The Fan (1996)

I felt a colossal idiot one day when watching an interview with Tony Scott and thinking, "Gosh, he has the same sort of dialect as Ridley Sco–oh, crap. Of course." Not my proudest moment, to be sure. Still, it gave my brain purchase to help along my appreciation for Tony Scott as a director. It's no secret that I love Ridley Scott as a director, nor is it actually much of one that I really like his brother Tony. However, Tony is less well-regarded, to put it mildly, with films like Top Gun under his belt. It makes it difficult to bring myself into some circles of film fans when I freely admit to my appreciation of the "lesser Scott" as a director. It's an old appreciation though, as I have seen many of his films over the years, often shortly after they came out, and have always been entertained, if memory serves.

Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes, pre-tax problems and associated outrageous claims, pre-R.C.-has-a-personal-bias-against-him-for-appearing-in-a-series-of-films-that-turn-an-interestingly-psychotic-character-into-a-cool-badass) is a heavy hitter recently traded to the San Francisco Giants for a $40 million contract. This excites lifelong Giants (and baseball in general) fan Gil Renard (Robert De Niro), who is on his last legs as a knife salesman in a company begun by his father but traded into different hands to value value over quality. Gil is also on poor terms with ex-wife Ellen (Patti D'Arbanville-Quinn) over custody of their son Richie (Andrew J. Ferchland), mostly regarding poorly kept appointments, an issue with his job, as well. When Rayburn begins to falter thanks to an injury, the player the team replaced with him begins to rise, Juan Primo (Benicio Del Toro, still riding along in accent-heavy supporting roles). When failed sale after failed sale–partly encouraged by the decision to attend the opening day game and run the risk of missing an appointment–leads to the loss of his job, and the same decisions lead to his neglectful approach to taking care of his son and thus the legal removal of custody, Gil buries himself in support for Rayburn. Overhearing conversations, Gil decides the problem is Primo, and confronts him. Lost in a world that he barely had a grip on in the first place, Gil's obsessions with baseball, the Giants and Rayburn takes him into dangerous and violent territory.

What's magnetic and fascinating about this film is the way that Bobby and Gil are portrayed. There's a greater complexity and reality to them than is usually given in most thriller-styled movies. Rayburn is an arrogant git to be sure, but he's a good player and a reasonable guy. He's a loving father and he does what he can to earn his keep, but is "not nuts," as Gil points out, for taking the salary he does. Gil is especially complex. He's not a simple psycho, nor is he a misunderstood simpleton. Gil is not stupid, but he does not understand or empathize with other people. If I had a psychology degree of any kind, I'm sure I could tell you exactly what sort of disorder he is exhibiting. He values important things, though, at least in principle. His frustration with his father's knife company comes from his expertise in the art of knife-making, but he fails to recognize the world–and thus the company, since it exists in that world–has changed. He values his son, and values imbuing in him the principles that he holds dear. He talks baseball up, and tells lies about knowing Mick Jagger (silly Gil, the version of "Start Me Up" that appeared on Tattoo You was not recorded in 1978, nevermind that you weren't there!) and other similar things. He obfuscates his own past and the importance of the knowledge he has, imparting the wisdom of his former teammate "Coop" as regards baseball.

What's important in making the film work is that Gil's son Richie does not outright fear nor fearlessly love his father. He shows signs that he wants to follow and appreciate him, while maintaining that childlike willingness to occasionally say things that are abrasive and abrupt. He tries to emulate his father even as he shows that he does fear him in places. Gil shows how poor he is at recognizing these things, but Richie continues to want to earn his father's approval anyway, even as Gil's temper easily rears its head. Gil's obsession is realistic and acceptable, so far beyond the pale it's extremely uncomfortable to see, yet perfectly real in this context, and utterly believable. This is the kind of role that De Niro is best suited to: a man with serious anger issues who is not particularly aware of them. The way he loses himself in a role, he does not so much subdue his own character as he manages to make us realize just how much the character onscreen is unaware of his own, well, craziness. Travis Bickle, Rupert Pupkin, Johnny Boy, Noodles–they are all characters who are shocking in their relative depravities, even if they might be placed in a way that we sort of root for them. They are antiheroes, to be sure, and we feel sympathy for them because we know they mean well and are just incapable of recognizing the real world and their position in it.

This, of course, is really the point. Scott's films tend to get middling acceptance–"well-produced but brainless fluff," characterizations of that nature tend to stick to them quite thoroughly. But it's about Gil, and it's about Bobby, about living up to absurd expectations and the different ways that people perceive a collective image or idea like baseball. It's life to some ("better than life," Gil says at one point, "because it's fair.") and it's a game to others, like Bobby. Bobby, despite his distance, despite not being as closely involved with his son, is the better father, not just wanting to care but actually doing so. Of course, it's the isolation–however self-inflicted–that so thoroughly ruins Gil's grasp on reality. Bobby has his agent, Manny (John Leguizamo, who was still working very bland characters in mainstream film, supporting and smaller roles), who supports him even in the downtimes and through personal trauma and professional. While he may be doing it for money, there's clearly at least some regard for Bobby as a human behind it.

This is a very solid examination of obsession, managing the right low-key approach to many of the things Gil does (thanks, in no small part, to De Niro's note-perfect performance), while not at all suggesting the actions involved are minimal in their effects. They are normal to Gil, and the film follows things primarily from his point of view, showing how he thinks that he's doing the right and acceptable things, while everyone else clearly sees the danger–albeit, perhaps, not clearly enough.


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