26 January 2010

ALAN J. PAKULA: THE DEVIL'S OWN (1997)

By most accounts, the set of Alan J. Pakula's sixteenth and final film as a director was not a happy set. The Devil's Own began life when the up-and-coming new movie star Brad Pitt attached himself to a screenplay about an IRA terrorist who journeys to New York City in 1993 to complete an arms deal, and began seeking about for a director. Pakula was not the first director given the project; the early production history of the film is a knotty and strange thicket of multiple drafts by unconnected writers and several false starts. But it was onto Pakula's shoulders that the project finally fell, and here we begin to see the hints of trouble: there was never another one of the director's films that he began in such ass-backwards terms, with so little personal drive. But this is what happens when a filmmaker has descended from the heights of prestige to the muddy swamps of hackdom.

The multitude of changes made to the story, to say nothing of the general indifference of the production team to making what Pitt had apparently hoped to be a significant and intelligent look at The Troubles led the actor to begin speaking out even while the film was still in production about what a hideous mess it had become. And it probably didn't help the 33-year-old that his co-star, in a much expanded role, was Harrison Ford, still a huge box-office name in 1997, and an actor who'd already worked with Pakula once before, on 1990's Presumed Innocent. Allegedly, the set was filled with tension between the two men as to who would be the focus of the story, and more to the point, the focus of the marketing campaign. That Brad Pitt's Ireland Movie had by fits and starts become Harrison Ford Cop Picture with Brad Pitt was doubtlessly a concern to the young actor, whose outspoken disappointment with the project otherwise feels a touch disingenuous: for truth be told, Pitt is far from the strongest link in this rather flimsy chain.

There are as many small, niggling problems with The Devil's Own as there are grains of sand on the beach, but the single one that the film was never going to recover from is that it presents itself as being about Something Important, whereas in fact it is really about nothing very much at all. Like just about every other American-made movie about the Northern Ireland conflict, the film suffers greatly from a wobbly and confused understanding of the situation in that region, and ultimately the IRA co-protagonist could just as easily have been any randomly invented terrorist with sympathetic aims but morally unacceptable means of pursuing his goals. Certainly, anything insightful or particular about Ireland was removed, piece by piece, re-write by re-write, until the only thing that remains is the confirmation that yes, people in the IRA are by and large Roman Catholic.

Here's the scenario: Frankie McGuire (Pitt) is in America to pay for some missiles and find a way to cart them back to Ireland, and for the duration of his stay, he's living with NYPD officer Tom O'Meara (Ford) and his family, hiding under the name Rory Devaney. Why, precisely, McGuire had to stay with an American family is not made tremendously clear; why that family includes a cop, the profession most likely to be distrustful of a young Irish man who freely admits to his traumatic childhood and hatred of the British, is a matter of shocking contrivance. Anyway, the 106 minute film slips by, and we see McGuire moving about New York, chatting with other IRA moles, angering the arms seller (Treat Williams) by his inexplicable refusal to pay, and generally just biding his time until the the film hits feature length. Meanwhile, O'Meara gets to prove that he's a Good Cop, when he decides to retire rather than support his partner (Rubén Blades), who shot an unarmed man in the back. Finally, about one hour in, the two plots combine when two of the arms dealer's goons break into the O'Mearas' home, and the cop starts sniffing around and finds a massive bag of cash, which instantly tips him off that "Devaney" is hiding something. Cue a cat-and-mouse type of chase around New York that has the merit of not being eyeball-gouging padding, but is for all that no more entertaining than anything else that has gone on before.

I would like it if there was something nice I could say about all of this, but for the most part I can't: it's a staggeringly routine cop picture that feels like it came out in 1987 instead of 1997, tarted up by a well-intentioned, half-baked Irish terrorism angle. The two actors at the center add nothing: Ford just comes out and does that thing he did in movies he didn't care about, where he looks sort of moody and constipated, and Pitt's attempts to find something emotionally true in a character that ends up being written in all sorts of contradictory ways, both pro- and anti-IRA, are monumentally undercut by his desperately wobbly Irish accent. That Pakula had no interest in making this movie is wretchedly obvious: four years after The Pelican Brief had almost been a good Pakula movie, with a properly twisty screenplay, an interesting female protagonist (who was not, alas, matched with an interesting performance), and the director doing producing duty for the last time, The Devil's Own feels like he just desperately wanted a paycheck. It's not incompetently made - given how awfully little happens for two-thirds of the movie, it could have been infinitely more boring than it is, so let's be thankful that Pakula was able to keep the pacing up - but it is absolutely without merit other than sheer ordinariness. I cannot imagine being so hard up for a cop movie, of all things, that I'd want to seek this one out. Such is the way a career ends.

But that's not where I'm going to end. The end of Pakula's career wasn't just the sad whimpering out of the gifted craftsman who had done such fine work in the 1970s and very intermittently thereafter. It was also the last film shot by arguably the finest American cinematographer of them all, Gordon Willis, the Prince of Darkness. Pakula and Willis had quite the career together: the first movie where Pakula demonstrated himself a genius, Klute, was also the film where Willis went from a nobody working on forgotten projects to the visual genius responsible for such masterpieces of the artform as The Godfather and its sequels, Manhattan, Zelig (for which he received the first of his insultingly small number of Oscar nominations, two - but it's one more nomination than the ASC saw fit to give him), and so on. And while his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen are the stuff of greatness, I think, personally, that his work with Pakula is his most essential, especially in the outstanding pair of paranoia thrillers The Parallax View and All the President's Men, two of the most accomplished, technically innovative works of cinematography of the 1970s.

The Devil's Own is certainly the least of the men's six collaborations, but there is simply no such thing as a Gordon Willis-shot film that doesn't look good, and coming off of Consenting Adults and The Pelican Brief, Pakula's two disastrous collaborations with Stephen Goldblatt, The Devil's Own looks like a master class in shooting a movie. It is perhaps a bit brighter overall than we'd expect a Willis film to be, but the compositions are quite well-chosen, perhaps surprisingly so: for on first glance this appears to be nothing but a bog-standard way of filming a crime drama with lots of close-ups and two-shots. Then you start to notice how aggressively Willis and Pakula use negative space in those close-ups, and the way that the wide shots contrast with the closer shots (the editing by Tom Rolf and Dennis Virkler is also a good deal more delicate and interesting than it seems at first, for it is these two men who largely control the precise pattern by which those wide shots and close shots are contrasted), and it becomes more and more clear that there is a subtle but distinctly effective visual language, simple and without splashy pyrotechnics, that drive the emotional beats of the story far better than the script itself. And that, if anything, is the problem: Willis and Pakula are turning in finely-tuned visual work in service of a story that doesn't deserve it in the slightest.

To hell with it. The film looks good, and it is compellingly, intelligently shot, and I am going to cling to that as a comfort. All the more so since Willis, now 78, has not shot a single frame in the intervening 13 years. The romantic in me likes to think that, since his career effectively began with Pakula, and his greatest triumphs were with Pakula, he has decided that with Pakula's death there is no more need in this world for Gordon Willis cinematography. A pity, but a poetic and beautiful thing. I only wish the two men could have found a more worthy exit than The Devil's Own, but life is not fair like that.

Alan J. Pakula died in a car accident on 19 November, 1998, when another driver hit a metal pipe that flew through the director's windshield and sent him spinning off the road. He was 70 years old.

4 comments:

javi75 said...

I watched this theatrically and probably never again since. I remember there were some pretty shots, superficial-level eye-candy I guess, like when Pitt is washing a boat. But that's all I could discern at the time (not that I've improved much). I also remember thinking that Pitt never looked prettier than in his close-ups in the last scene.

Aye-K said...

This is how a career ends.
Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Information Review said...

Saw it a few years ago and must say it is good, but not great,it has a very good special effects and a good picture,I believe it's one of good movies that Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt have ever made.

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Excellent post on this troubled production.

I'd forgotten that Pakula's efforts of the '80s and '90s were the same director who'd been so great in the '70s. I recall being ticked off at Pitt's bellowing during production and the usual wooden Ford performance.

I was haunted and truly saddened by Pakula's tragic death and I still am, actually.