Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mel Gibson does not hate Mexicans

Or so would be my conclusion after last Thursday's viewing of Get the Gringo, in which he surrounds himself almost entirely by Mexican actors and actresses.

Then again, it could just be because he's Catholic and so are they. 

Having grabbed your attention with that lightning rod headline, now I want to bait and switch you and talk about what I really would have called this post if I hadn't been engaging in a cheap ploy to grab your attention:

Memorable settings: Get the Gringo

A famous person once said that there's nothing new under the sun, and that famous person certainly had a point. We see it all the time in the movies: things under the sun that do not feel particularly new.

Setting aside the obvious examples like familiar narratives and plot structures, one thing you don't see very often is a truly new setting. Even in movies set on other planets, those other planets usually bear a striking resemblance to other other planets you've seen in other movies.

So I was glad to say that Get the Gringo, which Gibson co-wrote along with director Adrian Grunberg, does indeed give us a setting that's quite unlike anything I've seen before.

It isn't telling you too much to reveal that Gibson's character gets arrested in Mexico in the film's first five minutes. His next destination is a prison, but it's not the kind of Mexican prison you may be imagining as you read these words. If I were to read those words myself without seeing Get the Gringo, I'd imagine something not hugely different from an American prison. Except that where the American prison might have this kind of hospital-like immaculate quality, the Mexican prison would be overrun with rats and have toilets that hadn't been cleaned in five years.

That's not some kind of expression of cultural supremacy, mind you -- it's a recognition of the kind of thing Hollywood traditionally does to "Mexican up" a location. Well, this location is plenty "Mexicaned up," but in a way I hadn't expected.

Essentially, the prison that functions as the main location for Get the Gringo is somewhere between a noisy bazaar and a small city. There are no individual cells. The entire prison population is poured into a large open space in which dozens or even hundreds of examples of a fledgling economic system have arisen: convenience stores, restaurants, the shack you visit to get your heroin fix. It's essentially like a giant walled-in ghetto, only distinguishable as a prison at all because the walls are policed by men with sniper rifles, and there are various access points where guards can check in visitors (and even check out inmates, under certain circumstances, as we soon discover). What makes it seem even more like a slice of everyday life in a really, really poor area is that it's not just a bunch of men doing time for their crimes. Whole families live in this prison. In at least one case we learn about, both parents were convicted of a crime so the child just came along too. In some other cases, even fewer members of the family than that may be guilty.

There's something oddly liberating about this environment, in a sense. If you have some money -- which it seems that everyone does -- you can just lounge in a cafe with a soda and a taco. There are plenty of sights and sounds to occupy you, especially on the weekends, when visitors are allowed to freely enter the prison for what amounts to mass conjugal visits. (In one of the film's many examples of opportunistic economy, we see men charging kids to go inside a tent and have sex with each other. One of the more hilarious moments in this setting involves a half-dozen tents, sitting basically in the middle of the main flow of traffic, grooving back and forth as their occupants get it on and a burly man stands outside to prevent them from being interrupted. A paying customer has earned certain privileges, you see.)

And if you do have enough money, you can even secure yourself a location to sleep -- a "location" may be more of an accurate description than a true bed. But at least a paid-for location to which you claim some right in the skewed but still recognizable morality of this particular world.

Of course, it's doubtful you would actually choose to live there, even if you were penniless and this were as good a patch of ground to sleep on as any. With such a teeming mass of people and so little a structured attempt to differentiate them, you'd be a sitting duck to anyone who has a grudge against you. Murders would seem to carry even fewer consequences within the walls of this kind of prison, and even if they did, you'd have to have prison guards who weren't corrupt to hold the guilty parties accountable. More than likely, a payoff would leave the guilty party in the clear, and some of these inmates claim a pretty enviable standard of living as a result of their success at manipulating the prevailing economic system.

The long and the short of it is, this makes a very interesting environment for essentially only a single gringo (Gibson) to attempt to survive and thrive. I read a review that describes his character as "resourceful," and that's where the setting truly comes into play. We are learning the rules of this unruly environment just as he is, so it's interesting to see him figure out how to work the place to his advantage -- and we wonder if we might rise to the occasion under those circumstances and do the same thing for ourselves.

Anyway, Get the Gringo is worth a watch. It's clever and funny and gripping, all at the right moments, creating just the right tone to carry us through. And if you weren't that satisfied with Mel Gibson's previous attempt at a second comeback, last year's oddball The Beaver, this one should deliver a lot closer to the kind of thing you were looking for.

I should stop for a moment to acknowledge what I hope goes without saying: that Gibson does not deserve our good will. It's hard for me to even keep straight all the reasons we should despise him, though they are all valid.

Fortunately, this exciting and fun little movie comes to us pretty much guilt-free. It failed to get a theatrical release, although it did play in something like nine cities on exactly one night. So if you're getting it on Netflix streaming, you aren't really contributing to its financial success in any meaningful way, are you?

And Gibson can still be a compelling screen presence, as he is here -- seeming to be having more fun than he's had in a decade. (Speaking of liberating, maybe knowing that the whole world hates you gives you a certain freedom just to try to enjoy yourself.)

You could choose not to see Get the Gringo because you want to stick it to Mel, and I would support you in that decision. Or, you could just leave your reservations at the door and choose to be entertained.


Sandy Shaw said...

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Nick Prigge said...

"It's a recognition of the kind of thing Hollywood traditionally does to 'Mexican up' a location."

I truly hope that's in the Hollywood Production Designer Manual. "Mexicaning Up."

Nice review of this one. It makes me intrigued to check it out. I might have passed otherwise.