Friday, January 30, 2009

Even Good Guys Win Every Once in A While

It bothers me that some critics thought Michael Clayton was a bad movie for the simple fact that, in the end, the good guy won. J.R. Jones, film critic with the Chicago Reader, dismissed Clayton as being "a big, crowd-pleasing Hollywood redemption drama in which the lonely hero not only thwarts the corporate villains in the end but silences them with a killer riposte." Other critics contended that it was neither daring nor creative for the filmmakers to rely on this familiar set-up and payoff. Critic Bruce Bennett believed that a filmmaker gives an audience no reason to invest in a story if all he is going to produce is the same old predictable outcome. In the mind of these critics, the victory of the good guy is blatant Hollywood escapist fare. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis gave the film a back-handed compliment by saying the good-guy-beats-bad-guy film "entertains without shame."

In contrast, a number of critics thought that No Country for Old Men was a bold, original movie because the psycho bad guy won. The bad guy, besides getting to gleefully slaughter every hapless person in his path, got away with two million dollars for his efforts. One critic lauded the film for its "blood-soaked pessimism." Other critics praised the film with the words "bleak," "disturbing," "intense," and "nihilistic." The film was said to be brutally honest in reflecting the amoral madness of the contemporary world.

Dramas tend to put a hero in conflict with a villain. Either the hero wins or the villain wins, it has got to be one or the other. I don't get hung up on who wins or who loses. As the old saying goes, it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. I want a filmmaker to make his characters interesting and develop a story in a compelling way. I want a film to come to a reasonable conclusion. I want the hero to win only if he earns his victory, which I believe Michael Clayton does.

I wouldn't want filmmakers to get into the habit of killing off their heroes just to make themselves seem edgier. Let them stick to the Official Hollywood Rules and Standards for Killing Movie Heroes. The hero is allowed to sacrifice his life to save others, which is how it turns out in Saving Private Ryan and The Exorcist. He can go to his inevitable death proudly in a historical drama, such as Spartacus, Braveheart, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, and Titanic. The gangster hero will likely have to accept death for his violent misdeeds, as shown in Public Enemy, The Godfather and Scarface. The audience has no reason to be surprised when the doomed hero dies. The darkly obsessive Captain Ahab was bound to die in Moby Dick. Anyone who saw The Fly knew it was over for the arrogantly ambitious Dr. Brundle when his body parts started to fall off. Tragic love affairs have to end with death. What would movies like Romeo and Juliet and Love Story be without the big, climatic death scene? The hero's death can provide useful closure, such as in Terms of Endearment and Thelma and Louise.

That leaves the final and most difficult rule for killing the movie hero - the death has to be an integral part of the story. One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest is a cautionary tale of an individual who is destroyed for trying to buck the system. McMurphy's end is, in this way, vital to the movie's message. In Pan's Labyrinth, young Ofelia finds escape from an intolerably insane and brutal world by making nightly journeys into an enchanted underground realm. The story progresses determinedly to Ofelia's death, which is meant to be her final, permanent and only possible escape.

The application of these rules is not always predictable and straightforward. Alcoholic prizefighter Andy "Champ" Purcell, the title character of The Champ, suffered one of the greatest hero's deaths in movie history, but it is hard to put his death into a specific category. Was his death a sacrifice he made for his eight-year-old son, Dink? Was his death a form of redemption for his past failures and misdeeds? Was he a doomed hero who could never beat his drinking problem and take care of his son? Was his relationship with his son, in the end, a tragic love affair?

Movie critics can say anything they want to justify the deaths of Llewelyn and Carla Jean Moss in No Country for Old Men. Yes, I know, we are all victims of the primal forces of fate and circumstances in a predatory world. Critic Roger Ebert thought that No Country for Old Men demonstrated that human feelings have no meaning "in the face of implacable injustice." But, still, the deaths seem to me to be designed purely to shock. They are no less gratuitous than the deaths in Saw. Walter Kirn, a critic with the New York Times, was similarly displeased when reading the novel on which the film was based. Kirn dismissed the plot as "sinister high hokum" and described the author as "a whiz with the joystick, a master-level gamer who changes screens and situations every few pages." Even if I could accept that No Country for Old Men made a valid point about the contemporary world, I still don't want to accept movies being as random and disturbing as real life.

Lead characters in movies haven't been safe since No Country for Old Men. I need to warn you at this juncture that spoilers are coming up in regards to upcoming Oscar contenders. Okay, I'll sit back and sip on my coffee while some of you clear out. Are they gone? Good, let's continue. The point I was making was that lead characters have met with their demise in the most critically acclaimed films of the last year - Gran Torino, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Revolutionary Road, Milk, The Reader, The Dark Knight, and The Wrestler.

Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the title character of The Wrestler, acknowledges that he is "an old broken-down piece of meat." The aging wrestler is scarred and puffy and his heart, which has been severely damaged, is weak. He is such a wreck that no Rocky-like comeback is possible for him. He is, in all respects, as doomed as Champ Purcell was. His only hope is to leave this life with dignity.

Button, in its own peculiar way, shows the impact that aging has on our lives. Aging, in all its effects, is man's greatest frailty. Aging assures that we, as human beings, will no more than pass through this world. We change, the people around us change, and we all die in time. Aging, in the end, is a tragic flaw of our's. It is to be expected that a film about aging will be haunted by the inevitability of death. How's that for implacable injustice?

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