Sunday, December 31, 2017
You Get To Live Forever
There were so many things wrong with this past year that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Some of them were out in the world and you know what those are, some of them were a little more personal. Part of the problem these days is that I’d rather spend as much time as possible with nothing but films on the brain but that’s more impossible than usual, not just because you have to deal with normal life stuff but because of how much of the real world right now is so fucking horrible and it may just be getting worse. In the framing device of Brian De Palma’s CASUALTIES OF WAR a few newspaper headlines are spotted that trumpet Nixon’s resignation, making clear not just the time frame but the specific context of the moment. It is, without a doubt, the end of a long and painful narrative. But the story that follows makes it clear that it will always be impossible to wipe away certain nightmares. It’s even worse when we’re in the middle of them. CASUALTIES OF WAR is a brave film from De Palma, one where out of necessity he strips away some of his tricks, pieces of the cinematic puzzle that he excels in putting together that I love in favor of telling a horrific story in the most pure, cinematic way possible. It contains echoes of some of his other work but in a way that forces one to reexamine his own preoccupations with the inability to save someone and make things right. It plays like a film he needed to make, not one that he wanted to make. Sometimes in life that’s the way it works, much as we’d rather not worry about anything at all for as long as we possibly can.
Soon after arriving for combat duty in Vietnam, Pvt 1st Class Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) is rescued during a nighttime patrol by his Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn) after getting stuck in a tunnel hole. Soon after, Meserve’s best friend Brownie (Erik King) is killed in an ambush and when word comes in that he didn’t make it Meserve has changed. Leading his squad (also including Don Harvey, John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo) on an assignment, Meserve announces they are going to liven things up by ‘requisition’ a girl, kidnapping her, to do with as they please. No one believes it but Meserve does exactly that, kidnapping a girl named Than Thi Oanh (Thuy Thu Le) from her family home and leading her on a trek through the mountains, finally stopping at an abandoned hut with the intent of raping her. Eriksson balks at this order but no one else does and all Eriksson can do is remain nearby, listening to her screams. But once the time comes to fulfill their assignment Eriksson must wrestle with if he can help this girl and if there’s anything he can do about what he knows is going to happen.
Based on a New Yorker article by Daniel Lang about an actual event in 1969 with a screenplay by David Rabe, it’s hard to imagine CASUALTIES OF WAR ever being a sizable hit, even in the late 80s when the likes of PLATOON, FULL METAL JACKET and others were around, even when Michael J. Fox was one of the biggest stars in the world and even with one of the biggest raves that Pauline Kael ever wrote during her entire career. Already an admirer of the director, she calls it “the culmination of his best work” and De Palma was clearly taking advantage of the success that the all-holy THE UNTOUCHABLES brought him. It’s an admirable use of that power, one that was probably never going to result in widespread success and when the film opened in August 1989, the same weekend as UNCLE BUCK, it came in fourth. This was once a summer movie, a film that presents a Vietnam where you either embrace the death and hatred all around or you refuse to give into that darkness. But it’s impossible to get away totally unscathed. We barely know Meserve at first, only that he saves Eriksson’s life and he seems just like one of the guys, over there and trying not to get killed. When his friend Brownie is killed and Meserve simply states, “He’s dead,” to report on his progress he may as well be talking about himself. And when the local village is suddenly declared off limits which means no visit to the nearby brothel, that’s it for him. In a one-two punch Vietnam has taken away his friend then taken away his dick and none of it makes any sense. So what he does is not just fighting back against the locals but the military for their rules, for trying to impose some sort of order in this situation where his friend was killed. The moral code of CASUALTIES OF WAR is basically, things matter to you or they don’t. What Eriksson witnesses isn’t about war or anything resembling humanity, it’s about a hatred that has been born, a hatred that wants to do nothing more than burn down everything taking everyone else with them.
This isn’t one of the De Palma films I return to very often, for reasons that I imagine are obvious. Possibly because he’s aware of how this story has to be treated he seems to hold back his style at times, leaving the satire and archness we associate with his work in that quest for total cinema far behind. But each scene is never less than totally alive as if he’s always stripping it down to the necessary beats of who each of these guys are parts that come as close to De Palma letting the actors tell the story than ever before while at the same time his use of the Scope frame has never been quite as intimidating as it is here, making the horror even more in your face. Even the opening ambush just launches us into this nightmare before we can even orient ourselves and the first half hour is in some ways the most ‘normal’ war movie part with a few of the performances, particularly Penn and Don Harvey, almost feel too big for the room. It’s that giant close-up of Sean Penn shaving that becomes one of the first hints that something is going on and even isolated in the frame separate from the other guys he’s retreated into his own head, no real interest in their assignment anymore, the fact that he’s going home in the next 30 days totally unimportant. Presumably due to the influence of screenwriter Rabe (who, according to Vincent Canby in his New York Times review, “disassociated” himself from the finished film due to liberties he felt De Palma took) the middle section where the squad stops at an abandoned hut to do what they’re going to do to her feels almost completely like a one act play, one where the other soldiers are proudly playing the roles of the tough guys, and De Palma never tries to subvert this feeling either in the staging or the way the actors play it.
Or maybe I just can’t help but think of the real world right now and how for people like Meserve they’re all just nasty women deserving of that treatment. Meserve tries to tell him that counting on each other should be enough. Eriksson knows that it’s more than that. It has to be. Up against Michael J. Fox’s everyman, Penn revels in his power, Don Harvey is the brute (Kael compares his looks to Lee Marvin in her review and now I can’t see anything else), John C. Reilly asking for a beer over and over is the stupid one and John Leguizamo is a weakling, just wanting to go along with the guys. They’re the group of guys you’d encounter in the worst dive bar imaginable. And she isn’t anything to them, she’s just a bitch, a whore, simple collateral damage in this film made by a director who has certainly been accused of hostility towards women himself and could very well be making this film in order to show people who the real misogynists are. The way a few of the actors play it in the climactic trial, you’d think they were being accused of ignoring ‘Keep off the grass’ signs. Eriksson jerks awake after the ordeal hearing her screams in his head, shades of the end of BLOW OUT, the film that ended with that real scream retreating from the real world into the universe of bad movies and, truthfully, right now I don’t even find Sean Penn and Don Harvey overplaying it by a certain point. After the present world and all the hatred that’s been let loose, their behavior is perfectly believable in all their hatred. They’re people who don’t give a fuck, they just want to blow up the world and everyone around it. Nothing matters anymore for them, nothing but the pain they can inflict. In her final moments it’s very easy to view the girl they kidnapped and raped as being emblematic for what was done to that country but she’s also just a girl so to these guys that makes her even worse, maybe less than nothing.
It’s a film where even the biggest scene in the movie feels intimate in the way it’s shot since De Palma holds so tight to the point of view and what really matters, that it’s not about the fucked up battle but about the girl and Eriksson’s failure to save her so the giant APOCALYPSE NOW explosion barely even matters, not after what’s just happened. Quentin Tarantino has called it the greatest film about the war which doesn’t surprise me since I imagine the tight focus of the plot with just a few clearly defined setpieces would appeal to him. It’s not the epic phantasmagoria of Coppola, the this-is-the-way-it-was gestalt of Stone, the iconic coldness of Kubrick. For De Palma the reality isn’t as important, only the facts, only the moments. It’s not about asking those big questions about how pointless and futile the war was since what would be the point, anyway. In some ways it’s difficult to reconcile how deliberately dissatisfying it is since there’s never going to be any sort of catharsis, not even from Eriksson’s determination or the trial that results. But never fully breaks away from his own personal style, even finding a way to shoot the two dialogue scenes with the superiors—played, respectively by Ving Rhames and Dale Dye, each of whom would both be in De Palma’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE—in a way that adds to the intimidation Eriksson feels with one appealing to his emotion, one to the cold hard facts and shot in a way that seems to escalate the senseless nightmare of it all.
By the time we get to a key suspense sequence involving a long, unbroken take and an attempt on Eriksson’s life the way the shots are laid out beat by beat gives the impression that the director is enjoying himself and for once getting to do what he’s best at. He needs that relief and so do we, just as Michael J. Fox coming at Penn and the other actors plays like him letting loose some of the anguish he was really feeling. Due to the nature of the story it doesn’t build to a giant confrontation and by the time it gets to the trial the film is essentially over so it spends as little time as possible on this (it’s hard to imagine De Palma finding anything less visually interesting than a courtroom; naturally, some of his next film BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES was set in one too and we all know how that turned out). It’s the whisper Penn famously makes to Fox that’s going to haunt us, the worst thing imaginable that we’ll never know (as revealed in the documentary DE PALMA, in one take Penn whispered “television actor” at him which for him I guess would count). CASUALTIES OF WAR is not perfect and in some ways it can be difficult to reconcile its sheer unpleasantness with the bravura cinematic vocabulary that we want, that we crave, from Brian De Palma. That doesn’t make it any less essential or necessary. We need that whisper in our ear terrifying us. Maybe it’ll get us up again in the morning in 2018.
In “The Devil’s Candy,” the book on the making of THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES, De Palma expresses regret over making a few changes after an unsuccessful preview and felt that it didn’t make any difference in the end; I imagine that this might be what the “Extended Cut” of CASUALTIES that was released on DVD is which, full disclosure, I haven’t seen. Early on a few of the guys try to convince Eriksson that sometimes all you have to say to someone is, “Sorry about that,” whether you give a shit or not. But to De Palma, this is a world where “I’m sorry” might be the most useless thing you can ever say. Because there’s no real way to express the guilt you feel and there’s nothing different you ever could have ever done. The Morricone score always lingers above the characters, desperately searching for humanity, and even the brief track “Requiem for a Dead Cherry” as it’s called on the soundtrack album epitomizes the messiness of a dumb kid who was alive just a few seconds earlier, that he still deserves to be mourned. The big speech Fox gives about how it all maybe matters more than we ever know sounds like it belongs on a stage but it still matters. As the Morricone score tries to provide a benediction to the character in the final scene, his encounter with a girl who resembles her this time features her voice being dubbed by Amy Irving, a voice from De Palma past including starring in another film that ended with a bad dream, one that she was left having to find some way to move on from. Maybe that’s one way of trying to say it won’t be so easy. Because some bad dreams never end and this film’s version of a bad dream is the ultimate version of that. Brian De Palma’s films seemed to step back from such total darkness after this but the punishment that CASUALTIES OF WAR doles out for what’s been seen is harsh and deserved. And it may never be enough.
One of several excursions into drama that Michael J. Fox took in between FAMILY TIES seasons and before the BACK TO THE FUTURE sequels he doesn’t have the fierceness that Sean Penn has but he’s not supposed to. And his best moments are the wordless ones where his character looks totally lost, truly baffled by what’s happening. He’s going after someone who saved his life, after all, and you can feel him summoning all his courage to look some of these more powerful personalities in the eye, to not let them push him around. Sean Penn is the larger presence, after all, and I don’t know if he ever really looks like the twenty year-old that dialogue says he is but his ferocity comes full bore in the midst of all this madness as if this is the first time in his life that he’s found such clarity. In her only film Thuy Thu Le is as haunting as she needs to be, infusing someone we never get to know with the pure terror in her eyes that seems like nothing any human has ever experienced before. Don Harvey (also in THE UNTOUCHABLES, recognizable from DIE HARD 2 and even recently on THE DEUCE) as Clark is the most terrifying bully imaginable, John C. Reilly makes it seem like we’re witnessing the birth of Reed Rothchild as he keeps repeating how much he’d like a beer and John Leguizamo sells his quiet confusion and desperation with unexpected power in just a few short scenes.
There’s a friend of mine who earlier this year posted on Twitter about a screening of BLOW OUT she attended at Cinefamily, that place which is no more, and how enraged she became, “physically shaking with anger” as she put it, by people who were laughing at the end of the movie, a movie that ends with a scream as a woman is killed that the film’s main character is forever haunted by just like Pvt. 1st Class Erikksson is. She didn’t specify but I’m going to guess the people laughing were guys. And fuck ‘em. They don’t deserve De Palma. Hopefully if another movie theater ever opens in that place those people won’t show up but it feels like that laughter has grown over the past year throughout the real world, a world that CASUALTIES OF WAR wants to reflect as a reminder of the worst parts of humanity whether in war or elsewhere. With the Ennio Morricone score acting as a sort of benediction as the final lines of the film are spoken I don’t know if it really offers any closure beyond just saying, “It’s all going to be fine.” Which wasn’t exactly the takeaway of the nightmares at the end of films like DRESSED TO KILL or CARRIE. On the other hand, De Palma got to make the movie, so there is that. That may be the one real concession the film makes to the very concept of moving on, putting things in the past. I don’t know if that’s possible myself. The past happened and we’re haunted by it. It stays with us in our dreams as we wonder how things could have gone different. And there’s nothing that can ever be done, just as we never got that chance in the real world. But we still dream anyway. Right now as the New Year begins I guess we have to.
Posted by Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino at 11:27 PM
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One of the films that make me flinch just hearing the title mentioned. Your review gets to the heart of the powerful and deeply disturbing work. I've only viewed it once and feel no desire to return to the milieu it depicts.
Thank you so much for saying that, it's greatly appreciated. This was a title I long avoided writing about, for the obvious reasons. And now that I've done it, I doubt I'll be returning to it any time soon. Maybe at some point I'll have to but for now it's going to stay with me.
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