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Stepping Off the Path

By Drew Morton | Underappreciated Gems | July 28, 2009 |

By Drew Morton | Underappreciated Gems | July 28, 2009 |

“There is a natural order. The way things are meant to be. An order that says that the good guys always win. That you die when it’s your time, or you have it coming. That the ending is always happy, if only for someone else. Now at some point it became clear to us that our path had been chosen and we had nothing to offer the world … So, we stepped off the path, and went looking for the fortune that we knew was looking for us. Once off the path you do what you can to eat and to keep moving.” — Mr. Parker in The Way of the Gun (2000)

While Mr. Parker (Ryan Phillippe) is describing himself and the personal motivations for himself and his partner, Mr. Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), he might just as well be serving as a mouthpiece for screenwriter-director Christopher McQuarrie (who won the Academy Award for best original screenplay for The Usual Suspects roughly five years previously). McQuarrie knows the genre of his film, infamously more so than the critics who watched it upon its release in 2000. Branded a crime film with the adjective “Tarantinoesque” underlined, The Way of the Gun is a Western first, a crime film second. If the “protagonists” names, borrowed from the real last names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), wasn’t enough of a hint, the superb Morricone infused score by Joe Kraemer should have hammered the point home. Tarantinoesque is a misnomer, Peckinpahesque is far more appropriate.

Nine years has passed since the release of this misunderstood film. I’m not ashamed to say that I was amongst those who criticized the film upon its release, but not for being derivative of Quentin Tarantino, I was simply confused and disappointed that it wasn’t on par with The Usual Suspects (1994). I’ve re-watched the film a number of times since its release and while I still stand by many of my original criticisms, which I will delve into shortly, I find myself appreciating it more and more. Like His Kind of Woman (1951), which I reviewed a few weeks ago, The Way of the Gun is a film made for cinephiles with knowledge of a genre and whose success is more dependent on the viewer than most films. While the film is not a perfect movie or a great movie, I would posit that it meets director Howard Hawks’s (His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep) definition of a good movie: “Three great scenes and no bad ones.”

The film follows Parker and Longbaugh, two criminals who have chosen their lifestyle because, as quoted above, they have nothing to offer the world. Sustaining themselves on profits from blood and semen donations, the two discover while performing the latter that a young woman (Juliette Lewis) is being paid one million dollars to serve as a surrogate mother to a millionaire (Scott Wilson) and his wife (Kristin Lehman). The two men decide to kidnap her for a ransom, running into complications when the millionaire cannot pay the ransom due to his ties to organized crime, resulting in the millionaire’s enlistment of two bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) and Joe Sarno (James Caan), a grizzled old “bagman” to retrieve the money and the woman.

The plot gets a hell of a lot more complicated than this, which was and still is my main criticism of the film. Specifically, the millionaire’s camp of hired goons has shifting loyalties and hidden relationships that create a hall of mirrors with very little pay off. In fact, McQuarrie’s structure of plot twists and reveals gets to the point where they occur so frequently during the second act that it pushes us to anticipate them, which undermines the whole enterprise and comes off as if McQuarrie is trying to out-twist the revelations at the end of Usual Suspects. I’d be more specific in my criticisms here, but I don’t want to ruin some of the more successful surprises.

My other criticism, and this should be of no surprise to readers of my Strange Days review, is that Juliette Lewis is not a good actress. She tries, and even sells one scene in which she bonds with Parker and Longbaugh, but for the majority of the film she delivers her lines with a barren stare and lethargic diction. She is undoubtedly the weakest link in what is otherwise an amazing cast. Del Toro is oddly quiet here and relies on physical gesture to sell his performance while Phillippe milks McQuarrie’s memorable dialogue (“The longest distance between two points is a kidnapper and his money.”) for all it’s worth. Even Juliette Lewis’s actual father, Geoffrey, has two wonderful scenes as an aging, suicidal bagman. Then there’s James Caan, who steals every scene he’s in, including a wonderful exchange with Del Toro over a cup of coffee, no doubt an homage to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).

As you might have guessed, despite excessive and improbable plot twists and the casting of Juliette Lewis, The Way of the Gun has a lot to offer. As I noted earlier, I would argue that it is a prime example of Hawks’s definition of a good film. The first of my three favorite scenes opens the film. In one beautiful crane shot, Parker and Longbaugh walk out of a bar, strolling to the beat of the Rolling Stones’ “Rip This Joint,” only to sit on another patron’s car, setting off the alarm system. The patron (Henry Griffin) and his girlfriend (Sarah Silverman) turn to the pair and begin to cuss them out, spurring a fight. The patron promptly offers Parker the first punch, which he does, striking the foul-mouthed girlfriend in the face. The scene sets up the tone of the film: this isn’t going to play out the way you, the viewer, thought it was going to. The serves as the film’s through line, coming back to us at the end of the film, in the form of a bookend shot. My two other favorite scenes are action oriented: the kidnapping scene and unconventional car chase that it climaxes with and the film’s final shoot-out (Note to self: Never dive into a trench to evade gunfire before checking it out first!). Hell, I can’t ignore the Longbaugh and Sarno coffee talk. Let’s put the score board up to four great scenes.

Re-watching The Way of the Gun, I wasn’t only struck by how well the film plays on repeated viewings and how it still exhibits the same flaws it did upon its theatrical release. I was struck my how much Christopher McQuarrie has to offer, as a screenwriter and, potentially, as a director (the film still stands as his only directorial credit). After Way of the Gun, McQuarrie’s work did not grace the screen until late last year, when he re-teamed with his Suspects collaborator Brian Singer on Valkyrie (2008). McQuarrie has a television show in the works, “Persons Unknown,” but given the tremendous and speedy rise he had after Suspects and his Oscar win, it’s hard not to lament the disappearance of his works. While I have yet to see Valkyrie and Way of the Gun is far from perfect, there’s still a quality in his work that is incredibly intoxicating to the cinephile.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.