The Devil's Own (1997)

*The Devil’s Own* typifies what’s wrong with so many big budget Hollywood movies these days: too much money, not enough ideas. Just one example: there are a good half dozen scenes shot from a helicopter, for no particular reason, in *The Devil’s Own*. (Do we really need to see a car crossing the entire length of the George Washington Bridge?) It’s not only boring and unimaginative, but every one of those shots cost as much as the entire budget of a good movie like *Sling Blade*.

Like *Sling Blade*, *The Devil’s Own* would like to be a thoughtful study of characters wrestling with morality and violence in extreme situations. It would also like to be an exciting action picture. It is neither.

Frankie Maguire (Brad Pitt) is an IRA gunman. His buddies are all killed in a massive gunfight with the British. So Frankie assumes an alias (Rory Devaney), and heads for Brooklyn, where an IRA sympathiser, who happens to be a judge, installs him in the home of friendly Tom O’Meara (Harrison Ford), a fine Irish Catholic cop. Tom is a loving family man who hates violence, and apparently takes little interest in the Troubles in Ireland.

Frankie’s plan is to buy a bunch of Stinger missiles and transport them back to Ireland in a fishing trawler. This is a ridiculous idea, of course, but no more so than casting Brad Pitt as an Irishman. Pitt struggles mightily with that accent, affecting a largely incoherent mumble that occasionally gets within a few yards of an authentic Belfast brogue: "Ah need tha’ moo-ney Tome." He’s no Streep.

Frankie gets in a wee bit of trouble with an arms dealer (Treat Williams), who then terrorizes Tom and his wife (Margaret Colin). Meanwhile, Tom and his partner Eddie (Ruben Blades) have a falling out after Eddie shoots an unarmed petty thief in the back. A lot of other stuff also happens, including a big confirmation party complete with celtic band, stepdancers and jigs, but none of it has anything to do with the plot. Very little of *The Devil’s Own* has to do with the central plot, in fact. Most of it is filler, incidental incidents that use up time without going anywhere in particular, giving *The Devil’s Own* the characteristic split personality of a movie made by committee (which, with three screenwriters, two high-powered stars and a bigshot director, it was).

*The Devil’s Own* studiously avoids politics. While Frankie is an IRA man, the IRA is only mentioned once in the entire film, likewise the conflict in Ireland. In a prologue, we’re shown why Frankie turned violent: his Da, a simple fisherman, was gunned down at the dinner table, in front of his family, apparently by Protestants. Aside from that formative experience, however, there’s little reason to be sympathetic to Frankie himself -- once he arrives in America, he’s essentially at war with the arms dealer, and all thoughts of the Troubles at home seem far, far away. Aside from a few moments of male bonding with Tom, Frankie is portrayed as basically a cold-blooded killer, vacant, vengeful, and shooting anyone who stands in his way. To understand or care about Frankie, you must understand and care about the very things *The Devil’s Own* wrongheadedly doesn’t want to mention: Catholic-Protestant conflict, centuries of political repression, revolution. Without the socio-political backdrop, the movie has no moral center, and Frankie, who should be likable and heroic, is neither; it’s tantamount to eliminating Jean Valjean’s starving family and making him a bank robber.

While Pitt struggles with the accent, Ford (who is not and never has been an accent actor), brings to his character a genuine sense of goodness, warmth, compassion and crisis. Ford wears the look of a haunted man, a peace-loving man in the midst of violence, deeply troubled by the shooting at work, deeply troubled by Frankie’s betrayal, determined to bring Frankie in alive after the Brits catch up to him. Ford’s Tom is the only thing in this movie that seems real, the only character with any dimension.

*The Devil’s Own* amounts to a whole lot of nothing, a string of disconnected events leading to a ridiculous ending. In a prophetic moment, Frankie tells Tom: "Don’t look for happy endings Tom. It’s not an American story, it’s an Irish one." Alas, *The Devil’s Own* *is* an American story; if it was an Irish one, it probably would have been good.


Liar Liar (1997)

The fundamental flaw with *Liar Liar*, or any other Jim Carrey movie, is that it’s like an action movie with no special effects. Imagine watching Schwarzenegger for two hours without a single explosion, car chase or shoot-out. What you’re left with is one of Schwarzenegger’s comedies, which, we can all agree, are not very funny. Now, there’s a case to be made that the goo-faced Carrey comes with his own special effects. Assuming that’s true, those who find Carrey endlessly amusing won’t mind that nothing actually happens in *Liar Liar*. The hundredth time around, however, Carrey’s effects seem somewhat less than special, and his latest showcase, *Liar Liar*, is thus only occasionally amusing.

*Liar Liar* takes what can’t be more than a 15 minute script and stretches it way out to feature film length. The premise is a good one: Fletcher Reede (Carrey) is a compulsive liar and a lawyer who is forced to tell the truth for just one day. He lies to everybody: strangers, his colleagues, his clients, the court, his harridan boss Miranda (Amanda Donohoe), his patient ex-wife Audrey (Maura Tierney) and his five year old son Max (Justin Cooper). Everybody is satisfied with this arrangement except little Max, who makes a birthday wish -- that for 24 hours Dad can’t lie -- that comes true.

Naturally, it happens on the biggest day of Fletcher’s career, when he is battling a big divorce case for a philandering floozy (Jennifer Tilly) and trying to make partner in his law firm. And naturally, being compelled to tell the truth completely ruins his life, his career and his health.

For the next hour, the truth really hurts as Fletcher leaps around, beats himself up (in body and conscience), screams, rolls his eyes, makes with the rubber-faced antics, and generally overreacts in a big way to everything, all in a failed effort to avoid telling the truth. Meanwhile, everybody around Fletcher is offended by his compulsive truth-telling. They were actually happier when Fletcher lied to them, but that’s only because everybody in Fletcher’s life is a mere caricature, an obese lawyer, a buxom neighbor, a goofy secretary, a himbo witness. When he lied, Fletcher at least treated them like people, but telling the truth limits him to insulting their prominent features. The message of *Liar Liar* isn’t that lying is bad -- in fact, there isn’t much of a down side to lying in this movie -- but that fatherhood is good, and good fathers don’t lie to their kids. That’s a fine idea for a public service announcement, but it’s a tad frugal for a whole movie.

After about 20 minutes, Carrey’s spastic Stooge on speed schtick loses its spontaneity and feels forced, and since the rest of the cast doesn’t do anything but react to Carrey, *Liar Liar* loses steam at exactly the point where it should really go wild. Director Tom Shadyac (*Ace Ventura: Pet Detective*) doesn’t do much more than turn the cameras on Carrey and let ‘em roll here; the script by Paul Guay and Stephen Mazur contains skimpy portions of magic and whimsy that are really out of place amid all the broad and obvious Jim-foolery.

A little Jim Carrey goes a long way, and paradoxically, the converse is equally true. Even in excess, a rubbery comic like Carrey can only stretch a thin plot so far -- *Liar Liar* stretches it past that point and then some.


Sling Blade (1997)

At first sight, Karl Childers seems like just another Forrest Gump, albeit a more realistic one, sans the glamour and boyish appeal of Tom Hanks. Make no mistake, however: *Sling Blade* is entirely lacking in the brand of mawkish sentimentality that films like *Gump* wallow in. *Sling Blade* is a tightrope act, a deft balancing of chilling Southern gothic and heartwarming sentiment, a gripping, dreadful and often funny tale of commingled love and violence, written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton.

Karl (Thornton), big and silent, his eyes dead and his mouth twisted into a half-smile half-grimace, is a simpleton, staring at the world through the barred windows of a state mental hospital. He speaks deliberately, in a throaty drawl, as if carefully considering every word before concluding each sentence with a self-affirming “Mm-hmm.” When Karl really speaks, however, all the physical tics and quirks melt away: his story is gripping and horrible, and Karl is a natural storyteller armed with a chillingly simple directness. Karl’s childhood was brutal and cruel, and ended abruptly when he hacked his mother and her lover to death with a sling blade. Now, cured of his homicidal tendencies -- “I don’t reckon I got no reason to kill anybody,” he affirms -- Karl is about to be released from the best home he ever had.

Karl is a mechanical savant, with a knack for fixing lawn mowers, but more importantly, Karl is an ethical savant, a gentle, kindhearted manchild with an innate sense of right and wrong, and a simple, biblical sense of justice and retribution. When he befriends the boy Frank (Lucas Black) and his mother Linda (Natalie Canerday), both terrorized by her vicious boyfriend Doyle (Dwight Yoakam), the plot is set in motion and a suspenseful tale uncoils slowly, with a palpable sense of dread, the terrible sling blade casting a shadow over every human affair in this little backwoods fable.

Karl is a marvelously original and uniquely sympathetic character. His various peculiarities -- a great fondness for mustard, biscuits and french fried "pertaters," his loping gait and highwater pants -- all make him seem slightly ridiculous on the outside. Yet Thornton makes Karl so appealing in his simplicity and goodness that the very idea that Karl’s soul is endangered somehow loses its abstraction and becomes quite simple and real. It is, in fact, the fate of Karl’s eternal soul that propels *Sling Blade* -- Karl is willing to sacrifice it to protect the ones he loves. It’s a fascinating, compelling twist on the moral simplicity that drives most movies. With scarcely a word, and nary a twitch in Karl’s affectless voice and demeanor, Thornton, having stripped away all other normal human affectations, distills Karl down to his transparent essence, to a mindless, bodyless soul laid bare. It is there that Karl exists, separate from the strange, damaged shell, there that he is already mortally wounded.

In yet another intriguing twist, the hateful Doyle, with his white trash bigotries and drunken violence, is like a dark copy of Karl, proof that a little bit of intelligence is far more dangerous than none at all. Doyle can’t separate love and violence any more than Karl -- both to spring from the same source. Yet, unlike Karl’s, Doyle’s violence springs from a fundamentally mean heart: where Karl is protective, Doyle is selfish, cruel and threatening, where Karl is self-sacrificing, Doyle is self-pitying. With all the inevitability of a biblical tragedy, Karl and Doyle are doomed to destroy each other, to cancel each other out.

That inevitability haunts *Sling Blade*, but without creating predictability -- it’s a neat trick, revealing the world through Karl, who approaches each experience with neither spontaneity nor expectation. Seen through Karl’s limited view, the world is both is scripted *and* surprising.

*Sling Blade* is fine storytelling, satisfying, complex, engaging, surprisingly funny and, in the midst of unfolding tragedy, quite moving. With a roster full of unique characters, *Sling Blade* features several terrific performances. John Ritter is a pleasant surprise as Vaughan, Linda’s furtive gay friend, terrified of being discovered in a small town where secrets are impossible. Yoakam’s gripping performance is equally unexpected; his Doyle is convincingly nasty and cowardly.

Thornton must be praised not only for crafting a fine story, but for a memorable performance that is truly remarkable and daring; he makes a simple man complicated, illuminates an ugly man with inner beauty, and pares a human soul down to the basic qualities of good and evil. Karl is no innocent, and his world is not a morally relativistic one -- he understands well enough what he must do and how it will be judged. What makes *Sling Blade* so haunting and knotty is the dense interplay between Karl’s ethical clarity and the many variations and gradations of good and bad that the rest of the world must reckon with.


Citizen Ruth (1997)

Seconds after it starts, it is obvious that *Citizen Ruth* is a very special, very peculiar movie. While a crooner extols the virtues of romance on the soundtrack, singing “All The Way,” Ruth gets unsentimentally, unceremoniously humped. Having done with her, the humper screws her yet again by throwing her out of his filthy hovel.

With nowhere else to go, Ruth (Laura Dern) heads for the paradise of a hardware store, where she finds her escape in a can of spray paint and a brown bag. Ruth is a huffer, generally unconscious, virtually without conscience, an abuser of household inhalants, and the mother of four.

Make that five. When Ruth is arrested, she learns she’s pregnant again, and charged with endangering her fetus. The judge offers to go easy on her if she “takes care of her problem.” Ruth knows what he’s talking about, although the irony of it escapes her. It doesn’t escape her new cellmates, however, four fanatical evangelical anti-abortion housewives who bail her out and take her home for a little friendly indoctrination.

Thus it is that the heretofore invisible and inconsequential Ruth Stoops finds herself a cause celebre at the center of the abortion debate. Never has there been a more inappropriate poster girl for anything: Ruth is dumber than a sack of hammers, and she can resist anything except temptation. Deep down, though, she really does want to get her life together, and lacking the cogitative capacity for anything but single-mindedness, she figures her new friends might be both a meal ticket and her ticket to freedom.

As funny and fairminded as a movie about abortion could hope to be, *Citizen Ruth*, written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, is wholly original and full of surprises. The movie generously skewers both fanatical anti-abortion and pro-choice factions as each group tries to manipulate Ruth to their advantage in this absurd satire. The writers have created an ideal foil in the delightfully dense Ruth, whose slack-jawed incomprehension of the larger issues render her remarkably resistant to manifestos, messages and permanent opinions; Ruth doesn’t really care about abortion as social issue. Ruth isn’t a big picture kinda gal -- she’s really only in it for the money both sides are dangling in front of her, and dense as she is, she ultimately manages a bit of effective manipulating herself once she realizes, in the ingeniously clever and twisted end to her saga, that she, Ruth Stoops, doesn’t actually exist for either side, that she is quite literally invisible to zealots who only see issues.

Dern’s performance as Ruth is brilliantly fearless. On her best days, Ruth is a scoundrel, a scabrous skank, a devious, self-absorbed loser. She’s brazenly unsympathetic and unattractive, except in contrast to the nutcases who take her in, and ultimately get taken. Mary Kay Place and Kurtwood Smith are the Stoneys, pious right-wing anti-abortion leaders of their local “Baby Savers” chapter, who talk Ruth out of an abortion. Swoosie Kurtz and an unusually unglamorous Kelly Preston are the moon-worshipping lesbian feminists who harangue her back to the other side. Burt Reynolds does a lewd and greasy turn as the pedophilic pro-life leader Blaine Gibbons, while M.C. Gainey is a loud and greasy pro-choice Vietnam vet clinic escort, and the only person in Ruth’s crazy life who seems to see and accept her for who she really is.

*Citizen Ruth* is brilliantly twisted and funny, a toothy satirical attack on the righteousness and zealotry of both sides of the abortion debate. This movie rightly recognizes that no life, even one as depraved and defiled as Ruth’s, can ever be simplified down to just two choices. Ruth is far too kooky and screwed up to ever face a mere dilemma, and she’s too self-centered to ever make the choices anybody else wants her to make. That is precisely what makes her a truly choice heroine.


Donnie Brasco (1997)

For the first few minutes, *Donnie Brasco* looks like any other mafia movie: a bunch of guys sitting in a bar, playing cards, talking cars, posturing. *Donnie Brasco* quickly turns into something quite different, however, when Donnie (undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone) meets Lefty Ruggiero, a middle-aged, low level mobster who barely ekes out a miserable living at the bottom of the mafia food chain. Donnie convinces Lefty that the diamond he’s just bought is a fake; after Donnie proves his mettle in a confrontation with the diamond dealer, the mobster and the FBI man become fast friends. Lefty really needs a friend; Donnie needs an introduction to the mafia. When Lefty vouches for Donnie, their fates are inextricably bound together, each man’s life is in the other’s hands.

The fascinating twist in *Donnie Brasco* is that it is Lefty the mafioso, not Donnie the mole, who is most imperiled by the alliance. As their tentative, mistrustful friendship deepens into genuine affection, Donnie is faced with the realization that his daily betrayal of Lefty can only have one result: Lefty, an honorable, loyal friend, will likely die.

*Donnie Brasco* is a fascinating, absorbing character study, and an original perspective on the mob. The high living glamor of mafia life, the subject of countless other movies, is wholly absent from this film, which is based on Joseph Pistone’s memoir *Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia*. Instead, *Donnie Brasco* zeroes in on the desperation of life on the bottom rung, the alienated, fearful existence of the weakest members of a predatory pack. Lefty (Al Pacino) is a completely different kind of mobster, a heartbreaking, tragic figure, a father who aches for a son to take under his shabby wing. Donnie (Johnny Depp) does more than play the part, he loses himself completely in the role of surrogate son and mobster, while becoming alienated from his real family, and his FBI bosses.

Screenwriter Paul Attanasio (*Quiz Show*) has crafted a finely detailed, morally complex, moving story with mythic overtones. Along with the high drama, the powerful sense of tragedy and impending doom, *Donnie Brasco* is also filled with absurdly comic scenes of daily life with the mob, like extended riffs on the subtleties of meaning in \\fuggeddaboudit,\\ and visions of leisure-suited mafiosi angrily swatting at balls on a tennis court. Through Brasco’s mentor Lefty, the fascinating details of the mob’s alien and rigid social structure, the life and death rules, the small, deadly day to day betrayals, are revealed. It isn’t the familiar mob story that makes *Donnie Brasco* so absorbing, however, but the warm friendship, the real bond, built on a foundation of lies, that develops between Donnie and Lefty. That *Donnie Brasco* occasionally breaks out in venal, familial violence isn’t unexpected, although the very real threats to which Donnie and Lefty are constantly exposed are rarely explicitly drawn, remaining instead the uneasy backdrop of their daily lives. They’re like men walking a tightrope over a tank full of piranhas -- they never look down.

That Donnie might at any moment be forced to turn unwilling patricide is never far from from his mind, and it is a realization that makes his adopted father Lefty all the more tragic, a pawn so far from the knights and kings that, if he weren’t so vulnerable, he might be playing a whole different game. Pacino is terrific as Lefty, a man full of weary resignation, of knowing that his mafia family will eventually turn on him. Watching nature progams on television, he witnesses again and again the predator killing the prey. At first, it seems Lefty fancies himself a predator, a lion among men, but it becomes increasingly evident that he only aspires to that. To survive long, he must move up the mafia food chain, transform himself from gazelle to cheetah, and he has litle more chance of making that transition than a real gazelle does. That constant fear of savage death, combined with tough guy posturing, and genuine, paternal love for Donnie, make Lefty a wonderfully sad, complicated, unique character, a man thoroughly chained to his life, and resigned to a predetermined death. Pacino leaves the hambone out of this, one of his finest performances; in his final scenes in *Donnie Brasco* he achieves a deeply moving, aching brilliance.

As Donnie/Joseph, Depp is equally fine, losing himself in his role every bit as much as his character does. Donnie is a cypher, a shadow figure without an identity of his own. Absorbing Lefty’s lessons, insinuating himself into Lefty’s life, he finds he can’t sustain the dual roles. Just as mafia life swallowed Lefty, it swallows Joseph whole, taking his real life, his family, his identity with it. Donnie becomes as much the mobster as Lefty, a beast clutching at a scrap of humanity. Alienated from his wife and kids, he seems also to despise his own people, the FBI, to be losing contact entirely with the man he was.

Donnie’s inner conflict arises equally out of the conflicting values of his own culture, and the mob subculture. In both worlds, Donnie’s deceit will lead to a death -- his own or Lefty’s. When Donnie eclipses his patron in their little mob clan, he doubly betrays Lefty, for whom he feels real affection and loyalty. As much as Donnie penetrates Lefty’s life and world, Lefty burrows into Donnie’s life, and his heart, leaving the two unwise guys equally trapped, equally vulnerable.

Ably directed by Mike Newell (*Four Weddings and a Funeral*), *Donnie Brasco* quietly builds dramatically to a conclusion that is no less moving or tragic for being preordained. As in any story of this depth and complexity, the inexorable playing out of tragedy is all the more deeply satisfying precisely because it disappoints the impulse for a last minute miracle. But falsity and simplicity are all that *Donnie Brasco* disappoints.