Wim Wenders 1997 crapterpiece The End Of Violence surveys a United States where the government covertly spies on its own people in the name of protecting them. It anticipates a paranoid national climate of free-floating fear and dread where people are willing to sacrifice liberty for a greater sense of security. The tragic events of September 11th and the rise of the Patriot Act should lend the film an air of uncanny prescience. So why does Wenders' moody meditation on violence feel less like a profound act of pop-art prophecy than the paranoid ravings of a street-corner lunatic? Probably because while Wenders gets a few crucial things right, he gets nearly everything else hilariously, unbelievably wrong, particularly human psychology, violence, movies, American culture, and (oh dear Lord) gangsta rap.
Sometimes it takes a foreign set of eyes to discern great truths about our country. And sometimes it takes a dirty furriner to craft a portrayal of our culture so bizarrely off base it borders on bad science fiction. The End Of Violence holds a funhouse mirror up to our culture's obsession with violence as entertainment that's distorted, grotesquely exaggerated, and nearly unrecognizable.
Wenders' film asks what it imagines is a deep and relevant question: how do violence-merchants like Jerry Bruckheimer and Joel Silver sleep at night? I'm guessing the answer is "soundly, and with 19-year-old high-priced call girls on either side." It follows in the footsteps of countless bong-fueled college conversations about how isn't it, like, weird or something, how we love to see violence on the big screen when it's committed by giant robots or movie stars with the personality, demeanor, and brawn of giant robots yet we act all traumatized when someone beats dear old Aunt Tilly upside the head with a crowbar in real life? Isn't that, like, an incredible oxymoron or something? Uh, not really.
The End Of Violence centers on a gruff, well-compensated Hollywood super-producer (Bill Pullman at his most rasptastic) who decides he needs to be less like Don Simpson and more like Jesus Christ after nearly getting murdered by a pair of sloppy contract killers. In pretentious death-of-the-soul movies like this, there's a direct correlation between spiritual emptiness and technology usage. So it's all too telling that Pullman's high-powered vulgarian is introduced alternately communicating through a headset, cell phone, online video conferencing, and football-sized cordless phone. If Pullman were any more removed from his feelings, his family, and nature, he'd also be manning a CB radio ("ten four good buddy, looks like the missus got herself a killer case a that, whaddya call it, existential ennui?") and operating a pirate radio station.
While manning his interpersonal battle station, Pullman gets distressing news from one of his underlings: someone has dropped a 400-page file in Pullman's email! On The intern-nets! Using various tubes! Not much later, Pullman is nearly murdered by a pair of goons and goes on the lam as an anonymous everyman. After surviving his close call with death, Pullman begins behaving like a hard-boiled gumshoe in a Mickey Spillane paperback. While recuperating, Pullman rasps, "There's nothing quite like a couple of killers with a shotgun to your head to make you pay attention." So Pullman gives up the Hollywood good life to toil as a humble gardener in a Hispanic neighborhood. He's like a Hollywood Jesus who came back from the death solely to finish his work as a carpenter.
Pullman continues to dispense bite-sized nuggets of hard-boiled wisdom throughout the film. Here are some other choice selections from my forthcoming book Everything I Need To Know I Learned From Bill Pullman's The End Of Violence Narration: "There are no enemies or strangers. Just a strange world." "Perversely: that's one thing I think I can define now. It's when things are upside down and you start to like them that way." "The thing about a sudden attack is you never know where it's coming from." (also, it happens suddenly and involves an attack of some sort) "I guess sometimes your friends are really your enemies. Sometimes your enemies are your friends. Sometimes they're one and the same. Who can you trust? Reminds me of what a prick I was." Everything is a bit of a niche title to be sure, but I think hopefully it'll help some people. Blow some minds, liberate some squares, that kind of thing.
The botched assassination of Pullman is linked to a mysterious FBI program run by sad-eyed ex-NASA man Gabriel Byrne that spies furtively on the citizens of Los Angeles from countless unseen electronic eyes scattered throughout the city. Throw in cabana boys in skimpy bathing suits and you have something out of J. Edgar Hoover's wildest fantasies.
Even before Pullman's mysterious disappearance, wife Andie McDowell seems to be suffering a terminal case of art-film ennui, a condition characterized by lurching about in a depressed, vaguely narcotized haze and babbling spacily about how being married to Bill Pullman is like being a sentient rocketship with him at the controls. McDowell stares vacantly into space, mopes about, and cries–first a single perfect tear, then a whole bunch of them. This is somehow supposed to be distinguishable from McDowell's usual performances. End Of Violence affords ample time to contemplate the enigma that is Andie McDowell's face: perfect, icy, remote, empty.
In Violence, people constantly undergo astonishing transformations. Pullman impulsively decides that fame, riches, and power are no substitute for poverty and anonymity. McDowell undergoes a similarly dramatic transformation. In Pullman's absence, she morphs from a spacey and powerless Ophelia into a cold-blooded, iron-willed Lady MacBeth eager to assume leadership of her missing husband's empire.
But these transformations pale to the spiritual metamorphosis of the film's most deliciously ridiculous, wonderfully implausible character, a mustachioed gangsta rap mogul, producer, and rapper played by K. Todd Freeman, a respected theater actor and director woefully ill-equipped to play a sneering studio gangsta.
Freeman's character is clearly modeled on Dr. Dre, yet he looks and dresses like a smooth-jazz musician, is clearly pushing 40, employs slang that hasn't been current since they stopped making break-dancing exploitation movies, and says things like "you know my shit is fat. It's hot, man. You gonna be using it? Or are you going to be losing it?"
Freeman's character grows ever more ridiculous as the film proceeds. After Pullman gets his multicultural pals to prank call Freeman and urge him to abandon violence in his lyrics, he experiences a profound existential crisis (they seem to be sweeping the greater Los Angeles area) and delivers a patchouli-scented spoken word piece about how, like, violence is played out and wack and that being peaceful is where it is at.
McDowell is understandably so impressed with Freeman's "Poet A/Poet B/Oh what, pray tell what, did the blind Po-Et C?" routine that she takes him as a lover. The End Of Violence is a movie about the emptiness of popular culture from a guy who apparently hasn't picked up a magazine or listened to the radio in fifteen years. It's a measure of how badly Wenders and screenwriter Nicholas Klein miss the mark that the intentionally bad dialogue of the film-within-a-film Pullman is producing is indistinguishable from the unintentionally bad dialogue found throughout rest of the film. Below are some particularly choice zingers: "Sometimes a good old-fashioned catastrophe can really cut to the heart of the matter." "I have a yearning for life. Real. Life." "What's going on with me is that you're trying infect me with your old-fashioned cynicism."
As a downbeat mood piece and allegory, the film has a certain hypnotic power. As is generally the case with Wenders' films, the soundtrack is elegant and the cinematography superb. From a story and psychological perspective, the film is so perversely upside-down that I almost began to like it that way. But its singular fusion of art house pretension and hardboiled posturing seems completely removed from the world it's supposed to be commenting on.
"Why do I make films in America? I should have stayed in Europe." ponders frustrated filmmaker/Wenders surrogate Udo Kier late in the film. Despite Wenders' scattered successes on this side of the pond, it's the one line in Violence that rings absolutely true.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco