(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2003)
James Mangold’s career path seems clear – every film he directs is less interesting than the one before: Heavy, Copland, Girl Interrupted, Kate and Leopold and now Identity. If you looked at those five films, and didn’t know who made them, I doubt you’d ever suspect a connection – it’s a true challenge for the auteur theory. But the last two films have at least one obvious thing in common: the guy seems too good for this material.
Kate and Leopold – the Meg Ryan/Hugh Jackman comedy about a nobleman who’s transported from the last century into modern-day Manhattan – sums it up. The premise is obviously dumb, but if you get past that, it allows a swooning feminine fantasy about old-fashioned love – about men who cook dinner for you and respect your honour and who are so attractive that no one would question your giving it all up for them. Jackman was up to the task of embodying all this, but the movie always seemed to be holding back, to be dawdling, fussing over practicalities. OK, Max Ophuls isn’t around anymore, but still, how could you give a movie like that to an essentially rational director – one who’s never shown any sign of losing his head?
Identity raises a similar issue of directorial miscasting. It’s a nutty, overweight movie that might have paid off if a passionate flake had made it. It’s a dark and stormy night, and a motley group of strangers ends up at a low-grade hotel. One of them gets knocked off, then another. It seems clear who the culprit is, but then he’s killed too. And then they start to die in ways that no one could possibly have planned…
At this point I was genuinely intrigued by the movie, because I couldn’t imagine how it’d ever explain all this. Well, I won’t give away the surprise, but suffice to say it’s a big cheat – a variation on the “it was all a dream” technique of stepping outside the plot and redefining the parameters of everything you’ve been watching. Yes, another one of those.
You can’t get away from these movies now: The Matrix (the apex of the form), Open your Eyes and its remake Vanilla Sky, The Others. M. Night Shyamalan seems to be building an entire career on such films. I bought into the admiration for The Sixth Sense. But Unbreakable was severely silly, and Signs was an exercise of such pretentious self-regard that I actually ended up actively hating the director for a while. And yet, plenty of people thought it a great movie, even an important one.
Given the sheer volumes, there must be something about these times that makes such devices particularly appealing and resonant. Maybe it’s the natural expression of spiritual beliefs in an age when organized religion is generally less appealing – just the idea of there being something beyond all this is so necessary that it barely matters what that something is. Maybe it’s a reflection of our ironic distance and self-reflection – we’re so distrusting of the surface of anything that we’re suckers for anarchic reinterpretation. Maybe it’s a measure of a spreading dissociative quality in our thinking. Intellectual pursuits are for the elite, so let them sweat away at the linear narratives; let them struggle over their psychological motivations and thematic structures – the rest of us zigzag and bop and weave.
The Matrix supported all of those explanations, and others, and the coming sequels will probably extend its scope further. But Identity has nothing beyond the thing itself. It’s inept as drama, because once the revelation has been logged, there’s no possible reason to care about some of the remaining plot strands. And like many of its cousins, the revelation hardly amounts to anything more than bookkeeping. So now we know the secret – and the way that’s enriched our lives from where we were two hours earlier is…what?
Opening the same day as Identity, James Foley’s Confidence represents a more earthbound paradigm. Edward Burns plays a con man who puts together a big job for local crime boss Dustin Hoffman; Andy Garcia and Rachel Weisz are in the cast too. No less than Identity, the movie has twists and turns and people not being who you thought they were and events not being what they seem. The difference is that in Confidence, this is nothing to do with other levels of reality or suchlike – it’s all a reflection of master con men at work.
Although this is a more organic form of plotting, such moves generally end up seeming just about as abstract as the likes of Identity. The con always proceeds more impeccably than anything you ever observe in the real world. The con artist perfectly anticipates his victims’ reactions – even when they think they’ve got the upper hand on him, they’re mainly playing out a narrative that will ultimately lead right where he wants it. It’s an inherently cold, dehumanizing genre – Ocean’s Eleven, a recent exemplar, might be the least viscerally engaging hit movie of the last few years.
Ironically (or perhaps necessarily), the genre is populated by colourful characters – Hoffman in Confidence being the latest addition to the gallery of eccentric rogues. These people often seem too volatile and impulsive to justify the con artist’s confidence in how they’ll behave. Confidence seems to delight in human diversity and possibility on one level, but in substance it oozes contempt, because no matter who they are, whatever their achievements and possibilities are, they’ll always end up right where the artist wants them.
That’s not a bad metaphor for a certain deterministic view of the world, of course. David Mamet, no intellectual lightweight, keeps returning to such material, yet each of his efforts in the genre seems less like his work than the last. I think directors frequently imagine they can transcend the form, only to find the structure heavier than they’d anticipated. Neil Jordan, in the recent The Good Thief, did fairly well at avoiding this trap, although his movie seemed to me less distinctive than it did to others.
Still, Confidence is probably a better film than Identity overall. Foley (who also directed Glengarry Glen Ross) is a pro director. The film requires a certain volume of flashbacks and other trickery, but it avoids the visual gimmickry that overwhelms Mangold.