Friday, February 21, 2014

The Gingerbread Man (1998)

USA, 114 minutes
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: John Grisham, Clyde Hayes
Photography: Changwei Gu
Music: Mark Isham
Editor: Geraldine Peroni
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Embeth Davidtz, Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah, Robert Duvall, Tom Berenger, Famke Janssen, Clyde Hayes, May Whitman

The last few years I've been making a project of going through Robert Altman's considerable body of movies and TV episodes. No surprise, they are wildly uneven. I have even formulated a Paul Dooley axiom, though he is an actor I enjoy: Any Robert Altman movie with Paul Dooley may safely be avoided—with the possible exceptions of A Perfect Couple, Popeye, and A Wedding (and if they are best in class, I hope you can see what I'm talking about).

Paul Dooley is not in The Gingerbread Man, which I saw when it was new. Not much had stayed with me beyond a vague sense that I liked it. Most of the reviews I looked at beforehand were mostly unimpressed. "Routine thriller, in which the director's usual quirkiness has been reined in by the script," says Halliwell's 2008, which was typical. Add to that, The Gingerbread Man has many earmarks of Oscar-bait—big names in juxtaposition all over the place, John Grisham, Altman himself, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, etc.—but the January release date suggests it was considered a dog by the studio, which lowered my expectations further. Last (and least), in one of those Hollywood coincidences that seem to happen all the time, it was second to the market (though it was shot first) with a movie set in the surprisingly exotic location of Savannah, Georgia, after Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, released two months earlier.

Playing this kind of game, you can probably guess what happened. I thought The Gingerbread Man was terrific.

In his commentary on the DVD, Altman continually comes back to the fact that he considers The Gingerbread Man a thriller, an evident important distinction. He even discusses Hitchcock, specifically Rear Window. He has a point to the extent that both The Gingerbread Man and Rear Window operate a lot like some kind of inside-out noir. We see only events as they unfold—we see little of the scheming, which so often is such a big part (and arguably the point) of classic noirs such as The Big HeatDouble Indemnity, and Scarlet Street.

The Gingerbread Man is not as good as Rear Window but it's pretty good. The screenplay is sharp and relentless, setting hooks and traps for us as surely as for anyone in the movie. Rick Magruder (Kenneth Branagh) is a swaggering criminal defense attorney whose focus of attention shifts between manipulating the system to do his job, manipulating women to get laid, and manipulating anyone in sight for attention, in approximately that order, which makes him hard to like. Still, his heart might be in the right place, as when he takes Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz) under his wing, a struggling waitress presently being victimized by her father Dixon (Robert Duvall), a degenerate Georgia backwoodsman who is mentally ill. Soon enough, Magruder is locked in mortal combat with Dixon Doss, who among other things appears to be sending Magruder photos of his children with their eyes burned out by cigarettes.

Altman assembles all the elements that make this work like a clockwork. It's actually a meticulously constructed picture, with a great cast (Downey as a private investigator working for Magruder is particularly good), a production design emphasizing the dark and the red, an intricate sound strategy (with layers of ambient noise, musical sound effects, and a subdued score), and a methodically worked out ever-twisting plot that keeps the developments coming fast. To Altman's point, my basic expectation of a thriller is that it should be something of an amusement park ride, and that is adequately satisfied by The Gingerbread Man, which is what surprised me most on getting another look at it. It's completely engaging start to finish even if it lacks points in the feel-good division, which as much as anything I think is likely responsible for the January release.

The best part of the whole thing is the hurricane—not just because it's the usual effective enough unifying device that Altman turns to for endings in his movies (the snowstorm in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the earthquake in Short Cuts, the tornado in Dr. T and the Women, even the assassination in Nashville), but because, really, I'm not sure he ever did it better than here, on the level of pure sensation. The weather, the approaching storm, often punctuated by weather reports on TVs playing in the backgrounds, as well as everything we see of wind and rain in the exteriors (and this movie has a lot of exteriors), contributes as a continuing source of tension continually worrying the action. It explodes at the climax almost perfectly, two brute forces of nature at once, with a context of vicious howling wind and dumping rains. It's remarkable start to finish.

One of the most interesting things Altman says on the DVD commentary is when he points out, in an almost disconsolate tone, perhaps even defensive, that first viewings of The Gingerbread Man are unlike any other. After that, it becomes a different movie. That's true enough, in terms of the secrets and reveals of the story. But it ties together so many extraordinary pieces that go into making a movie, compacting them expertly into the shape of a thriller. And it's not exactly true to say he's never made another movie like this, because evidently he liked working with such a narrative strategy enough that he was at it again a few years later with Gosford Park, his amalgam of Upstairs, Downstairs and The Rules of the Game. Gosford Park is not a thriller but it also has a secret and a reveal that also make the first viewing different from any other. I've actually seen The Gingerbread Man a few times now, and  have to say that, even for some of its cartoony aspects (notably the graveyard-swarming army of hillbillies led by Dixon Doss), it stands up to multiple viewings like a sturdy little town battened down and pummeled by high winds and rain.

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