Sunday, November 30, 2014
It's violent, it's bleak, and it's mesmerizing in places, but it falls short of Deliverance and not just because John Boorman's picture came out first. I think the reason for that is because Southern Comfort has more than twice as many characters in peril (nine vs four), and they aren't as well drawn. Plus, the defining characteristics of the squad members are how most of them are redneck assholes who do much to deserve the ire of the Cajuns. Still, as an action thriller centered on a clash of cultures, Southern Comfort is a tense story of survival.
The cast is packed with a who's-who of tough guy character actors. Peter Coyote is their leader, Fred Ward is the unstable violent one, and Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe play the relatively calm stable members. Marching through the bayou on an exercise and carrying mostly blanks, the squad gets lost and decides to steal some canoes they find. As a joke, one of the squad members uses his machine gun to fire blanks at some Cajuns they see on the other side of the river, and the Cajuns respond with lethal force. The rest of the movie writes itself as the Cajuns, who know the terrain better than these Weekend Warriors, pick off the guardsmen. There's also some in-fighting and one Cajun (Brion James) the men take captive when they assume him to be one of the killers.
The bayou setting is important because it allows Hill to obscure the Cajuns. Like the Viet Cong, they move more easily through the foliage than their targets, and our glimpses of them are brief, sometimes limited to a figure darting from behind one tree to another or in a long distance shot that we can't make out too well. The effect imbues the Cajuns with an omnipresence: they can be anywhere and attack at anytime. Some of the more chilling scenes aren't the death scenes, but the little clues the Cajuns leave behind for the guardsmen to find, such as the dead rabbits strung up or the line of bear traps in the water. In the final moments of the movie, the last two survivors of the squad end up in a Cajun village after hitching a ride on the back of a truck with a pair of pigs; in the village, two nooses are set up, and we can't be sure whether they're for the men or the pigs.
All this is tense and exciting, but I can't help but feel I'd appreciate the movie more if more sympathy had been generated for the imperiled guardsmen. Outside of Boothe and Carradine and maybe Coyote, they're a stupid, self-destructive, hypocritical, clumsy, racist, ill-prepared bunch, and for most of them, it's hard to feel bad about what happens to them. One character burns down a hut full of supplies and ammunition they desperately need for no reason other than Hill's story needs a crazy character. And of course, the black guy is the one smoking weed while on duty. Deliverance got the notion of unprepared city folk transgressing on the wilderness much better and gave Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox some dimensions, so while they made mistakes, the movie didn't beat you over the head with them.
Yet, other aspects of the film feel old-fashioned, more like a macho action picture than an unflinching gaze into the ugly side of war. It's a dirty, bloody job, but it takes real men to do it, and you better toughen up quickly because your crew members are counting on you. Fury is the marriage of these two sensibilities, and it's not entirely successful. It's hard to get pumped up when ghastly things happen to people, and it's difficult to accept the notion that some serious point or message is being delivered by the movie when the minimal plot, along with the characters, feel off-the-shelf. Still, in its depiction of action, atmosphere, and look, along with support from its able cast, Fury is an achievement.
World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle famously wrote from the "worm's eye view." He emphasized the grunts and their hard life as they slogged through the cold and mud, and Fury shares that perspective. There's no larger strategy or sense of what World War II was all about; Fury limits itself to the crew of a tank called "Fury" as they slog through the countryside trying to survive. Members include star Brad Pitt as Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier, Shia LaBeouf as Boyd "Bible" Swan," Michael Pena as Trini "Gordo" Garcia, and Jon Bernthal as Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis. Early on, they are joined by a rookie, clerk Norman Ellison played by Logan Lerman.
This event leads to the long-running intra-squad conflict. Norman feels he's not up for this job and wants out. Wardaddy tells he's got no choice and had better get his act together. Next time Norman freezes up, it might their own tank that goes up in flames. They got one job: kill Germans, and that's what Wardaddy is going to get Norman to do. Eventually, gradually, Norman finds himself fitting in.
Fury works better in its action scenes. Several American tanks drive through the countryside and through a town, their crews never sure when an ambush might happen. The first big battle shows the tanks advancing across a field as infantrymen hang behind them and use them as cover. Later, three (well, four) tanks square off against one German Tiger, and the Americans have to rely on speed, numbers, and maneuverability to get behind the Tiger to hit its weak point; when so many tanks in movies stay in one place and trade shots, these scenes display a strong, kinetic energy.
The final battle, as the men of the broken down Fury stand against hundreds of SS troops, goes on too long. It's hard to buy that five guys with dwindling ammunition and no mobility would be able to hold off an entire column of soldiers as long as they do, especially when the Germans have bazookas and sniper rifles (the Germans are shown carrying Panzerschrecks early, but they wait a long time to deploy them). The initial surprise - playing dead to lure in as many as possible - works, but once again, the scene goes on and on until its impact is muted. The sight of Brad Pitt manning a machine gun turret as explosions go off all around him feels more like the posturing of an action movie than a desperate fight to death, especially when he takes to taunting the German attackers.
To be better, Fury needs either a longer running length or a shorter one. A longer length would allow more time and space for the characters to breathe and develop, and a shorter length would have focused on the action and been snappier. The period details, along with the grit and grind of tank life, are strongly realized and make the movie worth watching, but the film could have been more.
Night Moves (1975), directed by Arthur Penn, finds Hackman once again as a detective, this time a private investigator on the trail of a has-been Hollywood actress's runaway daughter (a teenaged Melanie Griffith, not that that stops her from getting undressed fairly frequently), and he discovers things aren't as cut-and-dry as they appear to be. That's a similar setup to many film noirs over the years, dating back to the genre's golden period in the 1940s and 1950s. Hackman's PI, retired football player Harry Moseby, fashions himself as one of those old-time PIs like Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe: he has his own office, prefers his independence to working for a company, talks tough, doesn't mind getting his hands dirty, and doesn't like being played the fool by anyone. When he realizes there's some serious monkey business going on with this case, he won't rest until he gets to the bottom of it.
However, there is a difference between Moseby and those other detectives: he never really figures anything out. People wind up dead for reasons he can't quite grasp, and in the film's valedictory image, a wounded Moseby, stranded on a boat out on the ocean, can only circle endlessly, a metaphor for his ineffectiveness. Night Moves resembles Robert Altman's The Long Good Bye more than it does Roman Polanski's Chinatown; it's almost a parody of the detective genre by showing just how out of touch and outdated these old gumshoes really are, and Hackman's grit only enhances the point. Instead of getting closer to the truth, Moseby keeps missing it.
I'm sure if I watched the film three or four more times and took careful notes, I could piece everything together, but at least I don't share the same distraction Moseby has. This private eye, a professional who makes it his business to know other people's business, discovers his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) is cheating on him with a man named Marty Heller (Harris Yulin). Can you imagine the wife of a detective played by Humphrey Bogart cheating on him? Moseby tries to be the tough, hard-bitten detective of the Bogart mold, but he's not as good at it, professionally or personally.