone backstabbed, doubled back, double crossed, screwed over, lied to and generally stomped all over every other soul in the movie–whether it was for any real motivation or just, seemingly, because. I felt very strange about the movie as a whole because of this–generally that distaste for the characters would leave me wishing the film away from my experiences, but in this case it just drew me in with morbid fascination–probably my first real experience of the storytelling elements that compose that much-loved genre known as film noir, albeit in a more modern incarnation.
Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) is driving through the Arizona desert when the radiator hose on his 1964 (and a half) Mustang convertible blows, and he limps into the only garage he can find, Harlin’s. Unsubtly, he rudely acquires the attention of the only man seemingly working there, a rather disgusting bloke by the name of Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), who peers at him from piles of grease, a potbelly and coke-bottle lenses. Bobby bullies Darrell into fixing his car, then heads into the nearby town of Superior (to what?–real town though) to get something to drink. From there things just spiral further and further downward. He grudgingly buys a Dr Pepper (right on!) for a blind Native American (an unrecognizable, to me, Jon Voight), yelling cheerfully but bluntly at him from the storefront of the main (dirt!) drag of the town, then finds a store from which to buy something to drink, only to discover he chose the perfect time to do so, as the store is robbed. The bag of money he’s, as yet inexplicably, carrying is taken from him, only to be lost in the simplest and most frustrating way imaginable, a sign of all of his luck to come. Some of it is blind chance (of the unpleasant kind) and the rest of it is selfish or psychotic machinations by the people around him, from Jake McKenna’s (Nick Nolte) “love-hate” relationship with his wife Grace (Jennifer Lopez, before she really, REALLY became famous), to Darrell’s vengeful car abuse, on into the suspicious Sherriff (Powers Boothe), and even the sycophantic and imbecilic attentions of Jenny (Clarie Danes), incurring the wrath of Toby N. Tucker (a young Joaquin Phoenix).
There’s a sick black humour to all of it, made clear by ludicrous parallels–Bobby can’t even get a bottled drink without having it unreasonably smashed, a piece of bad luck so miniscule in comparison to the rest that one can only see a humourous note to his wretchedly cursed state, by the wisened but profane and slang-filled ramblings of the blind Native American, on into the hilarious diner scene that begins his interactions with ol’ “TNT” and his streak of jealousy. Despite this, I continued my old strain of appreciation for Bobby’s plight, because while his first interaction is to be an asshole to Darrell, he shows repeatedly later that he is indeed a human being, even if one rather lacking in ethics, or with a skewed sense of them. That appreciation is only enhanced by the fact that the plotting feels absolutely logical; while it’s usually quite difficult to get away with the kind of absurd coincidences that can happen in real life in a film (strangely rendered unbelievable in a false context, despite their reality), Oliver Stone manages to keep John Ridley’s book (Stray Dogs) and screenplay together and believable. Everything that happens, even as we think, “My god, there’s MORE?” comes off as completely reasonable within the framework of the story. I think this is helped by the fact that occasionally something goes right, or someone does something kind that reminds us of the reasonability of this total insanity–and the absolute tangle of endings and mishmashing of intent, consequence and relationship that it comes from is absolutely enthralling in its total absurdity–not Monty Python absurdity, but of the more droll variety, perhaps even closer to the philosophy of absurdism than the surrealist sense of humour.
Stone uses a style here that is compared to his earlier Natural Born Killers, and is vaguely reminiscent of Tony Scott’s most recent stylistic choices. While someone comparing it to Stone’s prior work might find this irritating, my freshest memories are more of Scott’s last films, which makes this one seem comparably tame in its use of peculiar editing, sidelong cuts of only metaphorically relevant images, various colour filters adn similar tips and snips. As such it was thoroughly pleasant to me, enhancing the experience and highlighting the story itself, rather than distracting from it. Timelapse photography appears repeatedly, almost highlighting the ridiculousness we’re witnessing for its irrelevance to the world around us, while closeups of manipulating fingers–a quarter dropped in a phone or jukebox, a key turned or removed, a lock bolted or opened–heighten a neurotic claustrophobia to keep us anchored to Bobby’s increasing frustration and panic. Off-kilter low-angle and crooked shots also help to convey the bizarre, unfamiliar and insane nature of this small southwestern town, especially as Bobby sees it, making the viewer uncomfortable with a simple twist of the lens’ placement. The sound folks also deserves no small credit for their clever mixing of animal sounds into innocuous places–not an uncommon technique, but here played to be simultaneously heard and mixed, a horse whinny with a scrape of the Mustang, a crow’s caws with fatal laughter, and so on. One needn’t forget that that beautiful music I kept hearing–well, my response was, afterward, “Oh, Ennio Morricone. Of course!”
Casting is excellent, as Penn always works in a role as a tortured soul, especially one of questionable morality, managing to keep a sharp tongue balanced by a sense of humanity–witness his backhanded manners in the diner–and a complete openness to vulnerable begging when his life is clearly threatened. Nick Nolte’s role is the kind I feel he was bloody well born for. It’s one thing for him to be an alcoholic cop (see: 48 Hrs.), but here, as a slightly deranged, money hungry, sickening creep, with grizzled beard and years of experience to bring about an emotional nihilism and self interest he seems inseparable. This isn’t a slight against Mr. Nolte (I know nothing of him as a human being, after all!) but rather a statement about the kind of place his face and especially his voice fit. Thornton is the element that gave me the greatest unease in the film, especially the first time I saw it when I didn’t know he had been treated poorly at first, having missed the opening sequences. Now I merely saw him randomly adding money to Bobby’s financial charges for repair, playing with his car needlessly and generally being an absolute prick, seemingly without motivation. Now even knowing why he did it, I can’t escape the slimy feeling he exudes from a character who manages to both be as incalculably stupid as he’s accused of being and clever enough to subtly fight back against it, never fully edging completely onto either side, and definitely appearing to have no qualms about overreacting to slights.
It’s not a pleasant movie, and the style will turn some off, but I’ve liked it quite a bit all three (uh, I think) times I’ve seen it now–I find that Stone never fails to capture and hold my interest, at least insofar as the films I’ve seen from his works.