One of the best critical writers on film (or most anything) is Curtis White. Added to that, he is talking about one of my favorite films: One Eyed Jacks, Marlon Brando’s only directorial effort.
[Read the full article in John Stepplings comment at the end of this post]
“Complexity. Rio is no simple avenging angel. He’s a one-eyed Jack himself. It’s not that he has a “dark side.” This is not a movie about good and evil. He is complicit. He is one of the tubs-of-guts and he knows it. His violence against others is also an expression of self-disgust. In the very first scene of the movie, Rio eats a banana as his compadres finish robbing a bank. Casually, he tosses banana peels onto first one side of a scale, then the other. Justice: two banana peels balancing each other. This is the attitude of the character who will exact personal justice from the movie’s great wrong-doers? His dealings with women are equally cynical. He lies to them, plies them with jewelry (all given to him, he swears, by his dead mother) in order to fuck and thus humiliate them. He is the shiny prince of white male malice. His own awareness of complicity with the tubs-of-guts becomes clear in the scene I described above, in which Howard “gets his.” For that is the same morning after Rio has shamed Louisa. He has taken her to the beach, lied to her about himself and his feelings for her, and impregnated her as part of his revenge against her stepfather. Clearly, his disgust with Howard’s brutality is in part a reflection of his disgust with himself.”
White touches on something here that can be seen throughout American film and literature. One doesn’t see it often enough, mind, but it is manifest in the best work from American writers and artists. It is the realization that we are complicit in the violence and venality all around us. This complicity, however, is also a station on the journey toward, if not redemption, then awakening, and awareness.
The closing monologue in No Country for Old Men (more in the book but also in the film) is a pure meditation on this lesson. One can see it characters such as Ahab (Moby Dick) and in Denzell Washington’s character in Training Day, or John Wayne’s in The Searchers. One could argue the flaw or greatest weakness in Training Day ( a film I admire hugely) is that Alonzo (Washington) never takes the final step toward an awareness (as Wayne does in The Searchers) and thus an embrace, however painful, of one’s own flawed soul. The final shot of The Searchers, shot from inside the farmhouse, shows Wayne walking ever so slowly toward us and pausing, and finally turning away. He cannot ever live in that domesticated world he has fought to create. He must turn away and step back into the ‘wild’. All three actors I’ve mentioned, Brando, Washington, and Wayne, possess enormous physical grace — and magnetic presence. These are larger than life physical specimens….each with his own ineffable form of physical grace. John Ford and Brando sensed this very clearly, though I suspect Fuqua much less so. Training Day is an excellent film, but falls short of the profundity of the Ford or Brando film. Interestingly Kubrick was set to direct One Eyed Jacks, but had conflicts with Brando — and one might well imagine the reasons. Brando was not a Kubrick actor (as Montgomery Clift was not a Hitchcock actor in I Confess…though Hitchcock deals with this in a more inventive way).
Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men is, in a sense, an updated examination of the same questions raised in One Eyed Jacks. For really, while revenge is engine for the plot in ‘Jacks, its not at all what the film is really looking at, or expressing. I am reminded of Audiard’s A Prophet again, as a meditation on the holy. The journey toward that which is sacrosanct, that which is set apart–by virtue of a solemnly undertaken journey–gives us the preconditions of the spiritual architecture of holiness. In the case of the individual, it is the release of those mechanisms of clinging to illusion — usually the illusion of a well-defined and concrete self. In No Country the demonic Chigurh is a post-modern white whale. The sheriff (Tommie Lee Jones in the film) has spent his adult and professional life enforcing a set of beliefs about law and about morality. That Chigurh cannot be stopped is clear, but in what way the Sheriff himself has aided this madness is the subject of the final extended monologue (much longer in the book). Writers from Raymond Chandler to Melville and Joseph Conrad, from Jim Thompson to Dostoyevsky, have all approached these questions: guilt, morality, fate, and violence. It becomes the search for a way to justify one’s own powerlessness as it is set forth in systems of social law. What is the final court of appeal? That there is none is a realization difficult for lesser artists, I think.
Where does Wayne go after that final shot? Where does Malik go, and what does he do? Or Kid Rio? That Alonzo dies is the exact problem with Training Day.
Those characters who know a truth, and yet are forces of destruction, are particularly and peculiarly American I think. I can think of places in poets such as Whitman and James Wright, as well as William Carlos Williams and Alan Ginsberg, where this is touched upon, and one can certainly go back to Shakespeare to see the purist positing of these dynamics, at the front edge of modernity. There are countless mediating factors, class and money to start with. Directors like Pasolini and Bergman dealt with it in most of their work, but fewer American directors have. Perhaps Hawks did, and Ford to some degree, and maybe Boetticher in his best work. I would suggest that our present climate and the contradictions of advanced capital and globalization have provided a gaping hole in the collective consciousness of 21st century America, but it is a hole, so far, too dangerous to be wrestled with except in a few noted examples. Our addiction to militarism, and its attendant system of values, and the voyeuristic compulsive repetition of cinematic violence, are clear evidence of this specific American pathology — the insistence upon the self, and the rationalizing away of any objection to these beliefs — regardless the cost of this denial. This is not an argument for pacifism per se. A Mao or a Fidel, if Quaker, might not have liberated their people from abject poverty and near slavery. It is rather to attempt an analysis of what violence actually is, and how we are to live alongside it.
Perhaps the film that most closely resembles One Eyed Jacks thematically, is Anthony Mann’s Man of The West. It is indeed the same story, crossed with a Freudian take on “King Lear”. I think its Mann’s best film, and its possibly the darkest western ever made.