In this time of violence escalating out-of-control worldwide, along comes a movie touted as taking a position against violence...which not only feeds The Monster, but feeds It with gusto. Mucho macho gusto.
It hurts worse than it has to, by virtue of its spotlighting the work of Tim Robbins and Sean Penn, two supposed supporters of anti-war rhetoric.
On one of the very last Donahue TV shows, a tepid Tim actually came out in support of the invasion of Afghanistan, but -- still -- his image is festooned with left-leaning causes, anti-poster boy for the Fox Network, for sure. Sean -- bless his soul -- has made at least two "critical" trips to Iraq...and done more. The Anti-Christ of Activism. Together -- in a film that critics are praising as an anti-violence opus, a turning point in Clint's career -- they work to compound ignorance with ignorance.
It is the height of "not knowing" to see this work as advocating anything but violence. It would be the apex of stupidity -- "not wanting to know" -- to buy into the PR notion that this project produced harmony among those of various political stripes beyond the set, kind words being bandied about on the airwaves notwithstanding. Sooner or later the truth will come out.
First of all, in this age of stark necessity and deafening screams the Heavens beg artists to address the issues of our time, not straddle the fence with the Defense of Entertainment. To come out with "mystic" anything would wash if the product had enigmatic qualities, aspects. But this dark, damp ditty isn't even obscure; it's a clear call for one and all to defend their turf by any means necessary. And I believe the progressive members of the cast will know they have been had before long.
Don't read further (for now)...if you have any interest in seeing the film for the first time. Others...enjoy.
Laura Linney's Lady Macbeth lines at the end are problematic on several counts, but -- in terms of my focus here -- their greatest "liability" lies in her monologue's apologia for revenge and capitalist conformity. "You could run this town!", she cries at the culmination of her speech to her husband Jimmy, a long-standing killer apparently ready to buckle under the moral weight wrought from his recent unjustified/unnecessary murder of a deeply troubled (to say the least), loyal childhood friend.
That Jimmy (played by Sean Penn) is seen with tattoos emblazoned on his half-naked torso in that scene -- a la Ed Norton's character in "American History X" -- is of no small consequence. In the context of the husband/wife confrontation, those visuals serve to reinforce the feeling that there's something orgasmic in asserting the territorial imperative without restraint...regardless of the collateral damage. This is a cold stone that sinks not just the scene, but the film itself. And there are others.
The calculi that collect throughout Eastwood's hollow voyage down this murky river are very ugly minerals indeed.
Clint claims to love children, but his collection of abused, murdered and killer kids in this opus boggles the mind. Why does someone who cares for children present such a world to the world? I mean, unless you're gonna take parents in the audience on a spiritual flight (amidst all of those helicopter shots) before they leave the theatre, why -- in these times -- set it in South Boston of all places? There is no redeeming aspect to the panorama; much of the blood and pain are, arguably, gratuitous. That is said primarily because of the forced denouement which has youngsters -- quite implausibly -- not only being revealed as the murderers, but --inexplicably -- going to the trouble of telephoning the police about their deed. Clint's plot requires the highly unlikely action, and unbelievable elements rule the day throughout. But this single turn is very instructive. He had options.
At one early point, we hear Jimmy tell the police -- in a moment of philosophical flourish, totally out of character -- that HE could have been taken away "in that car" (instead of Tim Robbins' character Dave) in an effort to explain the fragility of life, serendipity's role in how we evolve and/or regrets he's feeling. The thrust of the speech -- and the character Clint portrays at that moment -- are completely undermined, contradicted by one of the movie's crucial scenes, during a long drawn out ending. In that torturous stretch run, we find Jimmy pleading for his life at the feet of an inexorably homicidal Jimmy. Granted, he's had a few drinks, but there's not a trace of the fellow who brought up the mystical element in life's roll of the dice earlier; no, this Jimmy -- believing he's got the goods on his daughter's murderer -- exalts in rejecting Dave's plea before he's even finished uttering it. It's all over his face from beginning to end. And the scene itself, presented in contrapuntal form with the police's discovery of the real killer is stretched out in stock Hollywood fashion (stock since Coppola's final church baptism/baptism in blood contrapuntals in "Godfather"). Aside from being able to make the case for the whole sequence being subjugated with much more editing, to fill the screen with quite routine threats of violence serving as a chorus to Jimmy's Angel of Mercy is unnecessary at best, feeding The Monster at worse. Is Jimmy gonna do it or are the Savage Brothers gonna do it? How's he gonna do it? These are the questions that Clint makes sure entertain us. "Entertain" with its Greek root meaning. Our attention is not held at that dramatic moment by any question about character possibly turning this way or that. No, Jimmy's soul is the soul of a stone cold killer at that juncture. And its a dead giveaway respecting Clint's intentions.
The audience -- up to that moment -- had been manipulated into identifying with the man who had lost his daughter. Until the end, in traditional style, we are asked to root for the victim. That's only possible in this film because Clint cleverly commits a sin of omission. To wit, he hides the truly unsavory, unacceptable aspects of the father's past, his character. True, the plot begs for such treatment. However, the end result is that we must embrace his violence or reject the film outright. I easily chose the latter. But most viewers -- especially considering the emotional sidetracking inherent in watching a parent face such trauma -- will be tempted to say, yes, I can understand how someone could go crazy. Guilty with an explanation.
No. Jimmy is rotten to the core; we just don't know it at first. His wife can't be Lady Macbeth in any sense 'cause he's no Macbeth; he's too focused a murderer for that. Witness the fact that on several occasions other characters observe how he looks like he wants to skin his daughter's lover alive, daily. And that for the flimsiest of reasons. Yes, he's got sickness in his spleen; the character's spine -- in the sense that Stanislavski meant -- is filled with gall, stones to be crushed on the heads of innocents if they so much as get in the way of a night's sleep. Or contribute to two years in prison. It is his nature, and his wife's final speech only solidifies the overarching messages that Clint advocates: Protect your own, regardless of the consequences for others. Don't wait on the niceties of nuance, the details. Disregard the law. Keep your contacts with Muscle. He who moves first will prevail.
What we have here is Preemptive Penn, Preventative Penn served up on a plate of Classic Clint flint; it produces a spark when struck by steel. With the great acting provided, it doesn't do Sean justice. Nor any of the others. And it doesn't advance the cause of Peace and Justice in the world. Rather, with a couple of simple gestures during the interminable end (between Kevin Bacon's cop and Jimmy) Clint reinforces the notion that one doesn't necessarily have to pay for indiscretions. Suffering -- personified by those Dave leaves behind and the cop's family reunion -- is handled in a way guaranteed to send dangerously mixed messages.
In terms of dramatic structure, logic and simple taste, there's loads more to say, but perhaps that can wait for a Part II. That would include some praise for moments of artistry and many missed opportunities. For now, just please don't be roped in by the Cowboy Cop from Carmel. Rather, crucify him on the Cross he so boldly (irresponsibly?) features both at the beginning (when one of the kidnappers sticks a ring with a cross into the camera) and at the end (when the overwhelming image on Jimmy's back dominates the scene). Nail him in the only way that counts, in the only way that you can...by boycotting this commercial claptrap. Above all, don't you dare give him a chance to be another Schwarzenegger or Reagan.
The whole affair -- the monumental waste of talent, resources and heartbeats -- reminds me of a quote I read years ago in The New York Times. Theatre critic Bosley Crowther, in reviewing an accomplished, but overreaching actress tackling Shakespeare, said, "Last night Tallulah Bankhead sailed down the Nile in a barge...and sank."
Sylvie and Richard Oxman, co-organizers of OneDance, an ongoing alternative summit of sorts, can be contacted at email@example.com. Richard is a former Rutgers University Instructor of Dramatic Art and Cinema History.
Other Articles by Richard Oxman