A PERFECT WORLD, and Clint Eastwood’s Broken Father Fables

Butch Haynes never wanted to be a criminal, it just sort of happened somewhere along the way. He was, like so many characters have been in Clint Eastwood films since A Perfect World, a man poisoned by the sins of his own father, condemned to pass along whatever damaged deck he was dealt. What’s left, then, after the neglect and the abuse, is molded into a societal miscreant and shuffled into the prison system.

These wounds run like a river beneath the illusory idyllic surface of mid-century Texas in Eastwood’s A Perfect World, which turned 25 this month. It was the actor/director’s follow up to his Oscar winning masterpiece Unforgiven, and was subsequently lost in the overpowering cinematic moment that was Schindler’s List in the fall of 1993, right along with just about every other year-end release. But it carries a specific thematic weight when considering the Eastwood filmmaking trajectory and the characters he’s given us in the quarter century since.

There is an undeniable connective tissue between the characters trapped in Butch Haynes’ orbit – from young Phillip, to his pursuer, Sheriff Red Garnett (Eastwood) – and dozens of characters Eastwood has directed or played (or both) in subsequent years, including his upcoming domestic thriller The Mule. There may have been hints of these men in his previous films, but it doesn’t take much to recognize that the story of Butch Haynes and the father he never had was the unofficial beginning of a new movement in the Eastwood oeuvre.

Butch, played by Kevin Costner in a fitting, plainspoken role, is a prison escapee on the run with his loathsome bunkmate, Terry. The two men’s decision to kidnap young Phillip (T.J. Lowther, brilliant) is impulsive, but eventually the relationship between Butch and Phillip (or “Buzz”) becomes the heart and soul of an emotionally complicated road picture. Besides, had they gone with Terry’s decision to take Phillip’s mother along with them rather than Phillip, Terry would have likely raped and murdered her within hours. Butch is confident, however, he can protect the boy.

Once the picture settles into its second act – Butch and Phillip traveling in their time machine across Texas, Red and his ragtag crew of conflicting ideas and agendas in hot pursuit with that state-of-the-art Airstream trailer – the story becomes a subtextual unpacking of Butch’s troubled youth. We get information from Laura Dern’s Sally Gerber as she lays out his psyche profile to Red, who may have been partly to blame for Butch’s introduction into the prison system; there are the conversations Butch has with Phillip, about what kids should and shouldn’t be doing, and what they should and shouldn’t be subjected to along the way. We get the picture of the boy becoming a man without guidance, and the man trying to correct the sins leveled against him most of his life.

But the fight to correct those sins and the life left in their wake is no match for fate, and for instinct, two factors that snap A Perfect World from its dream state of paternal adventure back into the cruel, cold reality of killers and prisoners and inherent violence.

Only in those final moments is the violence seen, heard, and felt. The killings early on are handled off screen, with a certain level of disgust from both Costner and Eastwood. These aren’t the good moments, not for anyone involved, and it’s best to keep Phillip’s head clear of such senseless violence as long as possible. In the end, however, when the farmer is abusing his son in plain sight, violence erupts. It cannot stay hidden, not anymore, and the adventure has reached its unavoidable conclusion. Nothing has been fixed, nothing changes, and the sins of the father carry through.

Butch had tried to show Phillip a different world from the sheltered one he’d known thus far, under the strict dogma of Jehovah’s Witness. He wound up showing him the dark realities that cause young boys to have to become men too early. After A Perfect World, Clint Eastwood began telling more of these stories, about bad dads and their pissed off kids. His diamond thief Luther Whitney in Absolute Power is estranged from his daughter, much like reporter Steve Everett in 1999’s True Crime. In Mystic River, it’s Sean Penn’s reformed thug father who is punished for his past; in Million Dollar Baby, it is Eastwood trying to repair the relationships in his own life with the help of his young boxing protege.

The Mule is clearly going all in on the exploration of a father who lets his work and his own selfish nature destroy his family, and it looks like some of Eastwood’s best work in a decade. Perhaps this will bring his exploration full circle, even finding some cinematic closure to an idea he has been poking and prodding for nearly half of his professional life.

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On Second Thought, Gore Verbinski’s THE LONE RANGER (2013) is Good

I remember seeing The Lone Ranger in theaters, back in 2013, despite the absolute beating it had been taking in the media. And I remember not understanding exactly what people had seen, or what they had wanted; what I had just seen was a big, broad, exciting, silly action movie that somehow, in the middle of the high-flying stunt work and set pieces, manages to examine some troubling moments in our nation’s past.

Critics were all too eager to shout, almost in unison, that Gore Verbinski’s Western, another attempted Disney franchise starter with Johnny Depp front and center, was too long and too tonally inconsistent. Overkill. The feeling was almost unanimous, save for a few faint praises, and it felt like an opinion formed in the weeks and months leading up to the film’s release. The proverbial fix was in, and The Lone Ranger was dead on arrival at the box office; after opening at number 2 over the July 4th weekend, it took a dramatic nosedive each subsequent weekend on its way to an anemic $89.3 million haul, peanuts compared to the $215 million budget.

It happens from time to time. A movie will be setup for failure before its release for a myriad of reasons, and most of the time these quality predictions aren’t too far off base. Critics will have their pitchforks ready and a lit match poised just beneath the kindling of their torches, ready to strike, and strike often as one. This transgressions of The Lone Ranger leading up to the film’s release centered around, for the most part, Johnny Depp.

In 2011, Depp mentioned wanting to play Tonto in a big-screen adaptation of The Lone Ranger, which was offensive enough to some. When it came to fruition, the think pieces emerged, with charges of cultural appropriation – a silly phrase in its own right – and racism heaved at the movie, specifically Depp’s strange look and idiosyncratic “stereotypes.” With the dead bird as a headpiece and the zebra-like warpaint, and the comedic angle Depp takes with the character had many wondering if it was in bad taste. In fact, the entire film was deemed, by many self-imposed gatekeepers of the culture as “too racist” to have ever happened in the first place.

There are racist characters in The Lone Ranger. Some may call them the villains of the picture, which makes sense given their racism, but that never seemed to factor into the logic. Nevertheless, Verbinski’s sharply self-aware epic was doomed. Depp’s portrayal, was supposedly dangerous because this one specific fictional character’s traits might be applied to an entire race of people, much like what happened when the original radio show and television serials ran through the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Maybe some people will attach the silliness of Depp’s portrayal to an entire race of human beings, but those people are complete fools and should be disregarded in any cultural conversations anyway. Why are we worried with how idiots could misinterpret the intentions of a character in a Disney adventure?

It’s conceivable that all the critics who thumbed their nose at The Lone Ranger agreed with their own negative sentiments. It’s probable, really. There is no conspiracy theory here, just evidence of widespread groupthink from time to time; again, it happens all the time, in all avenues of life. But a little more than five years have passed since The Lone Ranger was released, and those feelings I had at the theater that afternoon, back in the summer of 2013, have only strengthened.

The Lone Ranger is long, but it moves. It’s tonally inconsistent, but remove the stigma from that phrase; it jumps from serious drama to broad comedy to big, silly action set pieces with gleeful energy. Tonal inconsistencies definitely hurt certain films, but that’s hardly an issue with a large-scale factory product like this. The movie is supposed to cover a great deal of ground. It also manages to shine a light on the horrors of America’s progress in the West, built on the back of Asian slave labor. If anything, it condemns the racism that helped build this country, time and time again; to say it the movie is “racist” supposes that Verbinski and the platoon of screenwriters intentionally and maliciously maligned an entire race. That simply isn’t the case.

All cultural brouhaha aside, consider the cast. There is Depp, of course, and The Lone Ranger himself, played by Armie Hammer, who is so clearly having fun. I’m not sure what else you need from him in this role, he’s one of the more underrated stars working in Hollywood. The rogues gallery of villains includes Tom Wilkinson, Barry Pepper, and William Fitchner; Ruth Wilson is the love interest, Rebecca, and Helena Bonham Carter plays the mysterious Red Harrington, who has a cannon for a leg; character actors like the great James Badge Dale, Stephen Root, and… well, you get the point. This is an impressive cast, filled with talent, and the talent is all having a good time playing up archetypes.

The action is outstanding, a mixture of practical effects and stunt work and CGI. It goes over the top early and often, but the spatial geography is always sound. The climax of the film, a complicated train chase sequence, is when we get the Ranger’s iconic theme, and it is a thrilling moment that pays off to near perfection:

Verbinski’s palette is beautiful, and the Bojan Bazelli cinematography is rich and it gives the film more of an identity than so many run-of-the-mill big franchise wannabe films that come and go every summer. The pairing of Gore Verbinski and Disney is an unusual and inconceivable marriage considering Verbinski’s specific, indulgent style and his fascinating collection of non-Disney work; for that, it should at least be appreciated.

The Lone Ranger is far from a perfect movie, but that’s not really the point. It’s fun, and it’s big, and the performances hearken back to epic studio productions of the mid-20th century, which makes sense given the subject matter. Film culture has changed over the last five years, and genre film is seeing a resurgence for a myriad of reasons; perhaps it’s time to stop clutching pearls and give Verbinski’s Golden-Age throwback another look with a new perspective.

Scenes I Love: The Terrifying Brilliance of the CLIFFHANGER Opening

Cliffhanger could have been just another run-of-the-mill action thriller. It could have been one of the many Die Hard ripoffs, this time from Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin no less, another middling attempt for its star, Sylvester Stallone, to branch out from his Rocky and Rambo franchises.

But Harlin’s direction, and the effervescent supporting cast surrounding the typical, stoic Stallone hero made Cliffhanger an admirable entry in the Post-McClane action wave. Janine Turner, Michael Rooker, and John Lithgow and his band of wily villains help to lift up our hero and improve his own performance, but what might be the most crucial and brilliant four minutes of this thin-air adventure takes place right off the top.

The opening set piece of Cliffhanger, filmed in the Italian Alps doubling as Colorado, not only calibrated the intensity levels for the remainder of the film (perhaps setting the bar too high for the rest of the story to sustain), it destroys the friendship between Stallone’s Gabe and Michael Rooker’s character, Hal, therein developing another point of tension moving forward.

Lasting influence of the scene notwithstanding, these four minutes also contain the entirety of the film’s single greatest performance from Michelle Joyner as Sarah.

So many action thrillers with aspirations to be something as credible or entertaining as Cliffhanger don’t take the time to set a proper stage. Certain elements – an estranged relationship, a young kid – are tacked on to give our hero lazy notions of depth. This opening sequence is immediate, harrowing, absolutely terrifying, and as we are out on that line and see Sarah fall to her death, our fingernails dug into the seat cushions, we feel Gabe’s pain and guilt.

We feel Sarah’s death, the burden is straps to Gabe forever, mostly because of Joyner’s incredible performance – the stunt work was performed by Gia Phipps, who was raised and lowered five-hundred feet over and over, attached to a 3/16-inch steel cable.* But it is Joyner, as Sarah, delivering a fierce emotional wallop.

With the camera pushed in tight on her face, Joyner’s eyes convey that of true, honest panic, and her breathless screams and glassy eyes (a stark contrast to the timid girlfriend in over her head we first meet on the side of the mountain) seem to be begging us to help somehow. But we can’t move as her hand agonizingly slips more, and more, until her fate is sealed by the leather-snapping sound of her hand slipping free of Gabe’s grasp.

Cliffhanger is off and running, leaping headfirst into the action from there, and jaw-dropping set pieces ensue; but the weight of this death, of Sarah’s panicked pleas, and the collective guilt of everyone involved has seeped into the lives of this tight-knit mountain rescue “family.” The adds a layer of tragedy beneath everything, creating the same type of estrangement and tension between two characters that helped define Die Hard as something more than a big loud action movie. We want Gabe and Hal to make amends for what happened – much like we root for John and Holly – and the strained relationship gives Harlin’s story a necessary injection of emotional weight.

It’s a scene I love.

 

*Phipps was also the stunt double for Janine Turner during the shoot.

CARLITO’S WAY, Brian De Palma’s Unsung Masterpiece, at 25

“Mi barrio… ya no existe…” – Carlito Brigante

Brian De Palma’s career was on life support in March of 1993, when he began production on his latest gangster fable, Carlito’s Way.

His last success was another gangster picture, albeit one in an entirely different tone than the one he was about to make. 1987’s The Untouchables was a crowd pleaser and a terrific callback to the serialized adventures of Eliot Ness and his team of lawmen, only with a more modern, brutal De Palma style.  It made $76.2 million, over three times its budget, and it got Sean Connery his elusive Oscar statue the following spring.

In 1989 De Palma made a serious war picture, Casualties of War, which made sense. The Untouchables had helped him shed the stigma of being, at least in the eyes of the stuffy cinematic opinion makers of the time, nothing more than a Hitchcock imitator with more blood and nudity. He was angling for the “serious filmmaker” label with Casualties of War, but the Michael J. Fox / Sean Penn Vietnam thriller – a true story about the sadistic rape and murder of a young female villager – proved too off putting and gruesome for audiences. It was a failure, but nothing on the level of his next film.

Tom Wolfe’s yuppie satire Bonfire of The Vanities was one of the most popular books of the 1980s, but De Palma’s film was such a disaster, from the troubled production to the spectacular box office failure, that it inspired its own book. Limping away from prestige and marketability, De Palma retreated to the thriller genre and directed Raising Cain, a salacious Psycho riff with a terrifically bonkers performance from John Lithgow that never connected with audiences – partly due to the oddball story, partly because that very story had been butchered and reorganized by the studio, thanks to some mixed focus group reactions.

Then he was offered Carlito’s Way, and wanted nothing to do with it. Based on the 1975 Edwin Torres novel, the story of a Latin gangster stoked De Palma’s memories of Scarface, and the director wasn’t eager to dive back into that extravagant world. Then he read the screenplay from David Koepp, who had just recently written the screen adaptation of Jurassic Park, and he knew this story was operating with an entirely different tone than Oliver Stone’s coke-addled exploits of an out-of-control Tony Montana.*

In many ways – the obvious roadblock of Montana’s spectacular execution at the end of Scarface notwithstanding – the story of Carlito Brigante could work as a Scarface sequel. Set free from prison five years into a thirty-year stint, thanks to prosecutor tampering and the shrewd eye of attorney David Kleinfeld, Carlito Brigante is ready to leave the kingpin days of his youth behind. He wants to go straight, to make enough money and move down to the Bahamas where he plans on renting cars to tourists and living out his days in peace and quiet. It is a reformed, mature version of Tony Montana who, despite all odds, survived his lifestyle and came out on the other side a changed man, a man who wants to do right, live right, and ride off into the sunset. The fact Al Pacino portrays the subject of both films also plays an undeniable hand in the connective tissue.

Of course, this being a gangster picture, all does not go as planned for Brigante. That’s clear in the film’s opening sequence where we see him, in a soft-focus, black-and-white prologue, get shot in the stomach and collapse to the ground. For years, this setup felt like it pulled the rug out from under the entire film, vanquishing all tension revolving around Brigante’s escape; in the Noah Baumbach De Palma documentary, however, the director discusses the plan to include this bookend scene. It was his goal to make the audience forget all about that opening sequence with the tension and the suspense of the story itself. In that way, he succeeds.

As problems arise, fester, and build on one another to a blood-soaked crescendo at Grand Central Station, De Palma’s set pieces are consistently dazzling. He has always been a master of the long take, and the set piece, and the pool-hall sequence at the end of the first act is on par with any set piece in the filmmakers oeuvre, as tense as the train-station sequence in The Untouchables or the prom scene in Carrie:

The tension that builds through Carlito’s Way relies on Carlito’s lack of power; it isn’t about how he is going to escape with Gail (Penelope Ann Miller) to the Caribbean, it’s how he is going to navigate each and every second he stays in New York as his mere presence grows increasingly dangerous. He is vulnerable, scared, and often powerless to the influences and the decisions of the characters who surround him, and powerless to his own code, a code that convinces him to stick with his lawyer, Kleinfeld, who is so clearly the biggest roadblock in Carlito’s exodus.

Sean Penn surprised everyone when he showed up on set with a perm shaved back to resemble severe male pattern baldness. His appearance smartly sets him apart from everyone in the picture. Davey Kleinfeld is the poisonous fruit Brigante cannot avoid, not one of the neighborhood guys, but a slick outsider; Carlito unknowingly helping Kleinfeld murder Tony Taglialucci in the East River outside Riker’s Island leads to the extended chase sequence finale, but ironically it is not the source Carlito’s ultimate demise.

The one time Carlito’s old instincts jump up to bite him is his conflict with Benny Blanco, From the Bronx (John Leguizamo). The bravado of Blanco may mirror a young Carlito, it may not, but one thing is certain: Blanco’s presence stoked a long-buried fire in Carlito’s youthful soul, the one he is working so fervently to leave behind. But his decision in this moment was enough to seal his fate in Grand Central:

Brian De Palma knew from the outset he needed to inject his signature style into as much of the film as he could in order for it to stand out from the scores of gangster films that had preceded it. Even The Untouchables has a feeling of familiarity in regards to the genre. Carlito’s Way is stylistically indulgent, with De Palma employing his psychosexual thriller aesthetics early and often. The split screens and the first-person POV work brilliantly to put the suspenseful building blocks in place, and the story lends itself more to a humanistic tale than what was present in De Palma’s previous gangster films.

Carlito’s Way opened second at the box office the weekend of November 10, 1993, with just over $9 million. Reviews were solid, but word of mouth was nil. Perhaps fatigue with the gangster genre had set in by the end of 1993; the success of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas had spawned Warren Beatty’s Bugsy, but it also generated ridiculous wannabes like Billy Bathgate, Hoffa, and the embarrassingly bad Christian Slater/Richard Grieco star vehicle Mobsters. Whatever the case, Carlito’s Way quietly drifted out of the picture, accruing a meager $36 million in ticket sales; enough to cover the $30 million budget, but nothing to write home about.

In his documentary, Brian De Palma says he didn’t think he could make a better movie than Carlito’s Way. He would return three years later to kick off the Mission: Impossible franchise, but it’s difficult to argue with De Palma’s assessment of his own work. Even though Carlito’s Way hasn’t seen the kind of reappraisal that Blow Up or Dressed to Kill has in recent years, and it doesn’t have the cultural currency of Carrie or Mission: Impossible, or the prestige of The Untouchables, it might very well be his best film. It is, at times, a beautiful film with true affection for its characters. It’s an endlessly engaging thriller, tactile and true, and its collection of incredible set pieces is held together by actors and actresses who hit the heightened notes of their characters with palpable passion.

And, no matter how many times you watch it, you always hold out hope that Carlito will make it to Gail in the end, as a smile breaks through his panicked sprint across the train platform. Even though you’ve known from the outset that happiness isn’t in the cards of a condemned man, you still hope. Because you are invested in Carlito’s salvation.

That’s how great filmmaking works.