Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bad Cop, Bad Cop

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was a big fan of noir movies when I was growing up, from classics like Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity to neo-pictures like LA Confidential, which came out when I was in the eighth grade, and which, like an entire bag of Halloween candy consumed in one sitting, left me sick and dizzy with bliss. To me at the time, noir wasn't simply an occasion for snappy dialogue and great retro fashion -- though I loved those elements too. It represented a deeply subversive way of seeing the world, a way that reflected my own discontent with unthinkingly obeyed authority figures and the rote proprieties of organized religion. The world of noir was a funhouse, a labyrinth, a hall of mirrors, a paranoiac's dream, intricately designed for the hero but without his best interests at heart. It was a constructed place. As a pretentious freshman in high school, I wrote an essay comparing The Usual Suspects' Keyser Soze to a book's author inserting himself into the text, or to God. Yet the world of noir was also inhabited by characters who insisted on tearing apart this creation, who partook of damning knowledge and dirtied their hands to get it. If crime bosses, corrupt police departments, and crooked government officials are the gods of noir, then the gumshoes and amateur sleuths are its original sinners.

As I got older, of course, I began to see that, like anything else, noir can be blighted by cliches -- that for all its emphasis on seeking and questioning, this genre can be just as beholden to audience expectations as those pathetic rom-coms that always seem to include an unexpected pregnancy or a slobbery dog. Look, there's the hooker with the heart of gold, the obligatory ominous limo/"you're in over your head" scene. Yet I still find myself drawn to noir, sometimes despite myself, and for that reason, in the last week, I've seen not one but two recent noir movies: Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me. Both of these films focus on corrupt detectives who use their badges as permission slips for a whole range of scandalous behaviors; both films include grisly murders, elaborate cover-ups, and true love with a noble prostie. But my reactions to the two films couldn't have been more diametrically opposed.

Bad Lieutenant is like a cross between Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Richard Loncraine's Richard III, and a session of Grand Theft Auto played by a particularly testosterone-flooded fourteen-year-old boy. Which is to say it fuckin rocks. In one scene that I think represents the brilliance of the whole, Nicholas Cage emerges from behind a door, inexplicably shaving with an electric razor, to strongarm two grandmas into giving up information. He pulls the oxygen tubes from one old lady's nose, threatens the other with his pistol, and snarls, "You're what's wrong with this country!" The film is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, but whatever political subtext can be gleaned from this exchange is only discoverable once the viewer has stopped laughing, which is not for a long, long time.

Bad Lieutenant takes a necessary risk with its material, which is that it's not afraid to be outrageous. Over the course of the film, as Cage's character goes from bad to worse, he hallucinates iguanas and breakdancers, does drugs in front of a kid in his care, threatens to kill a whole carload of gangsters "till the break of dawn," and offers a crime lord use of his "lucky crack pipe." By embracing and exploring its own absurdity, the film doesn't just avoid becoming unintentionally hilarious; it achieves something much more impressive. In my earlier post, I wrote about how violent movies can make their viewers feel complicit by placing them, physically, within the characters' bodies. But by making us laugh along with Cage's character -- by making us see what he sees -- Bad Lieutenant places us inside his mind.

Sex, drugs, and well -- you know.

Not so with The Killer Inside Me. Despite its title, this movie does not spend much time inside any of its characters, least of all its protagonist, a murderous small-town cop named Ford (played by Casey Affleck, who seems to have a knack for murderous small-town Fords). Although we're privy to Ford's private memories, these flashbacks confuse more than they clarify. One of the film's creepiest scenes shows us Ford as a tween, confronted with a woman who reveals her bruises to him, seemingly as erotic enticement: "This is what your father did to me; I liked it," she tells him. Edgy stuff -- only no one in the group I saw the picture with could figure out who the hell she was. I assumed it was his mom, perhaps just before her untimely death; another viewer thought it was his sister; a third person (the only one who had read the Jim Thompson novel on which this film is based) seemed to remember she was supposed to be a housekeeper, or maybe a stepmom. Yet surely Ford himself knows -- surely these scenarios are not all equivalent to him. By showing us this scene without the context we need to render it meaningful on a specific, personal level, the filmmakers satisfy our curiosity about Ford in a rote way (bad childhood) while still holding him at an artificial distance.

Mystery, both in noir and in other genres, is one of the central engines of suspense, and the best mysteries pose questions that are maddening in their specificity (Who killed Laura Palmer?), weighting a single piece of information with so much value that we will spend hours or days working to discover it. A good mystery, in my opinion, is not, "Why the hell did any of that just happen?" posed with indignation as the credits roll. Yet the latter was the question I found myself asking about The Killer Inside Me. BIG SPOILER ALERT, but let me submit for your consideration the following puzzle, first pointed out by one of my fellow viewers. Early in the film, Ford beats his prostitute girlfriend Joyce nearly to death, for some complicated reasons that sort of make sense. He's told by other policemen that she died in the hospital, and he's not treated as a suspect; in fact, another young man is arrested in the crime. For most of the picture, the other police seem to trust Ford; at one point, when Ford is chasing an unarmed man down the street with a butcher knife, another cop even shoots the guy for him (thanks, dude). Then, at the end of the film, several police officers escort the prostitute girlfriend to Ford's home -- she's still alive, just a little scarred up is all. "I didn't tell them anything," she claims. Aww. Ford stabs her anyway, then blows up his house.

Now, here's the problem. If the other cops didn't suspect Ford, why did they tell him his prostie g.f. was dead when she wasn't? And if the other cops did suspect Ford, why did they help him kill that guy? Jeepers, I don't know! It's a twist!

The Killer Inside Me is boring and illogical, sure, but that's not really what bothers me about it. In the end, I'm much more bummed that a movie this unafraid of explicit violence and sexuality doesn't harness their power in service of story. What makes great noir films truly subversive isn't just that they depict crime and perversion: it's their ability to make criminals and perverts intensely interesting to us -- sometimes even as mirrors of ourselves. It may take guts to put this stuff on screen, but it takes talent to make it awesome.


Snowden Wright said...

Totally agree with your take on the movie. The flashbacks trying to explain his crazy-tude didn't make any sense. They were much easier to understand in the book.

So many horror and crime movies have that knee-jerk impulse to give psychopaths and sociopaths a reason for being pyscho- and socio-pathic. But you know what's most frightening? When there is no explanation. Excluding the mess that is "Hannibal Rising"--he's a cannibal because the Nazis ate his sister, of course!--Dr. Lecter was so frightening because he had no motivation. (I think there was a line in Scream to this effect).

Another of cinema's best villains, the Joker in The Dark Knight, worked so well because he didn't have an origin story, other than the ones he made up to play with his victims. He was an absolute. That's the scariest kind of crazy.

The Chawmonger said...

Hey Snowden, I absolutely agree about the power of the origin-less villain (I'd offer No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh as another example). I think it can be interesting to delve into a villainous character's psychology too, if it's done well -- but that naturally makes it more of a character study than a glimpse of something totally unknown and terrifying. Maybe the problem with this movie was it tried to have it both ways.

Anyway, thanks so much for reading and commenting!