Categories
3 Stars Movies

Billy Bob Thornton’s doomed All the Pretty Horses

The doomed All the Pretty Horses should have, by all rights, been a golden ticket for all involved. Let’s run through its pedigree and prestige factors:

  • based on an acclaimed novel with popular name recognition
  • directed by an indie darling
  • screenplay by a proven specialist in adapting novels to film
  • starring beautiful young up-and-comers
  • score by a notable musician/producer
  • distributed by a household-name movie company known for boffo box office and landing major awards

Instead, a heavily compromised version underperformed and was widely panned, demoralizing director Billy Bob Thornton, alienating musician Daniel Lanois, and generally disappointing everyone. Thornton’s presence in the tabloids at the time may have contributed to audiences not taking him seriously. But the key to understanding what what went wrong is, unsurprisingly, Miramax and — trigger warning! — Harvey Weinstein. Yuck.

Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures is an essential history of the indie boomlet within the 1990s movie industry. Particular attention is paid to the illustrative saga of Miramax, for whom Thornton had made a tremendous splash as writer, director, and star of Sling Blade in 1996. Studio cofounder Harvey Weinstein was riding high at the time for his marketing acumen, but was simultaneously loathed for interfering in the artistic process — to the point where he was known within the industry as “Harvey Scissorhands”.

Matt Damon and Henry Thomas in All the Pretty Horses
Matt Damon and Henry Thomas wonder what went wrong.

Biskind relates how Weinstein forced Thornton to excise more than an hour from his initial 3-4 hour assembly cut, partly out of understandable practicality (a shorter running time would allow theaters to run more screenings per day) but also petty retaliation for Thornton’s refusal years before to similarly abbreviate Sling Blade. Thornton has since asserted that the assembly cut was just that, and distinct from his intended 2 hour and 42 minute cut. However unjust the butchery may have been, it’s hard to imagine how Thorton thought he could possibly get a nearly three-hour-long film into theaters without having a contractual right to final cut, even under a hypothetical producer less ruthless than Weinstein.

After Orson Welles met similar obstacles during the making of The Magnificent Ambersons, he struggled for the rest of his life to continue making movies his way. Biskind heartbreakingly describes Thornton as beaten down and defeated, to the point where he suffered health issues. In the coming years, Weinstein’s far worse abuses of power would become more widely known. In light of how he abused and exploited women, the stifling of a few movies may seem rather unimportant. But it is a pity that this particular one is so compromised.

Penélope Cruz in All the Pretty Horses
Penélope Cruz has more chemistry with this hat than she does with Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses. Seriously though, she looks fantastic in this hat.

It’s difficult to judge how I might have experienced the film if I had not known ahead of time that it was so heavily edited, but it does feel off somehow. It has notably uneven pacing; weirdly accelerating through some plot developments with choppy montages, especially in the opening sequence when Cole (Matt Damon) is forced to leave his family ranch, but slows down to a pensive crawl for others. The romance between Cole and Alejandra (Penélope Cruz) feels inert, and the looming threat from her powerful, overprotective father (Rubén Blades) never materializes. It’s hard to guess whether the full film fleshed any of this out.

Miramax was not averse to letting finished films sit on the shelf if deemed not of box office or award value — or, perversely, if insurance incentivized them to strategically not release them. Miramax also doesn’t have much of a history of releasing special editions for the home entertainment market, even for their biggest pictures. So for a movie that was not a success in its ostensibly more commercial Scissorhands incarnation, it’s interesting to note that Miramax did entertain the release of the director’s cut of All the Pretty Horses on DVD, but Thornton and Lanois refused.

Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses
From the movie’s brief foray into a ruthlessly bleak world more characteristic of Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre.

Weinstein had disliked Lanois’ unconventional guitar-based score, despite his fame and proven success with Sling Blade, and commissioned an entirely new, more conventional one from Marty Stuart. Lanois now proudly refuses to license his original score in any form, and Thornton will not release his director’s cut without it. Thornton and Lanois are still close friends, as evidenced by his appearance in the documentary Here Is What Is, so it’s safe to say the conflict is not between them. Hopefully now that Weinstein split from Miramax in 2005, the company folded in 2010, and Weinstein is finally incarcerated, cooler heads might allow the proper release of the definitive film and score.

Another ray of hope is that Cormac McCarthy has since become an even bigger literary superstar — having been selected for Oprah’s Book Club and enjoyed successful film adaptations of his novels No Country for Old Men and The Road — and perhaps his hard-earned Hollywood clout might help a definitive version of All the Pretty Horses see the light of day. The counterargument is that his collaboration with Ridley Scott, The Counselor, was itself a bizarre fiasco.

All the Pretty Horses is probably one of McCarthy’s most palatable works, which I don’t intend as a backhanded compliment; it is more accessible in comparison to his more characteristic poetically bleak tone. Its back half (the protagonist’s imprisonment and an extended chase sequence) is closer in spirit and tone to the likes of Blood Meridian, but its core elements of friendship and romance provide some relief from the brutality of his resolutely cruel literary universe. As the first volume in a loose trilogy called The Border Trilogy, Thornton’s film could very well have kicked off a motion picture franchise. Revisiting or continuing this saga is unlikely to say the least, but it would be welcome.

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy make an odd couple in The Counselor

Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott were bound to be an odd couple in any case. All the richly composed and poetic dialogue in the world doesn’t disguise the fact The Counselor is basically a grimy, scuzzy, sleazy, feel-bad potboiler.

There is an element of pulp to several of McCarthy’s novels, but here it’s brought to the forefront. As highly regarded as he is as a literary novelist, his subject matter is still mostly comprised of cowboys, bandits, whores, thieves, madmen, and murderers.

This is Ridley Scott in full erotic thriller mode (see Black Rain and Someone to Watch Over Me). He has somewhat tamped down the extremely grainy stylization he used to employ (especially in Gladiator and Black Hawk Down), opting instead for a sun-blazed Miami Vice-like palette. Perhaps McCarthy should pitch his next screenplay to Michael Mann?

Most impressive is the huge all-star cast. Even the smallest roles are populated by familiar faces (watch for Rosie Perez, Dean Norris, and John Leguizamo). I have never been one of those people who dislike Cameron Diaz (her most famous detractor being perhaps Sophia Coppola who lampooned her in Lost in Translation), but here she is perhaps the weakest link.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

Adapting Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: After the End of the World

Genre fiction has long resided on the less reputable side of the divide between escapism and literature. But as The Atlantic notes, cult writers like Neil Gaiman are increasingly crossing over into the mainstream while established novelists like Michael Chabon are exploring sci-fi/horror/fantasy territory blazed by the likes of Margaret Atwood.

Few have blurred these barriers as well as Cormac McCarthy, a writer with firm bona fides in the literary world whose devastating 2006 novel The Road incorporated elements of speculative fiction. It became a crossover hit and landed a spot in the world’s biggest book club: The Oprah Winfrey Show. Its vision of a burned world populated by dehumanized scavengers is sometimes even described as a zombie story, sparking an argument over whether or not it qualifies as horror or science fiction. My own two-fold answer: yes, of course, to both. But the question is also irrelevant. Speculative futures and fanciful technologies are not the true subjects of science fiction, but rather means to an end: illuminating the world of here and now.

The Road was in theaters roughly contemporaneously with its dimwitted cousin Terminator Salvation, the fourth entry in an escapist action franchise detailing a formulaic battle for the fate of humanity. But The Road was set at a time long after such heroic struggles were lost, if they were even attempted. The world itself is terrifyingly realized onscreen, using actual desolate locations: particularly an eerily abandoned stretch of turnpike in Pittsburgh, and the still largely lifeless blast zone around Mount St. Helens in Washington. The only technical problem I noticed was the somewhat distracting tooth continuity throughout. Decay: now you see it, now you don’t.

A scene from The Road
“If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different.”

I re-read the novel a few days before first seeing the film, which turned out to be a mistake. The book remained the emotional, visceral experience it was on my first read, but its freshness in my mind kept me somewhat detached throughout the movie. I could not help but dispassionately analyze the particulars of the adaptation. I’m among those who loved the book, but didn’t necessarily desire the movie to be faithful.

The mechanics of how it could be done fascinated me. How do you adapt a book that lives and dies on the Steinbeckian terse, harsh, understated poetry of its language? Joe Penhall’s screenplay is remarkably faithful in terms of plot and sequence of events, and the few changes are effective. In particular, a neat narrative trick near the end seamlessly combines three separate incidents into a single sequence: The Boy falls ill, The Man loots an abandoned boat, and they are robbed.

It’s hard to imagine a better director for The Road than John Hillcoat, whose previous film The Proposition, from a screenplay by Nick Cave, could have been the movie that McCarthy never made himself. But The Road as a film somehow fails to recreate the emotionally devastating effect of its source material. Another candidate for director might have been Alfonso Cuaron, who managed to transform P.D. James’ novel Children of Men into a gut-wrenching vision of a near-future society disintegrating before our eyes.

McCarthy had presented Hillcoat with a significant challenge; the novel is a long denouement to a story we didn’t see. Perhaps the strongest argument against genre fans claiming The Road as their own is that most zombie stories concern the fall of civilization. The Road is set long after this cataclysm, where everything has been taken away, even the very names of the people and places that remain. All that remains is the drudgery of mere survival.

Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Road
“If there is a God up there, he would have turned his back on us by now. And whoever made humanity will find no humanity here.”

That said, McCarthy does glancingly allude to a cataclysmic event (possibly a natural disaster) followed by human violence on a massive scale, waged by tribes described as Bloodcults. There are many aspects of the back story that Hillcoat and Penhall opt to clarify (particularly the Man and Boy’s family life), but the massive wars that swept the world in the preceding years is not one of them. This largely unspoken past in crucial to the book, as the reader contemplates how the Man, the Boy, and everyone they encountered somehow lived through it all, be it through fighting, hiding, or collaborating. The Man’s strategy for survival is to lay low and instill in his son the need to preserve a metaphorical “light” of basic humanity. We see numerous alternative strategies that also worked, but which result in the destruction of the soul. One such walking dead man we meet is Old Man (Robert Duvall), who apparently collaborated with the Bloodcults until the toxic landscape claimed his health.

Some of McCarthy’s poetically spare language is preserved in the limited voiceover narration delivered by the Man (Viggo Mortensen). But some evidence exists onscreen that the filmmakers feared the audience might not be able to put two and two together. While being scarcely mentioned by name in the book, “cannibalism” is one of the first words spoken in the film. It presents this savagery as the specific omnipresent threat that forces the Man and Boy to remain totally alone and self-reliant. Another clue the movie is more obsessed with cannibalism than the book: in the closing credits, a character is chillingly named only as “well-fed woman”. That’s certainly more humor than can be found in the text.

Robert Duvall, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Viggo Mortensen in The Road
“I told the boy when you dream about bad things happening, it means you’re still fighting and you’re still alive. It’s when you start to dream about good things that you should start to worry.”

Another key element I missed from the book is the realization that the Boy has literally never seen another child, ever, which goes a long way towards explaining his careless reaction to glimpsing another boy. Long accustomed to hiding from all contact, he explodes with the dangerous need to connect. Although The Boy has evidently known little else, he seems to have the inborn need to cling to signs of life. The boy also marvels at a glimpse of a beetle whose metallic-like wings refract the grayish light and provide one of the film’s only flashes of color.

The ending of the novel is something that can only work in prose. A simple change in verb tense hints at a possible future, a radical change in thinking for characters previously forced to organize their lives around immediate survival. Beyond an overarching quest to reach the ocean, they indulged in little talk of the future, or of any kind of continuance at all. Life on the literal and metaphorical road is a sick combination of drudgery and terror. Every event in their lives is sudden, unexpected, and never likely to recur in quite the same way. The final words in the novel are perhaps the first thing the boy hears that hints of a comforting routine he might expect in his future. Translated to film, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall do perhaps the only thing they could do: plug a bunch of words into a character’s mouth that was silent in the book.

Charlize Theron in The Road
“My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born.”

The casting is pretty much perfect, particularly Kodi Smit-McPhee, who so resembles Charlize Theron that it’s eerie. Even the supporting cast is superlative, including Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Michael K. Williams, Molly Parker, and Garret Dillahunt. The latter is an interesting, versatile actor, having previously played an upper-crust psychopath in Deadwood, a criminal idiot in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a murderous cyborg in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and here a vile cannibal.

%d bloggers like this: