“There is a natural order. The way things are meant to be. An order that says that the good guys always win, that you die when it’s your time, or when you have it coming. The ending is always happy, if only for someone else. Now at some point it became clear to us that our path had been chosen and we had nothing to offer the world, our options narrowing down to petty crime or minimum wage. So we stepped off the path and went looking for the fortune that we knew was looking for us.” —Ryan Phillippe, The Way Of The Gun
When The Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie made his directorial debut with The Way Of The Gun in 2000, many critics, myself included, were suffering from an acute case of Quentin Tarantino fatigue. It had nothing to do with Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, which were both stellar; it was all about the scads of wannabes who either learned the wrong lessons from Tarantino’s films, or weren’t terribly skilled at applying them. Every other week, it seemed like there was another overwritten, self-conscious, hyper-violent thriller about crooks who shoot off their mouths in roughly equal proportion to shooting their guns. What had once, with the arrival of Reservoir Dogs, seemed like the exciting resurgence of genre pulp on the arthouse scene had swiftly collapsed into ugly, hip nihilism and coagulating pools of blood on the floor.
So with those conditions in mind, I’m here to confess that my initial reaction to The Way Of The Gun wasn’t particularly reflective. “Here’s another one for the scrap heap,” I was probably thinking. Or “File under: Truth Or Consequences, N.M.” The world really didn’t need another tale about two gun-slinging crooks—and incidental philosophers—whose twist-filled destinies land them deep in Sam Peckinpah country. Add to that the unsparing depiction of violence against women (including an about-to-drop pregnant woman constantly negotiating a hail of gunfire) and a gallery of lowlifes separated only by degrees of venality, and the film doesn’t sound all that transcendent. And yet it’s stuck around, cockroach-like, in the years since. Does that make it a misunderstood masterpiece, or a bit of the old juvenile, dorm-room-ready ultra-violence like The Boondock Saints?
Revisiting the film for the first time since casually dismissing it eight years ago, I was more forgiving. McQuarrie’s Oscar-winning script for The Usual Suspects always struck me as overrated, a clever-for-its-own-sake whodunit that’s extremely well worked out, but essentially empty at its core. Everyone remembers Kevin Spacey as “Verbal” Kint and the breathtaking reveal of Keyser Söze’s real identity, but the screenplay was wholly devoted to its sophisticated mechanics; it might be fun, on repeat viewings, to see how McQuarrie laid out all the clues, but in the end, what was the point of it all? The Way Of The Gun has the same knotty density to the plotting, and that isn’t entirely a compliment; the pile-up of twists and turns and shifting motives isn’t pretty, and it winds up slowing the pace to a crawl at times, and distracting from the film’s larger ambitions. But those ambitions are there, and if you can shake off the perception that it’s another casualty of the Tarantino Age, the film actually belongs more to the tradition of the revisionist Westerns of the ’70s, when heroes lost their white hats, and frontiers were either hopelessly corrupt, or disappearing altogether.
The Way Of The Gun opens with perhaps its most famous/notorious setpiece. Outside a suburban dive bar—we know this because it’s actually called Dive Bar—a couple of young hoodlums loiter around a Mercedes in the parking lot across the street. The alarm goes off. The owner of the car, a carrot-topped doofus who’s still waiting in line outside the club, pleads with them to go away. His girlfriend, played by Sarah Silverman, isn’t nearly so diplomatic. She showers them with profane invective and tells them her boyfriend is going to fuck them up, all while goading the reluctant sap into a confrontation he knows full well he’s going to lose, and lose badly. Inevitably, Silverman and her boyfriend stand toe-to-toe with the two men as the crowd gathers around them, gearing up for a fight. Here’s how the NSFW scene plays out:
The scene establishes several important things to know about the movie: 1. That dude who says, “Shut that cunt’s mouth or I’ll come over there and fuck-start her head,” then punches her repeatedly in the face? He’s the hero, and easily one of the film’s most sympathetic characters. 2. The rules have changed. The notion of chivalry—in this case, of fighting for a woman’s honor—is dead. That doesn’t mean that the world is completely without codes of honor and decency, but it’s a much colder place. 3. There’s going to be an excessive amount of violence, a lot of it pressing well past the boundaries of good taste, and the sum gained by it will be a number less than zero. As we’ll discover later, the grand scheme concocted by the two scuzzy hoodlums in the scene, Parker (Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), never had a chance of working. The only question is just how dreadfully it can go wrong.
Parker and Longbaugh, incidentally, are the real last names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, though McQuarrie’s interpretation is quite a bit cruder than the handsome outlaw buddies made famous by Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Resigned to a life of petty crime, Parker and Longbaugh get the idea for their big score in a sperm-donation clinic, where they hear about a surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) who’s collecting a cool million for carrying a rich couple’s baby. The plan is simple: Kidnap the mother, hold her for the multi-million-dollar ransom her benefactors can surely afford, and ride off into the sunset. What they don’t realize—and lack the fastidiousness to find out—is that the millionaires in question, the Chidducks (a ruthless grey fox played by Scott Wilson, and his younger and perhaps more diabolical wife, played by Kristin Lehman), are well-connected in the criminal underworld. In their first appearance next to Robin, the surrogate, they look less like parents-to-be than vultures coveting the organs of their unborn child.
The first thing Parker and Longbaugh discover is that Robin is extremely well-protected, flanked at all times by a pair of bodyguards (Taye Diggs and the always awesome Nicky Katt) who behave like Secret Service agents on presidential detail. The only reason the kidnappers succeed in snatching Robin is because she wants to get away just as badly as they to take her; the Chidducks creep her out, and after she saw her baby-to-be in an ultrasound, her motherly instincts kicked in hard. After a major shootout and getaway, Parker and Longbaugh peel off with Robin and head south to a seedy motel over the Mexican border, where they put down stakes while negotiating with the Chidducks. The Chidducks, never intending to pay the ransom to these amateurs (the film’s Netflix description refers to them, aptly, as “criminal microminds”), bring in heavy artillery in the form of veteran bagman Joe Sarno, whom a superb James Caan plays with the unwavering confidence of a true professional. In the last of a series of brilliantly written exchanges between Sarno and Longbaugh inside and outside the motel cocina, Sarno makes him an offer he has to refuse:
The spirit of the friendly conversation between these adversaries recalls the great meeting between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Michael Mann’s Heat, when detective and thief chat over coffee. The two men, Sarno and Longbaugh, are natural adversaries with more in common than not. Sarno offers Longbaugh and his partner a million to make the exchange right then, knowing that they’ll refuse, because bagmen are double-crossers by trade. So they dutifully go through the motions, but mostly wind up shooting the shit for a while; under different circumstances, it’s possible to imagine Sarno bringing the younger man under his wing and teaching him the ins and outs of his profession. Here, though, he can only leave him with the promise they’ll meet again under less-hospitable circumstances: When Sarno says, “Until that day…,” he means the day months or years down the line when he has a pillow over Longbaugh’s head and he’s holding a revolver. Because that’s how this whole messy affair is going to end.
The Way Of The Gun has its share of action setpieces, including a Wild Bunch showdown at a Mexican brothel that turns unrelentingly (and irredeemably) ugly, but it’s the many quiet conversations and philosophizing sessions that set the film apart. Parker’s voiceover narration, quoted at the beginning of this article, frames the film as a meditation on the criminal impulse, and how it starts as a rejection of the “natural order” of things. In short, a rejection of God himself. This is heavy stuff—some might say pretentious—for a twisty little genre film, but McQuarrie has the ambition to question the outlaw spirit and even sympathize with guys like Parker and Longbaugh who reject their proscribed role in the world. Clearly, they aren’t cut out to be wage slaves, and they lack the resources to be well-buffeted scoundrels like the Chidducks, so they head down the rockier (and almost certainly fatal) path.
McQuarrie’s dialogue sings with quotable bits of pulp, but what’s surprising about it—and different from the Tarantino also-rans—is how often it circles back to philosophical ideas, and probes the minds of those who choose to do wrong. Take Longbaugh, trying to explain to Robin how to play the card game Hearts: “The object of Hearts is to play the safest game possible and finish with the least amount of points. A heart is the only thing of value. If you have one, get rid of it.” In the game of life, he implies, the winners don’t have hearts; they’re the ruthless ones who have the capital to hire bodyguards and bagmen to unleash hell on their adversaries. Parker and Longbaugh are not good men by any conventional definition, but they aren’t heartless, either, and they’re playing a game where the victors are the most venal. In the end, these fatalistic outlaws try to “shoot the moon” and wind up getting shot.
Next week: The Room
April 2: The Iron Giant
April 9: Jan Svankmajer’s Alice
April 16: Spirited Away
April 23: The Triplets Of Belleville
April 30: Millennium Actress