Saturday, October 11, 2014

A history of violence

Nicolas Cage has pondered violence and its consequences in two films so far in 2014 -- and they are not actually as far apart in quality as you might think.

Okay, Joe is a lot better than Rage. But Rage is also a lot better, in its own weird way, than your typical Nicolas Cage paycheck movie.

Both movies have something to say about how you can't fully leave a violent past behind you. Really. Even Rage.

Having made my introduction and let you decide if you're intrigued enough to continue, I will now also tell you that I'm going to SPOIL both of these movies in order to make my points. You've been warned.

Joe, described as David Gordon Green's comeback from the purgatory of dumb Hollywood comedies (what, no one saw the terrific Prince Avalanche last year???), has also been described as a comeback for Cage. In truth, Cage makes a movie like this every three or four years, something that reminds us that filmmakers at their peak still want to collaborate with the man, and he them.

It's very much in the mold of a movie like Jeff Nichols' Mud, in which a loner is trying to outrun his violent past. The title character in Mud is actually on the run, but Cage's Joe is just at the level of not seeming able to keep himself out of trouble -- even when he's made very noticeable strides toward pure, respectable legitimacy as the head of a crew whose job is to poison trees so the lumber companies can clear them. He'll be actually on the run if he can't control that hot temper. When he sees a teenager (Tye Sheridan) in jeopardy, it's enough to mix with the already combustible elements of his personality to point toward something fatal, for somebody.

Rage, on the other hand, feels a lot more like Cage's other choices from the past ten years, where he agrees to star alongside a handful of other nominally recognizable actors for a salary that is well over half the film's budget. If he's made this movie once, he's made it a thousand times. The salary-to-budget ratio may be even more lopsided in this one, as such elements as the lighting and the editing come across as particularly shoddy. Even the credits, something that shouldn't cost much at all, are remarkably dull.

In Rage, Cage is a former hoodlum who has taken himself out of the game and become the head of a respectable construction empire. Even though he's been retired from crime for 15 years, the logical suspicion is that his teenage daughter's kidnapping can be tied to evening an old score. So he calls on the services of two old criminal associates to knock some heads with him, and turn the criminal underworld of Mobile, Alabama (I guess there is such a thing) upside down in trying to find her.

There, now the real spoilers to follow.

The interesting thing about Rage, which sets it apart from your typical Cage fare, is that he does not succeed. At about the movie's 30-minute mark, they find the daughter's body. I suppose something like that might have been assumed from the movie's title, but I did not assume it. In your typical Cage kidnapped daughter movie (say, Stolen), he recovers her in the final scene, while also sending the kidnappers to some kind of water grave (or maybe impaled on a fence post). Not here. She's dead.

Rage shifts to more typical territory after that, where Cage scorches the earth to stir up long-dormant animosities between crews as the body count rises and rises. When each of his friends succumbs, I got more a sense of this movie's freedom from the strictures of your typical escapist action movie. This is not heading anywhere triumphant.

Then it happens: We learn that the death of his daughter had nothing to do with the Russian mob, as had been suspected for most of the movie. Except in the following way: A Russian gun he stole from a mobster he killed years ago (a Tokarev, which provided the movie's original title) was used in the killing, And that's because he kept it in a box in his closet, where his daughter knew about it. When she showed it off to two male friends to impress them on a night of drinking, it went off. Terrified and consumed with guilt, the friends trashed the house to make it look like a kidnapping, and relocated the body so it would not be found right away.

After all, when you had a history like Cage had, you'd believe that kind of narrative, wouldn't you?

I was all prepared to dismiss Rage until this point, but the revelation about what really happened genuinely surprised me. Of course, the dangers of too-accessible guns is not an entirely original message for a movie, but I did not expect it to be the message of this movie. I expected Cage to kick righteous ass in the just pursuit of the genuinely malevolent people who kidnapped and killed his daughter. Instead, he should have just been pursuing himself. He thought he got away with that unauthorized mob hit all those years ago, but it actually came back to roost for both him and the two friends who helped him pull it off -- in a poetically just fashion he could never have imagined.

It's all too fitting, then, when the movie ends with the Russians finally taking their vengeance on him for this recent spate of unprovoked violence. He has a poignant final call with his wife, in which he contemplates how his life would have been different if someone hadn't put a knife in his hand just before he committed his first kill. Then they sneak into his house and end him.

Look, it doesn't make this a great movie, but it does make it one of the most poorly constructed movies, from a technical standpoint, I've ever sort of liked. (Did I mention the awful lighting and editing? Yikes.)

I do find myself wondering if this movie might have been taken a bit more seriously if it had kept that original title Tokarev. See this post for a fuller discussion of that idea.

Thought I'd forgotten about Joe? So did I there for a moment.

Joe seems to require a bit less ink from me as it's unnecessary to try to convince you to see it. (Heck of a job I did, convincing you to see Rage by spoiling the entire movie.) But it explores the same theme of violence never staying buried, with a similar outcome.

The title character of Joe is also now a legitimate businessman after spending a life in and out of bar fights and prison. However, he still holds various slights close to the surface, and therefore isn't able to stay out of scrapes, even in his relatively clean current existence. He's got an ongoing beef with a local scumbug (played by a dead ringer for Peter Sarsgard), and just can't refrain from smashing the guy's head into the bar whenever he sees him.

What really gets his goat is not that various small-time big shots are still provoking him -- that's to be expected to some degree -- but that the cops are continuing to profile him based on previous bad behavior. They are quick to think the worst of him, to confuse him for the former incarnation of himself, so he makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy by leading them on high-speed chases and cold-cocking the occasional sheriff's deputy who assumed the worst about him. Was that sheriff's deputy truly wrong, Joe?

Like Cage in Rage (I should have told you that character's name -- Paul Maguire), Cage in Joe keeps getting just enough rope from the cops to hang himself. It's as if these cops are allowing both characters to be delivered to some preordained fate by leaving them unjailed for offenses that should have been easy incarcerations. This is how Joe is free to attend the skirmish that will be his last, but will also kind of be his redemption. Hearing that the teenage boy he's taken under his wing, who has been getting regular beatings from his father (a dead ringer for Ed Harris), is now trying to save his sister from his father's attempts to prostitute her out to Joe's rival for some booze money, Joe insinuates himself into the situation instead. In fact, it's an act of mercy on Joe's part that seals his fate, as he releases a tangential player -- and gets shot in the gut once that tangential player gets his gun from his truck. In real movies like Joe, a gut shot actually kills.

It would be tempting to wrap up this piece with some kind of overarching statement about violence and the state of Cage's career, but instead I'll end on a joke:

"Will Nicolas Cage have a hard time leaving violence behind him in his next movie?"

"Nope, he'll just get Left Behind."

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