With these last ten I sought out the Detective film. Not the classic Private-Eye or the dogged Police Detective (although one police detective did slip into this list), but the every-person who stumbles across obsession and never quite makes it back.
Most of them are ex-cops. Some are writers and directors and garbagemen and insurance investigators and bartenders and pathological liars. And most of them don’t know what they’re doing. But they do it anyway. They bumble along like shaggy dogs looking for buried bones.
There’s not an orderly, Sherlockian way to these films. They’re messy (some of them are just plain bad) and mostly forlorn and patient and not really intent on solving something sometimes. But they do tackle obsession and its processes of debilitations.
Spenser Confidential (2020) – There’s nothing funny about Peter Berg; other than the fact that he thinks he’s funny. He seems to be having fun mixing action and comedy with a touch of darkness in this world of crime. But he’s not odd enough to handle this gumbo. He’s just not an off-kilter guy. He’s just a dude. A dude drunk on dudes. A real man’s man. Somebody who probably thinks he’s throwback. A throwback to what, I’m not sure. I don’t think he’s sure either. Who know what inspiration he’s drawing from? Is he a Raoul Walsh fan? A William Wellman fan? Walter Hill? Maybe that’s the guy he’s paying homage to. But there’s no real grittiness of Hill’s best work in Berg’s. The latter’s action is derivative and campy, just like his dialogue and characters. He’s playing a video game when Hill’s creating cinema. Not to knock video games but Berg doesn’t even have the decency to consider the source material. I know, you have to separate them, they’re two different mediums, but I’d have to think if Berg was taking Parker’s characters seriously, the movie would be better. But hey, you have a shirtless Wahlberg backing you, what do I know.
8 Million Way to Die (1986) – Another cop who fucks up, gets fired and transitions smoothly into private-eye-without-a-license-land. The set-up is fine, in a vague, intriguing, Los Angeles haze way. Something that involves a call-girl and drugs and that’s about it. Like, I said, it’s fine for LA. Some mysteries have started off with less. Moose Malloy anyone? But there’s no rabbit hole here. No twists and turns, and not much darkness outside of an addiction to alcohol, which Bridges sells the dickens out of. Well, maybe I’m underselling drug addiction. It’s as dark as you can get. And its undercurrent in this film shouldn’t be tossed aside so easily, given Bridges’ performance. But there’s nothing else holding it up. And Ashby knows that and switches to full-on improve-mode. Which gives us two scenes that are achingly terrible. The first one is half-way through the film where Bridges and Garcia face-off in a rooster fight. All one actor can do is get in the other’s face, while the other one can only repeat the phrase, “I don’t think so.” And the scene at the warehouse in San Pedro (a lot of fucked up shit goes down in San Pedro Hollywoodland) has the whole cast yelling at each other trying to figure out how to end this very bad movie, so we can get to the couple on the beach starting a new life.
A Kind of Murder (2016) – Patrick Wilson as the Turtleneck Detective. He’s a writer; he keeps telling everyone, especially the flat-top boy from Mad Men. All those clippings of macabre murders and loose imaginings you shove into your short-stories gets turned against you. And Wilson is The Blunderer for sure. He gives his name and address out to murderers all willy-nilly. I mean, he even knows the man is a murderer. He seeks the killer out and gives him his name and address. You want to create a story. Not just write it, but live it. And keep telling people you’re a writer and convince yourself that none of it is real. But maybe your turtleneck fits too tight around your neck and tucking in your sweater is not all that great a look, and maybe you’re smoking too many cigarettes and not paying attention to that guy you know is a murderer inside that Frank Lloyd Wright house of the mind you live in. By then, though, you’re bleeding out in some sewer straight out of The Third Man and doesn’t matter anymore.
Road to Nowhere (2010) – The director as detective. As the archeologist of story. The director as an excavator of character and whim. Hellman puts us inside another man’s movie. Another person’s art. He makes us conscious of every move being made. Conscious of the mystery of muses. Conscious of what it’s like to create and how volatile art can be. This may be the most self-conscious movie there is without drawing attention to itself. If that makes sense. There’s no flashy camera moves, or scene-stealing acting, just this Lynchian hum in the background of every scene. It makes you wonder what Hellman’s work has done for Lynch’s. Wondering can turn into guessing and spill into tone. And that may be where the connection lies. In those spaces of silences they share; where dream-states creep in the frames and film becomes more an embodiment of what happens when we close our eyes and sleep. Both directors are dreaming themselves into the real-world. Dreaming themselves onto the big screen. Making their own big, Hollywood messes.
A Dark Place (2018) – A garbageman as detective. A blunt metaphor for the things and people that get thrown away in our society. The director wants us to know from the very beginning that this is Trump’s America. Somewhere in bumsfuck Pennsylvania. No doubt, somewhere in that weird western region that spawns all the doofus quarterbacks in the world. And to keep the bluntness going, Donny is a bit of a doofus himself. The movie never quite calls him that, though. The other characters are way nicer than you’d think. Well, as far as that goes. No one calls him slow to his face. They just preen around the edges of Donny being a little off. Which doesn’t seem very Trumpian at all. He and all those Q’Anon folks would let Donny have it. But maybe they wouldn’t. He’s one of their own. On a quest to expose a learned doctor of his pederast ways. Pizza-gate anyone. Is this a Q’Anon movie? Notice that the cop that covers up the murder of child that was being abused, and may be a pedophile himself, gets no comeuppance like the evil pediatrician, who gets an arrow through the neck from the surprise entrance of a crossbow at the end. I guess we don’t need to wonder what lives matter here.
The Pledge (2001) – Retirement played out as a long con-game for a retired Sheriff’s detective. Obsession is a long, tormenting worm. It burrows down deep, so you can forget about it, and maybe find a way to live somehow fulfilled. But when it squirms, we come-a-running. Jerry Black gives it a one final go on a string of child murders, just after he’s retired, then seemingly puts the obsession aside and moves up to the mountains, buys a dilapidated gas station from Harry Dean Stanton and plans to fish his senior years away. And over a loooong middle act, we made to believe he has done just that, moved on into his glory years, even though he’s moved smack dab in the middle of the murdered-child-triangle. But the tug that Black feels is not the pull of a fish biting his line, but the squirm of the worm that’s he’s already swallowed; hook, line and sinker. And who’s on the other end of the line? Futility and the random chaos of the universe. If you get enough haphazard atom-smashing from the cosmos, you’ll be left mumbling outside a useless gas station too.
Mute (2017) – In order to solve a mystery, one must be able to ask questions. The easiest way to do that is use your voice. Going around asking questions with your insolent mouth. It’s what Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe are known for; a swaggering muzzle that’s quick with a quip that usually gets them in and out of trouble. Jones goes the opposite way here. Where Harrison Ford’s Decker was a man that found himself trapped in the shell of Spade’s trench coat in a future cyberpunk LA; Jones’ Leo finds himself without vocal cords in a similar punkish-noir city of Berlin. Leo lost his voice in boating accident as a kid. We see him floating in the water, all slashed up by the boat’s propeller at the beginning. And he’s seen throughout the movie exacting his will over water like Aegir the sea giant. The whole thing is tinged in neo-noirish blues, as if this future underbelly is drowned in melted ice caps. It’s fairly on the nose, but it works. It’s not an off-world, world. The characters are always looking up and not down at a future cityscape. The crime doesn’t go as high as the Tyrell Organization, it stays in the gutter and deals with AWOL soldiers and black-market prosthetics and pedophilic surgeons. It works on the simple wisdom that loudmouths are usually assholes and the quiet guys may end up finishing first.
The Little Things (2021) – Denzel plays an ex-LA County Sheriff’s detective with tunnel vision. He’s been booted to San Berdoo and somehow wiggles his way into his former employer’s investigation of a string of killings. Young girls are being stalked and killed by Jerod Leto, in a deliberately off kilter performance. There’s never any question that Leto is their guy, yet there’s no evidence. But we’re made unsure the whole way through. So much so, you stop asking questions and begin to think about turning it off. Washington, Malik and Leto are all doing their own things here and the never seem to line up. Malik seems more interested in starring across Washington and leveling up his cool to the point that it’s just ridiculous chic. Denzel just seems bored. Leto, well, whatever he’s doing all, it’s about outlandish choices. The walk, the belly, the clinched teeth-talking and the contacts are straight from the serial killer warehouse on the Warner Brothers lot. At this point the movie is just a satirical comment on the obsession America has with the serial killer. It has to be, right? It’s the only thing that makes sense about this movie.
Memento (2000) – The investigation as a never-ending tragedy. Trauma takes hold and creates a helix that we’re stuck in until we learn to heal. Leonard Shelby’s condition allows him to ride this figure-eight in a never-ending loop of evidence-gathering. Because that’s where the action is in a mystery. The slow, monotony of wool gathering. Little tidbits that leave you with nothing until it starts to look whole. And Shelby takes the evidence-gathering to a high-body-artform. He’s the Illustrated Man, if Rod Steiger were and insurance investigator in Los Angeles. His condition of constant short-term memory loss gives him the advantage of living in a choose-your-own-mystery novel. He’s a smiling and amiable young man with dementia. You think the mystery is happening to Leonard, when in fact he’s the pages in the book and people are reading him. They’re the ones choosing their own mystery to follow. Leonard’s just the carny, pulling the levers on the ride.
Disappearance at Clifton Hill (2019) – David Cronenberg rises from the depths of Niagara like a Canadian Creature from the Black Lagoon. And being north of the border that entails a really nice, gray-haired man in an impeccably put together scuba outfit who happens to be podcaster. He welcomes a woman on the shore who’s a pathological liar as detective, which creates a similar experience as Leonard Shelby’s. It makes you untrustful of the narrative and a posits itself as squarely in the trope of the anti-private-eye. The genre is so full of insolent men who have a good bead on things well before anyone in their right mind should. Somewhere between the middle and end they just seem to pluck something out of nowhere with Sherlockian aplomb. But not the anti-detective. They seem to bumble around in their bubble of obsession, knocking things over and hoping to piss off someone with enough info to further the obsession along. See, they aren’t getting paid like a private-eye, it’s not a job ultimately, it’s fueled solely on a haunted imagination. Which is what we get here with Tuppence and Cronenberg. Tuppence having seen something as a child may be spinning her own true-crime stories that have nothing do with reality as an adult. Cronenberg’s doing the same thing with his podcast. It’s a cogent offshoot of our obsession with true-crime and the many media that profit off of it.