Attempting to justify JFK in anthropological terms, Oliver Stone called it a “countermyth.” The real countermyth of recent American cinema, however, is the one advanced by Quentin Tarantino and his replicants. Both Stone and more traditional Hollywood mythmakers portray an America where great men shape their world and intricate designs are brought to fruition. In Tarantino’s America, however, everyone is a small-timer and plans are just something else to go wrong.
Both Hard Eight and Blood and Wine are set in Tarantinovilles: the former in Reno, the tawdry frontier town where gambling and prostitution are the major industries, and the latter in Miami, at the leaky edge of the empire where Latin American chaos infiltrates. Anything can happen in these places, but whatever it is will probably be paltry and bad.
Named for a “big-balled” craps bet, Hard Eight assembles a quartet of losers, beginning with the introduction of John (John C. Reilly) and Sydney (Philip Baker Hall). The former has just lost his stake in a desperate attempt to gamble his way to solvency; the latter is a longtime lounge lizard who teaches his slow-witted new protégé that such all-or-nothing gambits are ill advised. Taking John back to a casino, Sydney shows him how to create the illusion of being a high-roller, thus winning a casino-hotel’s most reliable payoff: a free room and meals.
Two years later, still living off Reno’s scraps, Sydney and John have developed a father-and-son relationship. It’s threatened, however, by John’s new friendship with Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson), a thuggish casino security officer. Sydney, who cultivates a slightly musty ideal of gentlemanliness, doesn’t like Jimmy’s style, especially his vulgar way of referring to such cocktail waitresses as Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow). Sydney likes Clementine, a part-time hooker of less than dazzling intelligence, but she’s not quite so classy as the older man would like. When she asks, “Do you want to fuck me?,” Sydney demurs.
Instead, Sydney orchestrates a relationship between Clementine and John. Combined, the couple’s limited brain power seems only to diminish, and the two are soon in trouble. (That’s bloody, small-timer trouble, of course.) Sydney has to bail them out, only to be presented with another crisis. The latter reveals one of those dark secrets that a guy like the mysterious, manipulative Sydney would naturally have. But Sydney can handle any problem; in his old-fashioned mobster way, he’s John’s guardian angel. (Hard Eight’s alternate title would have to be Touched by a Gangster.)
First-time feature writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson developed Hard Eight at the Sundance Institute, naturally. Both its themes and locations meet Sundance’s requirement for the new American naturalism, which seems principally to involve petty criminals west of the Rockies who would be having crises of faith if only they were smart enough to know what those are. Neither as grandiose as the genre’s biggest flop (Promised Land) nor as stylized as its biggest success (Pulp Fiction), Hard Eight is agreeably terse and detached. It doesn’t risk trying to make its marginal characters seem important. This stance saves the film from becoming bombastic, but it begs the question of why Anderson wanted to make a film about these people in the first place.
Since it’s the fifth film Jack Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson have made together (that’s including the Monkees’ Head, where Nicholson was employed as writer), Blood and Wine is something of a big deal. Its central characters, however, are the requisite nobodiesjust a coupla white guys hanging around stealing.
Officially, Alex (Nicholson) is in the upscale wine business, but he’s managed to run that business into the ground, losing a lot of his wife Suzanne’s money in the process. Suzanne (Judy Davis, slumming again, but at least in a movie that’s not as bad as Absolute Power) is understandably angry, but not just about the money. Alex is also a liar and a womanizer, and he has an ugly relationship with Suzanne’s son by a previous marriage, Jason (Stephen Dorff), a charismatically scruffy shark-fishing enthusiast who considers his stepdad’s alleged business too 9-to-5.
Looking to turn his finances around, Alex has decided to use his business as a means to case the homes of his rich clientele. He’s found what seems like an easy job, heisting an elaborate diamond necklace from the home of a couple who are about to leave on a yacht trip. They live in one of Miami’s security-gated complexes, but Alex has been romancing the family’s nanny, Gabrielle (Jennifer Lopez), and expects her to let him in. Then he and his partner, choking, chain-smoking jewel-thief Victor (Michael Caine), will crack the easy safe, sell the necklace, and live an easy life somewhere without an extradition treaty.
Things don’t go exactly as planned, but the two thieves do end up with the necklace. Alex fails to make a clean getaway, however, and soon Suzanne and Jason are involved. Meanwhile, Jason finds himself attracted to Gabrielle, unaware that she’s intimate with dad. Though Alex and Jason are not genetically related, the “blood” of the movie’s title surely refers to this incestuous rivalry as much as to the significant amount of blood spilled (or spit up by Victor) as the aftermath of the crime becomes more and more sloppy and confounding.
Written by Nick Villiers (who shares a story credit with Rafelson) and Alison Cross, this is not supposed to be a thriller. It’s a chamber piece about five trapped people: Alex and Victor want money, Suzanne wants to save her marriage, Jason wants his real father, and Gabrielle wants to establish herself in a country where she lacks legal residency. Most of them are doomed, as soundtrack composer Michal Lorenc makes all too clear by draping the proceedings in elegiac strings from the beginning. That’s just one of the cues that makes Blood and Wine anticlimactic: The characters seem defeated even before the plot gets around to defeating them.
When people like Rafelson and Nicholson originally adapted the tradition of the film-noir anti-hero to the ’60s, they were making a bold break with Hollywood and reflecting Vietnam/Watergate-era disillusionment with the country’s giddy postwar boom. These days, however, the anti-hero is just another creep in an age when mainstream studios casually make movies in which the president of the United States is a murderer. The notion that everyone is guilty is no longer provocative, or even interestingit’s just Internet folklore.
Shot mostly in the uncharted darkness of sunny Florida, often with teeming compositions featuring extras in the foreground, Blood and Wine is reasonably stylish. What it lacks is urgency and motivation. Well before the perfunctory ending, it’s clear that the characters are just going through their paces. They’re not fated by their tragic flaws, but simply because the filmmakers couldn’t think of anything else.CP