Going Wrong

Michael Wood

It’s always risky to think of films as signs of the times, when they are mainly signs of what someone thought would sell. It’s particularly risky when the films manifestly see themselves as signs of the times, heavy-breathing comments on the way we live now. These three new thrillers are all worth watching, but they are a little over-ripe, and they make you feel you might have got the wrong door, and gone to church instead of the movies.

‘It’s like a morality car wash,’ Robert De Niro says in voice-over, adding that Las Vegas is to Americans what Lourdes is to Europeans: a place where you look for miracles to take your pains and blemishes away. You dream of healing and you leave lots of money behind. Scorsese’s Casino is full of shots of money in close-up, in its solid, countable form, thousands of coins, thousands of bills, swilling through slot-machines and off gaming-tables into a tiny armoured back room. Also into the pockets of the people counting it, into the palms of dealers, call girls, security men, parking attendants, everyone whose co-operation needs to be purchased; and above all into a suitcase taken onto a plane by a lonely, forlorn-looking man who delivers it to a group of ageing Italians on the East Coast of America.

De Niro explains all this, with Scorsese’s assistance, as if he were a character in a Godard movie. He introduces people to us, the camera picks them up, and the people glance at us, not unduly troubled by the interruption, but certainly wondering who we are. De Niro shares the narration with Joe Pesci, who informs us, over a wonderful shot of Las Vegas at night as a small puzzle of light surrounded by blackest darkness, how important the desert is to the gambling life. The screen turns to daylight, the camera is on a plane flying over the desert, a seemingly infinite expanse of dusty scrub. This is where you bury everything that needs to be buried, Pesci tells us. Only you need to make sure you dig your hole in advance, because the ground is hard and takes time to dig, and if you’re slow about your business out there people could see you at it, and you would end up having to dig more holes.

De Niro is Sam Rothstein, an Eastern gambler whom the old Italians have made manager of a Las Vegas casino. Joe Pesci is another Easterner, a hard man, De Niro’s muscle in the old days, who comes out West to seek his fortune. The camera likes both of them, and they both manage to get a lot of emotional energy out of a range that runs from tough to very tough. There is plenty of wit in the way their narrating voices interchange and connect, and the many songs in the soundtrack of the film, to say nothing of an excerpt from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, offer a constant, ironic commentary, suggesting we have been here before, although we didn’t quite know how intricate and artful and ruthless it all was. When Sharon Stone appears, the song ‘Heart of Stone’ plays faintly in the background. When much later she falls apart and dies in seedy disgrace, the soundtrack treats us to ‘The House of the Rising Sun’. Over the final credits, Hoagy Carmichael talks his way through ‘Stardust’. It’s not just that we are in a world of clichés and old songs: it’s that these very clichés and old songs, with their invariable, unexplained images of failure and decline, point us to the movie’s own rather touching bewilderment. It doesn’t know why things go wrong – only that they always do. Casino is a stylish, sharp-looking film, with a good deal of mind and energy, and some impressive acting. What it hasn’t got is a plot or a point, so it feels like three hours of exposition.

Casino shares with Michael Mann’s Heat the curious contemporary sense that your really classy crime movie doesn’t have to worry about suspense or story. It’s as if The Godfather, or rather its retrospective status, had made the genre so respectable that we need to be a little bored by its more ambitious examples. Excitement and adventure are for merely sensational films, or for television. The excitement and adventure of The Godfather itself, perhaps, represented only an impurity or a wrinkle, part of the rawness of the early stages of the game. These new films are essays, brooding considerations of the big questions, like why success can only turn into nightmare, why there are no heroes any more, why obsessive men can’t stay married, and why the truest friendship is a violent, submerged affection for your enemy. I don’t mean this is (necessarily) what Scorsese and Mann thought they were doing, but it is what the manner of their directing solemnly suggests. David Fincher’s Seven is rather different, since it has a clever plot and enough violent action for a whole series of movies, and certainly isn’t an essay. But it doesn’t see itself as just gory entertainment either, and it, too, is keen on the big questions, or even bigger questions, like the nature of modern sin, and what is the world coming to. It closes with Morgan Freeman’s voice over a blank screen: ‘Ernest Hemingway said the world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ Pause. Freeman adds: ‘I agree with the second part.’ Seven is a film which talks a lot about sermons, and is one. Its freight of meaning makes Casino’s aimlessness look pretty attractive.

De Niro’s main problem, as Sam Rothstein, is that he has married the wrong woman, alias Sharon Stone, a beautiful hustler who likes his money but doesn’t love him, and who after marriage continues her affair with her former sleazy lover. De Niro responds like the mobster he is, with threats and beatings up, but strangely enough this doesn’t win the woman’s heart. He has two other problems anyway. One is his unwillingness to do deals with the locals – outside of his own Eastern gangster codes of corruption, he’s incorruptible. The other is his old pal Nicky, alias Joe Pesci, who loves being a gangster so much he can’t stop beating and killing people, and flouting the law. It’s as if the very idea of extortion was invented for his pleasure. Casino doesn’t seem to me an unusually violent movie – certainly not compared to Seven – but I had to look away from the screen when Nicky’s method of collecting information turned out to include putting a man’s head in a vice and squeezing it till his eyes popped. All of this brings a lot of heat, as they say in this movie too, and the old men in the East don’t like this. The pickings in that travelling suitcase are getting smaller, so the old men take their measures, and have everyone killed who has any connection with the business. Except De Niro, who survives a bomb attack, and is allowed to settle elsewhere. That’s how we come to hear his voice on the soundtrack telling the story. Joe Pesci’s voice we must be hearing, like William Holden’s in Sunset Boulevard, through special communication arrangements made with another kind of underworld.

De Niro appears again in Heat, looking the same, talking tough, but mainly not talking much, and his suits are not nearly so flashy. This time he is Neil McAuley, head of a spaced-out heist gang who steal some bearer bonds from an armoured van at the beginning of the movie and knock over a bank towards the end. One member of the gang is trigger-happy, and kills a guard or two on the first job. Later he is revealed as a pathological killer, and we know he’s bad news because he’s grubby and untidy, and has long hair like a refugee from Woodstock. This is not the way Neil/De Niro likes to do things. Not that he’s got anything against killing people. It’s just that he’s a professional, and the whole movie rests on the terrific admiration De Niro inspires in his cop counterpart Al Pacino. At one point, when Pacino hasn’t enough evidence to arrest De Niro, he tracks him down and they have a cup of coffee together, involving a gritty conversation full of mutual respect and regret that a man’s gotta keep doing what a man’s gotta do. They are the last romantics. This conversation has no point or purpose in the movie’s plot: it brings Pacino and De Niro together because they belong together, and we are on no account to miss this. We know immediately that the film is going to end in a shoot-out, and that Pacino will have to kill De Niro, although this moral and civil arrangement is sheer tokenism, and has nothing to do with anything that matters. What matters is the bond: as De Niro dies he holds out his hand, and Pacino takes it. The movie ends on this broken, terminal union. We were prepared for it by the fact that Pacino’s wife keeps making literary speeches about how he shuts her out of the darkness of his professional life, how all he knows how to do is follow trails, how he is the hunt personified. He acknowledges this, but the movie fudges the pathological implications by making the wife unstable and Pacino just a weary good guy. Still, we get the connection when De Niro, heading for Los Angeles airport and freedom, his improbable girlfriend improbably beside him, with nothing to do but get on the plane, turns his car around to take care of a bit of unfinished business: the rogue member of the gang, the man who so untidily killed for no reason, and has since been helping the man they stole the bearer bonds from. This pause to clean up gets De Niro himself killed, but how could he do otherwise? Once a pro always a pro – you couldn’t get slipshod if you tried.

What we are not prepared for is the spectacular setting of this final shoot-out: just off the runway at Los Angeles airport, with heavy planes landing and taking off, arc-lamps fitfully blazing, the two men alternately in darkness and glaring light. This is more like ballet than a tough-guy movie, but it is wonderful to look at. The whole film is very beautiful, almost stately, dominated by shots of Los Angeles at night, seen from various balconies, lights spread out to the edge of the screen. Like the shot of Las Vegas in Casino, but without the dark desert. If Las Vegas looks like an oasis, Los Angeles looks like a city that has colonised the night.

Everyone I have spoken to about Seven thinks the city where the movie is set is not named. I thought it was New York until the end, when the heroes and the villain take a brief drive into some Western-looking mountains. It’s not the South, because the South is where Brad Pitt, as the young cop who wanted some meaner action, had transferred from. He is paired with Morgan Freeman, as the thoughtful old detective just days away from retirement – he has a metronome in his apartment to help him sleep, but when the world gets too much for him, he throws the thing across the room and breaks it. Pitt, quite sensibly, thinks criminals are criminals, and his job is to catch them, but everyone else in the movie is an intellectual who thinks contemporary crimes are the measure of a nasty shift in the human condition. This is where Freeman and the serial-killer he and Pitt are after are entirely in agreement, differing only in policy implications. The world is not a fine place, so one should wearily fight for it. Or: the world is not a fine place, so one should clean it up, set an example. In this sense it’s appropriate that the city should not be identified. The place is just the City, allegorical home of modern evil.

It rains interminably here, and there are some fine dark apartment buildings that have been reworked from Blade Runner. The film experiments pretty successfully with the idea, most clearly developed in Silence of the Lambs, of a killer’s apartment as a picture of a killer’s mind. Generally there are lots of good, creepy interiors, notably that of the first murder we see: a hideously obese fellow who has been gorged to death on food in the amazing tip of a flat where he lives. This is gluttony, and we soon learn that our man is working his way through the list of deadly sins. Greed, sloth, pride and lust follow; then the killer, marvellously played by Kevin Spacey as a mild man of reason in a crazy world, gives himself up to the police. How he still manages to knock off envy and wrath before the end is part of the cleverness both of the killer and the movie, and I won’t spoil the surprise.

What’s tiresome about the movie is its sententiousness, its eagerness to moralise violence into a symptom – if there were symptoms here, wouldn’t the movie itself be a symptom, and where does it get off being so holy about things? But there is a more interesting, more troubling way of asking this question, and it rests on the weird compact between Freeman the cop and Spacey the killer. This is entirely different from the bond between Pacino and De Niro in Heat; there is no bond here. But there is a shared diagnosis which cripples Freeman, makes him unable to call Spacey’s craziness crazy. When Freeman says to him that you can’t go around killing innocents, Spacey is outraged, and explains why the sinners he has so exemplarily killed can’t in any sense be called innocents. The obvious comeback, that Spacey has no right to judge them, is not made, and the conversation veers into psychological name-calling, as if the real problem were Spacey’s mania, not his infringements of the law. What this means is that the law doesn’t believe in the law, only in a series of vague conventions, and that the only person with any moral authority is the killer. The killer is the symptom of what’s wrong about the world, who also proves by his actions that he is right about the world. The movie can’t get out of this impasse, because it likes its gloomy allegory too much. Perhaps that’s a sign of the times.