THE EVIL THAT MEN DO: Reviews of Animal Kingdom, The American and Mesrine, Part II: Public Enemy No. 1

Not long after seeing Animal Kingdom I was watching White Heat, the classic James Cagney film of 1949, the one where he is quoted as saying ‘[t]op of the word, ma” when he really says, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world”. Margaret Wycherly plays Ma, one of the great gangster villainesses in American cinema (for my friends who have no idea what I’m talking about, White Heat and Wycherly were both satirized in the third Naked Gun movie). But it’s doubtful that Wycherly holds a candle to Jacki Weaver as Janine Cody, the loving mother and grandmother who would regretfully, but very calmly and with all determination, have her grandson murdered if it meant preventing one of her sons from going to jail. The only scenes more chilling than that are the ones where she kisses her sons full on the lips a bit too deliberately, and then wipes them off, as if that would actually make the incestuous implication go away. It’s a fascinating study of pure evil, or actually the banality of evil, and Weaver plays it for all it’s worth.

The movie has a darkly comic opening in which Jacki’s grandson Joshua Cody, played by newcomer James Frecheville, watches a game show while he sits beside a woman who has passed out, or so it seems. It’s not long before some EMT’s arrive and it turns out that the woman is his mother and has actually OD’d, with Joshua able to answer all the EMT’s questions with the sort of detailed answers about a mother a teenager shouldn’t have to know. And to top it all off, as the EMT’s take his mother away, Joshua finds it almost impossible to stop watching the game show on TV. The rest of the movie is equally funny and depressing in the same doses. Joshua is picked up by his grandmother Janine and taken to live with his uncles, a group of bank thieves that are high on the list of a special police section who have taken to just killing their perps when they get frustrated at not being able to convict them the old fashion way. The family members themselves are the sort Ma Barker would have loved: a drug addict; a sociopath who has the hots for underaged girls; a third who starts falling apart the minute he ends up in jail; you know—Mama’s boys all. Joshua has no choice but to get in over his head until he has to take control in a final scene that is as devastating as it is surprising and makes a perfect bookend to the opening.

Animal Kingdom is one of the best movies of the year. The ensemble cast is first rate (though Guy Pearce seems to be around for no other reason than that he’s Guy Pearce and he’s from Australia). It’s one of those where no one is likeable, but everybody is fascinating. The script, by the director David Michod, is sharp and mesmerizing and the story coagulates with tension. One could question a late scene in which Joshua decides not to turn in a corrupt cop, but take matters into his own hands (he doesn’t really seem to have the brains, but maybe the family genes are finally kicking in). But that’s the sort of objection that makes my friends annoyed with me, so I’m not sure I’d worry too much about it.

I found The American both incredibly fascinating and incredibly boring at the same time; an odd response, perhaps, but apparently when I tell my friends that, many of them are in full agreement. The fascination comes from the strong, but intensely quiet, so quiet it sounds like a foghorn, mood created by the director Anton Corbijn, who also made the wonderful movie Control about singer Ian Curtis of Joy Division. The American proves that Corbijn can work equally well in color and black and white. The fascination is also helped by the setting, a smallish Italian town built on a hill that is full of twisting and turning streets, odd thoroughfares and more than enough dark corners to please any director of film noir. Much of the film does little more than follow lead George Clooney as Jack/Edward, a paid assassin, as he wanders the streets waiting for his fate to meet him at any moment around the next corner. There’s one incredible shot of the city from above showing a town that looks like one of those mazes that mice are put into when they are experimented upon. Not long ago, I got into Italian giallo films and one thing that struck me is that they all had these incredible settings that were characters in and of themselves, as if the location was found first and then a story was spun around it spiderlike. I’m not so sure that the same thing didn’t happen here.

The reason I found it incredibly boring is that I knew exactly what was going to happen ages before it happened. The screenplay by Rowan Jaffe has almost no plot turn that isn’t a cliché and no twist that hasn’t been telegraphed by Western Union, with only one jolting moment at the end that took me by surprise. The plot follows Clooney as he is ambushed while taking some time off from killing people. He flees to Rome while his boss tries to find out who is responsible for what happened. He is given an assignment (one of those last assignments that one only sees in movies), to help a beautiful young assassin by making a weapon for her that she is to use on her next gig. Now, if you can’t tell what happens from those three sentences, you have no one to blame but yourself. The whole spy versus spy conflict is straight out of the John Le Carre and Graham Greene school of burnt out secret agent men. In fact, one conversation Clooney has with a prostitute in which he tells her she doesn’t need to fake an orgasm is quite close to a conversation that Richard Gere gives a prostitute in the movie The Honorary Counsel, based on a Greene novel, down to the prostitute claiming she isn’t faking an orgasm, she really feels it (which in the world of Greene means that a woman is in love; Greene always had a touch of chauvinism about him).

One could also have doubts about the world view inherent in this story. It’s a world in which a mysterious organization that is never identified gets away with murder on a regular basis. No one knows who they are and none of them are ever caught. The police are no more than a siren heard in the background. In other words, it’s one of those paranoid government fantasies that one only sees in movies like Enemy of the State and Shooter, in which some black ops organization has omnipotent power, but still can’t keep the liberals out of office. It may work dramatically, but it’s a little hard to take it seriously, especially in a country that couldn’t kill Castro when it wanted.

But Jaffe is trying to do more than make a thriller. He also wants to explore the nature of redemption of the existence of God in a world that seems cold and heartless, and I’m all for that. Clooney is rather good at these moody blues introspective roles and his worn out good looks help carry things along. It ends with Clooney’s death, but with his soul, symbolized by a butterfly, wafting up to heaven. I have to be honest and say though I like the idea, I’m not convinced that Clooney’s character earned his salvation or his place above. He promises the prostitute to take her away with him, but surely that’s not quite equal to all the dead bodies he’s left in his path.

Mesrine, Part II: Public Enemy #1 is even better than Mesrine, Part I: Killer Instinct. To recap, Vincent Cassel plays Jacques Mesrine, the John Dillinger of France whose career of crime lasted into the 1960’s and like Dillinger, he managed to get a reputation of being a Robin Hood without ever giving to the poor. Again, Mesrine is all Cassel, a sociopath with delusions of romance, and who was famous for being charming. And Cassel is even more charming in this installment, in spite of the fact that he is forty pounds heavier, sometimes shaves part of his head to disguise himself and has a ridiculous sideburn/mustache/beard combo (though in his defense, so did everybody in those days). It also has some of the first part’s faults, like a plot that doesn’t seem to think it needs to set up characters or situations as it jumps and weaves from episode to episode with a certain anarchic structure. It does falter a bit toward the end as the chase scenes get a tad redundant and Mesrine tries to justify his sociopathology by claiming to be a revolutionary who only targets banks in order to bring the government down (and I have the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge in my pocket); there are actually times when you think the film’s creators (director Jean-Francois Richet, writers Abdel Raouf Dafri and Richet, and Cassel himself whose baby this is) might actually be buying it. The supporting case is fine, though none can equal Cassel’s bulldozing performance like Gerard Depardieu did in the first part. Even Mathieu Amalric, one of my favorite French actors, gets left behind in Cassel’s wake.

So tell me what you think.

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