[Written for The Herald]
“Fifteen million dollars is not money,” says a grizzled veteran of the criminal life. “It’s a motive with a universal adapter on it.”
The tang of that dialogue signals the return of Christopher McQuarrie, whose screenplay for The Usual Suspects created the cult of Keyser Soze and won the unknown writer an Oscar. McQuarrie makes his directing debut with The Way of the Gun, another investigation of the criminal code. Though not destined to be as beloved as The Usual Suspects, this brutal, wickedly funny film is every bit as accomplished a piece of work.
We begin with two drifters who have gone “off the path,” road-hungry dropouts who wouldn’t be out of place in a Kerouac novel or a Peckinpah movie. They are played by Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro (whose mumbly performance was one of the highlights of The Usual Suspects). Not entirely through design, they kidnap a pregnant woman (Juliette Lewis). She is acting as a surrogate mother for a guy who may be loaded.
He is, but he is also a very, very dangerous man (played by hoarse-voiced veteran Scott Wilson). He has two henchmen (the quirkily good Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) willing to erase the two amateur kidnappers. And he has a bagman who takes a kind of zen path toward enforcing muscle. This guy is played by James Caan, who pops off the screen with his best performance in ages, a finely tuned portrait of well-aged cool. All of these people get tied up in their own greed and cross-purposes. Add to the mix Caan’s old crony, played by Geoffrey Lewis (Juliette’s father), and we have a mess of double-crossing going on.
Because characters in movies like this always go to Mexico, the kidnappers travel south of the border, where the ultimate showdown (make that bloodbath — remember the Peckinpah reference) will take place. That’s when you realize this film is less a Nineties-style crime movie and more a western. It especially recalls the stylized world of Sergio Leone, the Italian “spaghetti western” maestro who could do more with a long pause than most directors could manage with a cavalry charge.
I interviewed the 31-year-old Christopher McQuarrie, who recently moved to Seattle, in August. A bearded, bespectacled fellow, he does not suggest someone with the deliciously nasty streak on display in Usual Suspects and Way of the Gun. McQuarrie said that a model for his new film was Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Way of the Gun uses glances and looks to convey character and mood in much the same way Leone did.
This was a conscious decision. “Because Usual Suspects was so dialogue-intensive, I didn’t want to do it again,” said McQuarrie. “I didn’t think I could do it better. So this dialogue is as sparse as humanly possible.”
McQuarrie spoke tartly about current films that use dialogue to explain everything to an audience. He prefers character histories that are “alluded to, but never spoken,” allowing the audience to piece things together. It’s part of his philosophy that a movie should “tell what a filmmaker thinks, not just tell an audience what they’re supposed to think. The audience’s imagination is the greatest tool you have … and nobody uses it anymore.”
Shooting proved an education. “As a screenwriter, you job is to accommodate a lot of people,” McQuarrie said. “As a director, you have to learn how to say no. I was letting everybody invent as much as they wanted, and it was taking longer and longer to get anything done.”
Old pro James Caan took the first-timer aside and shared some wisdom. “We’re actors,” Caan told McQuarrie, “and we like to be directed. This is your movie. Go back there and direct it.” McQuarrie did exactly that. “It made the job a lot easier,” he admits.
When casting about for a subject for his directing debut, McQuarrie found that studios were only interested in him making another crime picture. But he was tired of movies that glorify violence. So, he explained, “If all I can make is a crime film, I’m going to make it as unpleasant as I can.”
Way of the Gun is definitely unpleasant at times — an impromptu surgical procedure is especially gruesome. Yet where a movie like The Cell dishes up ultraviolence without any purpose other than lurid decoration, Gun is as pointed as a bullet.