Friday, October 8, 2010
Mendacity Is The Great Sin
Of course, some of the directors we have the most respect for are absolutely crazy in one way or another. If they weren’t we wouldn’t feel so passionate about what they bring to their films. Really, would we have Friedkin’s SORCERER, Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW or Stone’s WALL STREET (the original, let’s not talk about the sequel) if they weren’t at least slightly cracked? But what can sometimes be disheartening is when a director’s own particular aesthetic madness gets bled out of their work for one reason or another. There are several reasons why this may happen--sometimes the well just runs dry creatively, sometimes they leave it aside in order to work on a project solely for cash or maybe they’re doing everything they can just to keep working. Sometimes a director can find a way to connect their own thematic concerns with a blatantly commercial project—Martin Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR, one of his biggest hits, certainly comes to mind. But on other occasions while they may be working on something with actual commercial potential they can’t fully bury who they are as a director and as a result wind up attempting to insert elements into a film that don’t particularly belong. Michael Cimino’s DESPERATE HOURS might very well be an example of that as a film made by a director who, for both better and worse, has a style which is arresting and at times infuriating but if it can’t be used in the right way then what’s really the point? Like CAPE FEAR, which was released the following year, it’s a remake of a film in which an outside force invades a nuclear family undergoing strife, thereby bringing them all closer together. Attempting to make more out of what at its heart is a strict genre piece is fine and whatever else you want to say about Cimino’s films they have a style, an undeniable lifeforce that prove the director’s madness to the utmost extent and the results of that intensity can at times be remarkable. DESPERATE HOURS starts out as if this might be the case, opening in a striking manner with an evocative time lapse shot under the opening credits set to a propulsive David Mansfield theme. This is immediately followed by a series of shots of a speeding sports car driving through beautiful Utah wilderness. The car stops, and out from it steps a pair of truly shapely legs attached to the gorgeous Kelly Lynch. It’s a great, absurd start to it all. But it’s straight downhill from there, with Cimino ultimately turning this seemingly straightforward thriller into a muddle.
Brilliant sociopath Michael Bosworth (Mickey Rourke), serving a sentence for manslaughter during a bank robbery, is in the middle of a parole hearing when, with the help of his attorney the beautiful Nancy Breyers (Kelly Lynch) who is secretly in love with him he stages a daring break from the courthouse, driving off with his brother Wally (Elias Koteas) and their partner Albert (David Morse). As the manhunt for Bosworth is on, we go to the upscale suburban home of Tim Cornell (Anthony Hopkins) and wife Nora (Mimi Rogers) who are currently undergoing a divorce with their two children May (Shawnee Smith) and Zack (Danny Gerard) caught in between them. Soon enough Bosworth appears at their front door, attracted by the For Sale sign out front, looking for a place to hideout and takes the family hostage. The men are waiting for Nancy to rendezvous with them but with the FBI, headed by agent Brenda Chandler (Lindsay Crouse), not believing her story for a second and watching her every move, the lawyer’s arrival is delayed as the family’s ordeal at being held captive by Bosworth continues.
The release of DESPERATE HOURS came in October 1990, a little under ten years since the disastrous initial release of Cimino’s epic HEAVEN’S GATE with only YEAR OF THE DRAGON (his other teaming with Rourke) and THE SICILIAN coming in between. Whether by accident or design much of this film feels like an attempt to make nothing more than a commercial thriller, something that people might actually go to see (total domestic gross: $2.7 million). And there is a sense that Cimino is trying to adhere to the rules of this genre while also attempting to present everything in his patented FORCEFUL manner with big, smashing close-ups and a roving camera designed to intimidate the viewer, but right from the beginning almost nothing about it works at all. As many times as Bosworth holds the family members at either gun or knifepoint, very little tension ever arises from what’s happening and it plays a little as if in trying to somehow go against the norm he deliberately miscast several of the roles to make things more interesting and proceeded to intimidate those actors into trying to be more like what the parts demanded. All this approach results in is a number of people who have done very strong work elsewhere flailing about, as if either getting the wrong kind of direction or just not receiving much of any direction at all, although to their credit every now and then I spotted someone performing a small bit of business as if valiantly trying to bring something genuine to things.
Even the camera blocking feels somewhat awkward at times—unless I’m mistaken, this is the only film Cimino has directed that wasn’t shot in Scope and the more square 1:85 format just doesn’t seem to work for him. Maybe it was done to emphasize the claustrophobia of this family trapped in their own house but too much of the time things are framed in a way that is not only ineffective but kind of strange, as if the director doesn’t quite know how to stage things in such a ‘normal’ and enclosed space. Along with this is an editing style that seems like a jumble (supervising editor was Peter Hunt, director of ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE and who also cut the early James Bond films) which might be consistent with Cimino’s own style but seems all wrong for a story that by nature demands a certain amount of suspense. The screenplay credits Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal along with Joseph Hayes, writer of the original novel, play and film it was based on (the original also had a THE in the title) and his name included there indicates a certain amount of fidelity to the source but however much sense the scenario made when it was first presented (admittedly, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Bogart film but both leads make the exact same threat to the wife when they first make their way into the house) what the lead character decides to do here in this context, the film’s entire reason for being, just comes off as bad planning. Bosworth goes right for a house with a For Sale sign in front, taking hostages immediately even after finding out that it isn’t empty so maybe there’s supposed to be something existential to what he’s doing, in looking for ‘a place to relax’ as he puts it, as if he really doesn’t want to get away. But based on what has already been said about him in dialogue he should be too smart to do any of this so in the end instead of seeming extremely intelligent he just comes off as a psychotic killer who likes to talk a lot.
On occasion Bosworth lets loose a few lines about what this whole country has come to as he calls out the Cornells on what he feels is the hypocrisy of their lives (“Mendacity is the great sin that’s destroying America and I’m a living reproach to you because I’m an honest man”) but these touches, along with an observation how the Hopkins character served in Vietnam, don’t result in much of anything beyond him just spouting off for a few minutes although they do make me wonder if Cimino did some work on the script himself, somehow trying to give Rourke dialogue that can validate why he decided to make this movie. Some of that dialogue as well as the camerawork that lingers among the wilderness as if yearning to stay in that more peaceful setting feels like something approaching a theme and, at the least, it feels like Cimino is more interested in these elements than the Screenwriting 101 notion of embittered wife Mimi Rogers telling estranged husband Anthony Hopkins at the beginning she needs somebody she can ‘trust’. The dialogue between the two recurs a few times later on but since the film and its director never seem to pay much attention to their conflict it doesn’t have any real effect. Throughout, it feels like Cimino never seems very interested in this family in the way Scorsese found something to do with the Bowdens who were terrorized by Max Cady in CAPE FEAR and considering the nature of the two films and their source material, there are interesting parallels to draw—to contrast with Nick Nolte’s personal conflict in that film, something more could have been done with Hopkins’ corporate lawyer who left his job to defend criminals and is now placed in a Paul Kersey-like position but after one mention the whole thing gets more or less dropped. Instead, Cimino always seems to be dwelling on the wrong things, or at least the wrong things for this movie—Elias Koteas crashing the getaway car into a lake so it won’t be found, Mickey Rourke lingering in front of the house before he decides to burst in, the mountains and leaves in the autumnal Utah locations, Kelly Lynch’s legs, Kelly Lynch’s hair—as if hoping that the very nature of the story will allow the suspense to emerge naturally but that never happens. He just doesn’t seem very interested in dramatizing this family being terrorized so the movie never really has any emotional effect.
As I think about how the tension which needs to build in this film never seems to happen it occurs to me that much of Cimino’s talent lies in presenting big, sprawling stories which is where much the power of THE DEER HUNTER, YEAR OF THE DRAGON (easily my favorite film of his) and, what the hell, HEAVEN’S GATE comes from. The seeming eons we spend lingering in that wedding in THE DEER HUNTER comes to mind, as well as any of the endless sequences of immigrants playing music in HEAVEN’S GATE or how YEAR OF THE DRAGON spends more time on the character of Mickey Rourke’s police detective than any other film would take the time to do but maybe he just doesn’t have the sensibilities for what in the case of DESPERATE HOURS needs to be a tightly plotted, compact narrative with nail-biting suspense. If anything, some of the things said by Bosworth here makes it feel like this film’s lead character represents Cimino himself (they’re both named Michael after all, just like De Niro in THE DEER HUNTER), bursting into this domestic drama and forcing its leads to act with Mickey Rourke, damn it, or else. If the film were better, or even if it were just more balls-out crazy, there would be more to this notion but it just winds up kind of half-baked, an acting exercise more than a film with a believable reality. To mention one notorious touch that does display some madness, speaking as a dumb male it’s not like I mind seeing Kelly Lynch topless (frankly, I doubt she’s ever looked better in a film) but the director’s apparent preoccupation with featuring her this way in multiple scenes, complete with dialogue that describes the character as having ‘her brains between her legs’, just makes it seem like he’s out for his own sleazy pleasures. As much as Cimino may be trying here and there to put something, anything, extra into this would-be madness—and there is that feeling throughout—ultimately it’s just a thriller that might work best if it were approached by somebody who actually wanted to make a thriller. Since Cimino seemingly doesn’t have much interest in it, the bulk of the running time is taken up with awkward scenes which have a feel and rhythm that is certainly odd but never particularly intriguing. It all builds to a climax that feels like the director is getting lost in his own interest of the blood being spilled, the house being riddled by endless bullets and all the laser rifles aiming at Rourke, almost never deciding what this sequence, let alone the entire movie, is even supposed to be about. And if he can’t, then there’s not much hope for anyone who sees the film.
Mickey Rourke is very much Mickey Rourke here but like the film it feels like he never becomes as unleashed as he should be. It’s hard not to think that the actor would be perfectly happy with tossing the basic setup out the window so he could leave this house and turn the film into something else altogether. Maybe through no fault of his own the character of Michael Bosworth never becomes as special as he’s made out to be at first and if the material were stronger his performance probably would be as well—ultimately, when it comes right down to it, he’s just the bad guy. Anthony Hopkins seems sort of lost as if he’s not quite sure why he’s playing this role or why he was cast—interestingly, this film was shot pretty much concurrently with SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which came out several months later and shot him to status of legend. In comparison with his work in the Demme film that won him the Oscar, here he seems a little lost, somehow out of place as this suburban husband and father. By a certain point it feels a little like he just decided to approach it as a chance to live a boyhood fantasy of playing Frederic March in a movie airing on the late show. As his wife, Mimi Rogers isn’t given a chance to do much other than act either angry or terrified and Lindsay Crouse as the FBI agent with a decidedly odd southern accent seems to be deliberately playing things as ludicrous as possible which all things considered may the right choice. Given dialogue like, “My earrings are killing me. I’m in a real bad mood,” she must have been perfectly aware of how insane all this is and she at least seems to be having fun with it.
The gorgeous Kelly Lynch has an impossible part to play as this defense attorney, getting her clothes torn off by Mickey Rourke while trying to come off as a femme fatale for the FBI. But she really does look great as if she should really be appearing in the best noir ever made or in some Technicolor Hitchcock film. To give her some credit, the actress seems to be trying valiantly with a definite forcefulness to her presence that comes across as if she’s trying to please Cimino and Rourke as much as her character is trying to do nothing but please Bosworth. Shawnee Smith (who I generally like a great deal otherwise) isn’t given much to play as the captive teenage daughter other than being obnoxious. The always dependable Elias Koteas does manage effective moments throughout, as if he’s somehow connecting with his director’s kamikaze style but David Morse, playing the one smart enough to keep saying how they should just leave the house, turns in a rare weak performance for the actor during much of his time on screen, almost as if he doesn’t trust the words he’s been given to say. But the prolonged sequence late in the film depicting his character’s escape through the wide open spaces of Utah leading up to his final moments is actually some of the strongest, most resonant stuff in the film, turning what had been an annoying lunkhead up to that point into someone almost sympathetic. Out of nowhere, both he and the film itself seem to connect with the surroundings as the law closes in, as horses nearby cross a stream, becoming lost in this beautiful wilderness as the character finds a serene calm amidst all that’s around him. It doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the rest of the film but the moment has more resonance than just about anything else here. For once, Cimino’s own madness brings something out of this material that he never seems to connect with otherwise.
These feelings of the director and character trying to connect with the land in the midst of a world gone mad, coupled with some of Rourke’s pertinent dialogue, might be as close to a theme as the film ever gets but by the time we circle back around to the final shot, the same angle that opened the film, as the end credits roll what we’re left with is a thriller that has all the requisite elements except for knowing how to be a thriller. Even that striking opening theme doesn’t really amount to very much, with the score dwindling down into overemotional histronics when it would make sense to amp up the tension. By the time the film ends and it plays over the closing crawl it just sounds like music noodling around in search of a theme, which seems apt considering the movie. Michael Cimino has only directed one film in the years since DESPERATE HOURS, 1996’s THE SUNCHASER which starred Woody Harrelson and about which I remember next to nothing beyond it being somewhat odd and idiosyncratic. That’s probably what a Michael Cimino film is supposed to be anyway. DESPERATE HOURS can never quite reconcile between being a genre piece and its director’s own approach to filmmaking. Sometimes that’s enough to get a movie to become something more than it might have been in other hands but in this particular case it makes the final result all too much of a head scratcher.