The Ninth Gate

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  • Year: 1999
  • Director: Roman Polanski
  • Starring: Johnny Depp, Frank Langella, Lena Olin

The Ninth Gate is not Roman Polanski’s most famous film involving the Devil. I could have reviewed Rosemary’s Baby, but everyone’s seen it, and the lead character is not really the Faust of that story. Polanski obviously knew how to do supernatural horror well, as well as detective noir (Chinatown), so bringing those two elements together in The Ninth Gate only seemed natural.

Johnny Depp portrays Dean Corso, a book dealer who specializes in ripping people off. Corso is hired by Boris Balkan (Frank Langella), a book collector who specializes in books about the Devil, to authenticate his copy of The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows. Written by a 17th century Satanist, The Nine Gates is a book adapted by one allegedly written by the Devil himself, which if used right can conjure him up. Three copies exist, and Balkan claims only one is real.

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Is this a dumb premise? I mean, there are literally engravings in the book engraved LCF, like an artist would sign his initials. On the other hand, it is not the most far-fetched premise in this Match-Up. Just listen to some of these—the Devil hires a private investigator, the Devil invites his son to join his law firm, the Devil faces an American Congressman in a supernatural court. There is a suspension of disbelief in these movies, regardless of your views of the spiritual world, so a book written by the Devil isn’t all that odd.

Corso quickly learns that there are people who will do anything to get their hands on the book. Balkan had purchased his from Andrew Telfer (Willy Holt), but it’s revealed that it was Telfer’s wife Liana (Lena Olin) who was the real Satanist, and that led to Andrew’s suicide. In an absolutely ridiculous scene, Liana tries to seduce Corso for the book, and although they have sex, he keeps the book. She then hisses at him, because apparently that’s scary. It’s weird.

The other two copies are in Europe, however, so Corso does a lot of traveling. Victor Fargas (Jack Taylor) owns one of the copies in his small but valuable library. Fargas doesn’t seem to have any wish to summon the Devil, but instead only owns the book for its rarity. Corso discovers that the copy is identical to Balkan’s except for one major detail. Of the nine engravings in Balkan’s, three are initialed LCF. In Fargas’ copy, three different engravings are initialed LCF.

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But it could just be the London College of Fashion.

Balkan tells Corso over the phone to do anything he can to get Fargas’ copy, but Corso mentions that Fargas said he would never sell it for any price. The next day, a mysterious girl (Emmanuelle Seigner) leads Corso back to Fargas’ house, where Fargas has been murdered, the LCF engravings ripped out of his book, and the rest of the book burned in the fire. Well, we’re about one act into the movie and the mystery’s already been solved for us. Barring any major twists, it’s clear already that Balkan killed Fargas and is looking simply to get the nine true engravings and frame Corso (or perhaps Liana, I suppose) for any crimes he commits. Corso is either unaware of this, or the money tempts him to stay in, so he visits Baroness Kessler (Barbara Jefford), the owner of the third copy. She’s killed too and the engravings are ripped out, moving along…

Liana and her demonic henchman eventually steal the book from Corso, so Corso and the girl (she’s never named) follow them to an old country house where a Satanic mass is taking place. Here’s where the film gets really stupid. Yes, it was slow and fairly lifeless up until this point, but at least it was clearly going somewhere. First of all, this cult ritual is not even remotely creepy, but instead looks like a book club where raincoats are the required uniform.

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Second, after Liana’s henchman is unsuccessful in killing Corso and the girl, they just walk into the ritual with their faces in full view!

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Liana is the one in the front of the room. Plus, there’s like, what, 30 people in the room? Corso is clearly not just going to disappear in the crowd. It reminded me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz where the characters sneak in to the Witch’s castle, except those costumes hid their identities better… and one of them was a clumsy, blubbering lion!

Balkan shows up and calls the whole thing mumbo-jumbo, saying they’ve exploited the book’s true meaning and turned into an excuse for an orgy. I get that the film is trying to say something about religion here to an extent, but in the midst of a scene that makes no plot-sense, it doesn’t land. Balkan then kills Liana in front of everyone, scares the worshipers of by saying “Boo,” and leaves with all nine engravings.

Corso follows Balkan to an abandoned castle, trying to get him to pay up, but Balkan is too obsessed with summoning the Devil. Corso gets stuck in a trapdoor and watches as Balkan performs the ritual. So, we’re finally at the scene the film has been building up too, right? What’s the big moment in this movie? Frank Langella setting himself on fire, claiming he is summoning the Devil and is immune to the flames.

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This is for Masters of the Universe, isn’t it? Cutthroat Island? Junior? This is for Junior? Curse you Arnold…

Corso maneuvers his way through the trap door, takes the engravings, and shoots Balkan. The girl shows up outside the castle where she and Corso have sex, the castle in the background still burning, because good lighting I guess. The girl then reveals that one of Balkan’s engravings was a fake, which there has not been a single clue pointing towards, and that the real one is at a bookshop Corso visited early in the movie.

The true engraving shows a woman, who looks very much like Seigner’s character, outside the castle. Corso returns to the castle, which is now aglow with a supernatural light, and he enters. FADE TO WHITE.

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I have rarely, if ever, felt this empty after watching a movie. There are so many problems with this ending. Let’s start with the biggest one—why did Corso want to enter the ninth gate anyway? He goes from having no interest in it at all to suddenly just wanting to go through. It’s made clear over and over again that he is only in this case for the money and perhaps to see some rare books. He is clearly unfazed by the various occult stuff throughout the movie, but then all of a sudden he just decides “Yeah, why not?” That is not character development, but rather a complete 180 with zero explanation.

Second, the road to entering the ninth gate is a really strange one. So you have to have no interest in it to begin with, find someone who really does want it, let him come really close to finding it, standby as he fails to perform the ritual correctly, kill him, and take the manuscripts, have sex with a demon who might actually be the Devil, find the true final engraving, and go back to the castle and walk in? Well, I suppose that is nine steps.

Finally, there is no resolution whatsoever. If you’ve read my other posts, you know I have no problems with somewhat ambiguous endings like Eyes Wide Shut or Donnie Darko, but this is a cop-out. Sure, Corso walks into another plane of existence, but why do we care? There are plenty of stories that end with a character entering enlightenment, sometimes without a lot of questions answered, but are those are done with effort and care for the characters.

Take for example, in perhaps their first comparison in history, C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (some spoilers here). In the third book in the Narnia series The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (just skip the film version), Reepicheep, the second funniest talking rodent in entertainment, dreams of entering another world.

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He is, of course, the funniest.

Through the entire book, Reepicheep talks of Aslan’s country, the Narnia equivalent of Heaven. The Dawn Treader sails nearly to the end of the flat Narnian world, and Reepicheep sails off by himself to find it. We the reader don’t follow him there, but it doesn’t matter. He’s already in heaven, because he knows he’s on his way. We don’t have to see him get there, because his pure joy has already been reached. It’s been his greatest desire for the whole journey, and now it’s been granted. It’s the simplest of character arcs, but at least it is one.

For something a little more complex, take astronaut Dave Bowman from 2001. He gets taken to another plane of existence at the end of the movie, even though he didn’t know he wanted it. 2001 is an ambiguous movie on the whole, so you can make your own interpretations, but I believe the enlightenment is Dave’s reward from a higher power for finally controlling technology. He has finally evolved, and is ready to see something no human ever has. Once again, this is an arc. He learns something, he grows, and he is enlightened.

When Dean Corso enters the ninth gate, who cares? He wasn’t even interested in it until 5 minutes prior. The film is not about “the journey,” because it’s all been a fairly cliched buildup to the actual entering of the ninth gate. When you don’t show us anything of what he sees, it’s merely pulling the rug out of from under us. I’ve seen reviews from critics who like the film, but no one defends this ending.

If Depp perhaps played the slightest bit of emotion into this character, maybe we would be invested, but I still don’t think so. Basically, every main character is a horrible person. You’re not going to make an audience care when it’s a bland protagonist involving himself in a world of murderous Satanists vs. other murderous Satanists. Corso has no character at all, except that he’s greedy and horny, so why are we supposed to like him? Honestly, the only important character I cared about was Fargas, because he was simply a book collector who was in over his head.

The film poses an even bigger question, though, than what Corso finds when he enters the ninth gate. Who is The Ninth Gate for? What audience is this aimed at? Mystery/film noir fans will lose interest, because every character’s motivation is pretty straightforward without any interesting twists and turns. It’s not for horror fans, because there are only a few scenes that are supposed to be scary, and they’re incredibly silly. Fans of Johnny Depp’s more colorful Burton-esque films will hate how bored he is through the whole thing, and fans of his more serious dramas will hate that he doesn’t really have a chance to do much acting. Most of all, rare book enthusiasts will hate the complete carelessness this film shows towards literary artifacts. Characters are constantly smoking around rare books and handling them without gloves, and a bunch of the books end up burned.

Since apparently this is an acceptable way to end things now…

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Story (7/20 Points)

The Ninth Gate takes what could be an interesting premise, and gives it a paint-by-numbers treatment with no investment in its own characters.

Faust (8/20 Points)

I’m usually a fan of Johnny Depp, but his character here has no life. His motivation goes from X to Y without any explanation of how he got there. It’s not a terrible performance or anything, just bland.

Devil (9/20 Points)

This is a bit tough to score, as the Devil is not explicitly a character, but he is definitely a presence throughout, and it’s at least a little intriguing and different that he wrote a book. It is also heavily implied that Emmanuelle Seigner’s nameless character is the Devil, but she exists solely to be a Deus ex Machina. Ok, so Deus ex Machina means “god in the machine,” but a Diablous ex Machina is an event that comes out of nowhere to hurt our hero, so it’s not that either.

Supporting Cast (6/20 Points)

When Frank Langella can’t make a villain compelling, something is wrong. He seems just as bored as Depp. Lena Olin manages to be over-the-top and boring as Liana. The actors who play the owners of the book’s other two copies (Jack Taylor and Barbara Jefford) are good enough though, and I at least cared a little about the former’s character.

Experience (5/20 Points)

The pacing is all over the place, with some scenes taking themselves incredibly seriously and others that are just downright goofy. It has something to do with the characters and writing too, but I just felt this big disconnect. I was never sucked into the film, but felt like I was watching from a distance, like it was a bad school play or something. The score is pretty forgettable too, but at least the castle at the end is a memorable set piece.

FINAL SCORE: 35%

I went back and double checked, so I can confirm this is the lowest score I have ever given a film on Movie Match-Up. Ironically this knocks Scrooge with Albert Finney out of the bottom spot, a film I criticized for showing Hell. Maybe I’m just never satisfied. I just cannot believe that the director of one of the greatest supernatural horror films of all time and perhaps the greatest detective film of all time cannot make a successful supernatural mystery. The Ninth Gate has its moments of intrigue, but they do not make up for the complete emptiness I felt after watching.

Next week, because I’m a glutton for punishment, we’ll be looking at the Bedazzled remake from 2000.

One year later, Collin took another look at this film and decided that maybe it wasn’t that bad. Read that here.

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The Devil’s Advocate

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  • Year: 1997
  • Director: Taylor Hackford
  • Starring: Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron

Today’s movie is one that I’ve learned almost everyone has strong feelings about. Now, no one seems to have the same feelings regarding The Devil’s Advocate, but everyone is sure passionate in their argument. Is it just a jumbled, campy mess? Is it Pacino at his lowest or should his character be this over-the-top? Does it collapse under the weight of its own ambition or does it take a mediocre book and give it more mature themes? Let’s take a look.

Keanu Reeves plays hotshot Florida defense attorney Kevin Lomax, who is defending Lloyd Gettys, a teacher accused of molesting a student. He believes Gettys to be innocent until he sees that the student’s testimony is clearly arousing him. Kevin asks for a recess and walks into the bathroom to think over his options. A reporter (Neal Jones) comments that it might be his first loss, causing Kevin to re-enter the courtroom and lay down a ruthless cross examination that leads to a not guilty verdict.

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Should have known he was Satan, he broke the cardinal rule of speaking in the bathroom.

While out drinking with his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) and some friends, Kevin is approached by Leamon Heath (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) of the law firm Milton, Chadwick, and Waters. They want Kevin to help pick a jury, but of course this is just a test to get him a job at the firm.

It’s a small thing, but I have to give credit to the writers for giving these characters memorable names. There are a ton of important players in this film, so giving them unique names like Leamon Heath, Eddie Barzoon, Cristabella Andreoli, and even John Milton really helps them stand out. For example, in the book, Kevin’s last name was Taylor. It’s not a bad-sounding name, but Kevin Lomax is definitely going to stick with you better.

Of course, Kevin takes the job at Milton’s firm. His first case is defending Phillipe Moyez (Delroy Lindo), a voodoo priest of sorts who is twisting his religion to justify abusing animals. Kevin uses the argument of kosher butchering and gets his client off. This was of course another test from Milton, one that leads him to the murder trial of the year, defending Alex Cullen (Craig T. Nelson).

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Mr. Nelson, a Joe Walsh is suing for resemblance rights.

Meanwhile, Mary Ann is not enjoying her new life in New York quite as much. She begins having visions of her new friends—spouses of the firm’s top employees—literally turning into demons. She goes from having a strong career in Florida to not working in New York, and even when she wants to have a child, she discovers she is infertile. Ultimately, this is what throws her over the edge.

As I mentioned above, Charlize Theron’s performance is one of the aspects of the film that is the most consistently praised. It’s an incredibly challenging part to play, because her character is clearly not well, but it’s a little ambiguous how much is real and how much is delusion. Just like in The Shining, some unsettling things are definitely happening, but what percentage is supernatural vs. natural is a little blurred. Sure, we learn by the end that Milton is actually the Devil, but are all of his associates demons? Do they show their true colors to Mary Ann to make her crazy? Does she see their true colors because she is a more moral person than most? Or are there demonic transformations a visual representation of what is going on in Mary Ann’s mind? I think it’s more than just the occasional jump scare, because this isn’t that kind of movie.

Another subplot involves Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones), the firm’s head of accounts, being investigated by the justice department. Barzoon is the fourth or fifth most important character in the film, but we still get a well-rounded picture of a man whose heyday is past. We get the impression that he used to be Milton’s favorite son (perhaps literally) before hotshot Kevin came along. Jeffrey Jones plays all the disgust of that so perfectly, but we still feel sorry for his character when he comes to his end in Central Park.

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Alright, let’s talk about the thing everyone remembers this movie for—Al Pacino’s Devil. If someone watches just the scene where he is screaming about God (or even more likely, a fraction of the scene), they would think it’s too over-the-top. However, you have to take the same approach I talked about in my analysis of Eyes Wide Shut. If you watch this scene without any real context of the rest of the film, yes, it seems like too much. However, if you have watched the first two hours of the film, it makes perfect sense.

Milton, first and foremost, is the partner at a law firm. He has to have a larger-than-life personality to be successful. He doesn’t shout every line in the film as viewers of the final scene only may believe, but he has incredible charisma. Plus, he’s basically the personification of hedonistic fun. He likes boxing, flamenco dance, and he has an endless parade of beautiful women at his side.

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Director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy specifically developed this character for Al Pacino, making him a tried-and-true New Yorker who takes the subway everywhere. Pacino is a relatively short man, so Milton is someone who brags “They don’t see me coming.” Instead of a physically imposing devil like Jonathan Pryce in Something Wicked This Way Comes or even Robert De Niro in Angel Heart, Pacino’s is mentally imposing, which is honestly way more intimidating and interesting.

In many Faustian tales, the lead will gradually become disillusioned with what the Devil has given him, arguing that he didn’t live up to his end of the deal. Now, to be fair, Kevin hasn’t literally sold his soul to Satan here, but he does work for him. I actually like how this Devil doesn’t gradually show himself more and more, instead creating something of an amoral persona. It makes his most horrifying act—the rape of Mary Ann-all the more unexpected.

The final thirty minutes are an incredible finale to the film, and they make it much more about the characters and ideas than just a violent confrontation. There are a lot of plot threads that rapidly come to a head, and my heart’s beating every time. When Mitch Weaver from the justice department gets hit by that car, it’s like something out of The Omen.

When Mary Ann kills herself and Kevin’s mother (Judith Ivey) reveals to him that Milton is his father, Kevin finally approaches Milton in his apartment. The gloves are finally off and Milton is ready to let loose. He’s prepared to offer Kevin everything, but not without ranting at God first.

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To be fair, I’m to blame for Jack and Jill.

This Devil views God as basically a boss who spited him, throwing in memorable phrases like “cosmic blooper reel” and “absentee landlord.” It’s fascinating to see people praising this scene saying things like “Wow, he destroyed God with that rant.” Congratulations, you just fell into his trap. You bought exactly what he was handing out without analyzing it.

It’s not just Kevin’s soul that Milton wants, though, but a child. He wants Kevin and Cristabella (revealed to also be the Devil’s child) to conceive a child who will go on to be the Antichrist. Kevin immediately challenges this though, saying “In the Bible, you lose. We’re destined to lose, Dad.” Milton fires back with perhaps the best line in the movie, “Consider the source, son.” Kevin does then begin to warm to this idea, giving into Cristabella’s seduction.

It’s shocking that after what Milton did to his wife that Kevin even entertains his offer, but it’s not the riches that tempt him. Milton promises all kinds of things, but Kevin is mostly interested in vanity. It’s the fame that gets Kevin, not the fortune. Milton even tells him his vanity is justified.

In a moment of clarity, though, Kevin pulls out the gun and turns it on himself. “Free will, right?” he says, right before he shoots. After Milton screams out in defeat and his world crumbles around him, Kevin finds himself back at the sink in the Florida courtroom.

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I swear, that’s the last time I read The Firm before I fall asleep.

In front of the whole court, Kevin announces he can no longer defend Gettys. On his way out the door, he is stopped by the same reporter from earlier, asking him for a story. After some insistence, Kevin says yes, and the reporter turns into Milton, saying “Vanity, definitely my favorite sin.”

There are plenty of ways to interpret the ending, but I don’t buy the “it was all a dream” explanation. I suppose you could argue in that moment of decision regarding Gettys, Kevin saw where the road would take him, but I don’t think so. I think God intervened, showing himself not to be such an “absentee landlord” after all. It’s a second chance after Kevin beat the Devil, and even if he does the wrong thing again, it was a chance—free will once more.

However, it’s not like Kevin gave into vanity just by agreeing to do an interview. He was being incredibly vain by announcing in front of the whole courtroom that he could no longer support Gettys. He could have easily called the opposing council into the judge’s chambers and perhaps worked something out there—he did have new information after all. Instead, he made this grand statement before everyone, “Look at me, I’m doing the right thing.”

In a way, even the way he escaped Milton’s grasp was vain. I want to be incredibly clear—I am not suggesting people who commit suicide are vain, but Kevin’s situation is unique. He could have just walked out of Milton’s apartment and gone back to Florida like his mother suggested. Instead, he had to make a statement by shooting himself right there in front of Milton and Cristabella.

I’ve said a lot of good things about this film, and I’ve clearly been avoiding the giant elephant in the room—Keanu Reeves. This is often cited as an incredible miscast… and yeah I can’t argue. It’s not that Reeves is a horrible actor, and with the right script that doesn’t ask too much, like Speed, he’s really good. In this, though, he is way over his head.

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Perhaps like his character is way over his head, but it’s not method acting.

He’s perfectly fine in the courtroom scenes, and I buy him as a well-read, intelligent lawyer. It’s in, well basically all the other scenes that he falls short. I guess you could argue he should be disinterested in the scenes with Mary Ann, but the scenes with Pacino? That’s where the true contrast of these two actors shows. In the final confrontation between Milton and Lomax, though, Reeves is way off with his uninterested delivery of should-be-emotional lines like “I don’t lose, I win.” Perhaps what bothers me most is that EDWARD NORTON was considered for the part. That may have been before Hackford and Gilroy took over, so I’m not sure how close it was to happening, but just imagine him selling the big emotional moments.

Also, I fear that the film is a bit rushed. There is a lot going on, and it’s not painful, but an extra half hour or so of run time would have helped. It would be pushing three hours, but it’s a compelling enough film, I think it would have worked. If you own the DVD or Blu-Ray, listen to Taylor Hackford’s director’s commentary. He’s a joy to listen to, and he does mention that the film got cut for a time a little more than he had hoped. You can watch some extended scenes too. The film works fine without these scenes, but I hope one day Hackford gets to release a proper director’s cut.

Let’s take a look at the final score.

Story (18/20 Points)

A little hurried and overblown? Perhaps, but I love its ambition, and it all comes together in an incredible climax. It all leads to the showdown between Kevin and Milton, and best of all, it’s a showdown of words.

Faust (8/20 Points)

Reeves is a decent actor, but there are so many great actors surrounding him. He has his moments, but overall it doesn’t work.

Devil (20/20 Points)

Smug, suave, funny, smart, and most of all charismatic, Pacino’s Devil is exactly what this film needs. He seems like an amoral, late 20th century kind of guy, but he is hiding pure evil.

Supporting Cast (20/20 Points)

Charlie Theron is perfect, portraying a mental breakdown almost too realistically. Jeffrey Jones’ Eddie Barzoon is the kind of character who could have been the lead of another movie, but even with some of his scenes trimmed, we know the character. There’s also Craig T. Nelson, Judith Ivey, Connie Nielsen, and many others who are all memorable.

Experience (16/20 Points)

The Devil’s Advocate is just soaked in New York, and the score by James Newton Howard adds a lot of tension. The moving mural in Milton’s apartment is especially unique and pure Milton.

FINAL SCORE: 82%

I will defend this movie endlessly, because the stuff that works really works. Pacino makes an incredibly charismatic Devil, and I will never tire of the film’s final act. There are flaws, a major one even, but it should still be checked out.

Next week, Johnny Depp and Roman Polanski team up in 1999’s The Ninth Gate.

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Eyes Wide Shut: What Makes It Great?

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Although plenty of Stanley Kubrick’s films did not receive critical acclaim upon release (The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey), history has been immensely kind and regarded them as classics. Then there’s Eyes Wide Shut, the enigmatic thriller that Kubrick finished right before his death. Reviews at the time were mixed to say the least. Just take a look at the Rotten Tomatoes page, where one critic calls it “mesmerizing” and “unforgettable,” while another calls it “minor Kubrick,” and yet another “empty.” Most times the film is talked about today it’s either about Kidman and Cruise being naked or the infamous cult orgy and some incredibly bizarre conspiracy theories involving Kubrick’s relation to it… but we’re not on that part of the internet.

Let’s talk about why Eyes Wide Shut is a great film, one of Kubrick’s best. As always, if you haven’t seen the movie, stop reading and come back, because I’m going to be jumping around a lot and spoiling the whole thing. Second, while most reviews on this site are probably safe for everyone, Eyes Wide Shut deals with overtly sexual themes and features strong language, and I’ll be talking about both, so I’m effectively giving this review an “R” rating. Make of that what you will, and I promise I won’t be (too) offended if you don’t read.

The Background

By the end of his career, Stanley Kubrick made films at whatever pace he felt like. His last three films were made in 1980, 1987, and 1999. Since he used to work as a photographer, he was a visual perfectionist, and films often took years to complete.

Kubrick had wanted to adapt Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novel Traumnovelle (Dream Story) for a long time, and even bought the rights so an English version wouldn’t be published until after the film was released. The lead is named Bill Harford, because Kubrick viewed the character as a Harrison Ford type, and he even for a time considered Ford (and Steve Martin of all people) for the part. In the end, he cast Tom Cruise as Bill, and Cruise’s wife Nicole Kidman as Bill’s wife Alice.

Under the Mask

From the opening scene, we immediately get a feel for this movie’s approach to perception. Shostakovich’s “Waltz No. 2” plays over the opening credits, perfectly capturing the film’s madness and atmosphere, but then Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) turns it off. It immediately breaks the wall between what’s happening on screen and what’s happening in the studio.

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The first act is all about a facade, an illusion. Bill and Alice (Nicole Kidman) are clearly sleepwalking through life. Even before the classical music is turned off, we see Bill tell Alice she looks great without even looking at her. They make their way to a lavish Christmas party that Bill’s patient Victor (Sydney Pollack) is throwing.

Just like Bill and Alice’s marriage, the party is beautiful and decorated on the outside, but completely empty on the inside. The guests are all dressed impeccably in their nicest clothes and jewelry, but they interact with each other in the fakest of ways. Just watch the conversation when Bill and Alice walk in. They basically run the gamut of small talk, going from “Merry Christmas” to how nice Alice looks to “Thanks for sending me to that doctor” to fake laughing.

Bill has a painfully fake conversation with two women who flirt with him and promise to take him “where the rainbow ends,” but he is soon called away to treat a girl who went unconscious during sex with Victor. Alice meanwhile gets hit on by a very upfront Hungarian man (Sky du Mont), but she listens to him without either being all that interested or leaving. In fact, the only real human connection that seems to come at the party is when Bill meets his old med school buddy Nick Nightingale (Todd Field), who dropped out and pursued piano.

Compare this to the orgy where everyone is masked, but they are free to be themselves in whatever bizarre sexual manner they wish. There isn’t small talk or niceties, they all know why they are there, and they don’t hide it from anyone. No one needs to have sex in an upper room in private like at Victor’s party. People all throughout the house are having various kinds of sex with various numbers of people.

It’s also interesting that Nick is the pianist at both parties and that in both instances, Victor hired him, which leads me to…

Is It A Dream?

One of the major themes of Eyes Wide Shut—perhaps the major theme—is what is real and what is a dream. Now, it can be debated whether or not certain portions are a dream, but I don’t think the movie is trying to offer a definitive answer. Whether or not Bill is dreaming, he is affected the same way, so it’s not like the movie is ruined if something is/isn’t a dream.

The events that happen throughout the film are very dreamlike indeed, but we also get the reverse of this. Alice’s fling with the soldier was merely a fantasy, but Bill and Alice both seem to remember it as if it actually happened. Bill has a clear memory of it that is shown multiple times, even though it never happened, and even if it did he wouldn’t have (hopefully) been watching.

However, there are definitely some clues that Bill’s tryst through New York City is merely a dream. Along each step of the way, he actually finds himself in the middle of a commonly occurring dream.

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The New York City scenes were shot on sets in Britain… really.

After the aforementioned party, Bill and Alice smoke pot, which has clearly been laced with something, and get into a huge argument. It does lead to Bill saying “This pot is making you aggressive,” which to be fair is a pretty hilarious line. After their spat and Alice’s confession about the naval officer fantasy, Bill gets a call from Marion (Marie Richardson), one of his patients whose mother has died.

Dream 1: Death of a Loved One

We’ve all had this dream at least once where someone close to us dies. In a Huffington Post article here, psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber says that dreams of death represent something coming to an end and also anger at oneself. This sums up Bill about perfectly. Whether or not his marriage is coming to an end, his period of sleepwalking through his marriage is clearly over. He can’t just assume his wife will be faithful anymore. She may not have actually cheated on him physically, but if the opportunity was there, she would have taken it. He’s mad at her, but surely he’s mad at himself for living like this too.

When Bill arrives at Marion’s house, they exchange niceties about her father, and they soon get to talking about Marion and her fiance moving away. She is clearly not thrilled about the life ahead of her, so she makes a move on Bill. Just like Alice with the naval officer, Marion is willing to throw away her entire life and future in that one moment for a passionate encounter with Bill. This is already a reflection of Bill and Alice’s relationship, with actress Marie Richardson displaying more than a passing resemblance to Nicole Kidman.

marion

Interestingly, Jennifer Jason Leigh was originally supposed to play Marion, and she looks enough like Nicole Kidman that they played sisters in Margot at the Wedding.

We then meet Marion’s fiance Carl (Thomas Gibson), who is more overtly a reflection of Bill and Alice. Carl has the exact same haircut as Bill, and their actors were born on the same day of the same year.

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He also wears round glasses very similar to the ones Alice wears.

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Their relationship is clearly headed down the same safe, passionless road that Bill and Alice’s has. If this is a dream, this is Bill subconsciously viewing his marital problems from a third person perspective.

Not long after he leaves Carl and Marion, Bill soon runs into Domino (Vinessa Shaw aka that actress from Hocus Pocus you always thought was Hilary Swank), a prostitute he decides to throw it all away for.

swank

Dream 2: Right Before the Big Moment

As Bill and Domino are about to begin, Bill’s cellphone rings. Alice is calling to ask if he still at Marion’s. He lies and tells her he is, but he does decide to not continue things with Domino. Still trying to be kind, he pays her anyway.

Often in a dream, we are woken up immediately before the highest point of action. Right before the story comes to a head, we are knocked back into reality. Similarly, Bill is immediately reminded of his real life. Interestingly, it doesn’t stop him completely as he still continues his night, but it “wakes him up” (in a matter of speaking) for a short moment.

Dream 3: Running Into an Old Friend

Bill ends up next at the Sonata Cafe where Nick is playing piano, and this is what ultimately leads him to the infamous orgy. Now, Bill has already run into Nick before at Victor’s party, but they have more of a conversation here. Nick tells Bill that he has another gig that night, at an undisclosed location that you can only get into with a password.

The dream of running into an old friend has many interpretations, depending on the content of the dream. However, a common interpretation is that you’re awakening a part of yourself that has been dormant for a long time. Nick represents the carefree, seat-of-your-pants lifestyle that Bill has rejected. It’s no coincidence that someone with such an improvisational life is a jazz musician. Bill is again acting like a young man, caring only about himself and longing for his friend to take him on a wild adventure like surely they used to.

Dream 4: Hair Falling Out

Bill is told he needs a cape and a mask for the party, so he makes his way to a costume shop owned by a patient. However, that patient has moved away, and the shop is now owned by Mr. Milich (Rade Šerbedžija).

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Where the rainbow ends. Hmm…

Milich tells Bill that his hair is falling out in large clumps. Dreams of hair loss can represent fear of aging, which someone who looks like Tom Cruise will never have, but Bill’s counterpart in Traumnovelle did. It can also represent fear of losing sexual virility or of being powerless, both of which Bill does have. He is in a situation trying to regain power in his marriage by one-upping his wife and cheating on her.

Milich’s costume shop is lit very similarly to Victor’s party.

Upon walking in, Milich comments that the mannequins in costume are very lifelike. Victor’s party also contained people dressed up in fancy tuxes and dresses, a costume under which they hide themselves. They stood around exchanging small talk and dancing, but they were ultimately no more than nicely dressed mannequins.

In a really strange scene, Mr. Milich discovers two men fooling around with his teenage daughter (Leelee Sobieski). He kicks them out of the room and yells at his daughter, who makes a pass at Bill.

Dream 5: The Pure Nightmare

Bill finally makes his way to the party Nick is playing at. Everything about the masked orgy/cult meeting just screams nightmare. There’s the expansive, creepy house, the crowd of people in black cloaks and masks, the bizarre ritual performed by the man in the red cloak, and the dreamlike music.

nightmare

These are the scenes that almost got the film an NC-17 rating, and yet nothing is sexy at all about them—rather, it’s all very unsettling. Eyes Wide Shut is often deemed an “erotic thriller,” but really? I hope this isn’t doing something for anybody.

The nightmare concludes with the recurring dreams of being unprepared and being naked. Not surprisingly, both of these dreams represent feelings of vulnerability. When Bill is asked for the second password, he is completely floored. He is not welcome at this party, and everyone knows it. He is asked to remove his clothes, but a mysterious girl intervenes on his behalf, redeeming him. She is presumably led to her death, and Bill is told he is free to go, but not without first being threatened to keep his mouth shut.

Things get even weirder when Bill does some investigating the next day. Nick has been forcibly removed from his hotel room, and Mr. Milich is suddenly in dire financial straits, suddenly willing to sell his daughter for sex. Bill of course finds out that the girl from the party has died, leading him to the morgue.

So Bill’s a good guy, right? He never cheats, and the very end, he does come clean to Alice. But is he really? Whether or not this is a dream, he is clearly ready to cheat at many different times, and he is only stopped by outside events. He even calls back Marion, not because he has any feelings for her, but because he just wants to get a fling in. He’s only stopped because Carl is there.

Frankly, if it is a dream, Bill is an incredible narcissist. There’s someone coming on to him in practically every scene, whether it’s Marion, Domino, Milich’s daughter, anyone at the orgy, Domino’s roommate, heck even the hotel clerk played by Alan Cumming seems to be flirting with him. Does Bill view himself as this guy everyone wants? Does he think he’s a guy who can withstand all temptations? Regardless, he’s gotten himself in too deep, and this leads him to Victor’s home.

The Anti-Exposition Scene

I’m afraid the conversation scene between Bill and Victor is drastically misunderstood. Many will tell you it’s the film’s weak point, and at least one critic theorized that Kubrick would have cut it altogether had he lived. Traumnovelle does not have such a scene, but I think this scene not only serves a purpose, but it’s one of the best scenes in the film.

Before this scene, Bill believes he has basically figured the whole thing out. He’s discovered the girl who is murdered, and he’s visited the morgue to verify that it is the body. Bill has been told by the red cloaked man to not inquire anymore, and when he returned in the daytime, he received a threatening letter with the same message.

letter
No one’s going to “get” Vanilla Sky?

Victor needs to have a very serious conversation with Bill, but they find it hard to shed the forced pleasantries they always begin with. The fake banter of the opening scenes is now painful. When Victor insists on sending over some of his scotch, Bill politely and then forcefully refuses. Their conversation is slow and awkward, which I think is what turned some people off from this scene, but think about it. This is one of the most uncomfortable conversations in cinematic history. If it’s going to be realistic, it’s going to be slow and awkward.

After the pleasantries are over, and both have decided not to play pool, Victor, with one hand on the pool table and one behind his back, ironically says “No games.”

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He admits he was there at the orgy and that he was the one who had Bill followed. The cult, unsurprisingly, consists of the ultra-rich and famous, of which Victor is one. Okay, this does answer a couple of questions, but Bill already knew the cult had someone follow him.

Victor continues on that the girl’s sacrifice was merely a facade to scare Bill. Bill, thinking he has the upper hand, shows Victor the paper reporting her death. Victor points out that it’s the same girl Bill treated at the party, and that she was a junkie.

So was it all a facade? Did the girl actually get killed to redeem Bill or did she just happen to die of an overdose? My initial thought was that Victor is clearly lying, but think about how much he’s honest about in this scene. I’ve gone back and forth on this, until I realized that’s the point. Whether or not the girl was killed at the party, we the audience, like Bill, will never know for sure. Victor holds all the cards, because only he and the people at the party truly know what happened. Before this, Bill thought he had it figured out, but now the water is muddied. There is no way to prove either possibility, and even if Bill tried, it would cost him dearly. He will be perpetually in a state of not knowing. Heck, this could have been the ending, but that would deprive of the fascinating final scene.

What Does That Word Mean?

When Bill returns home, he finds his missing mask on his pillow. This breaks him down to tears, and he confesses everything to Alice. They take their daughter Christmas shopping and have one final conversation about their marriage.

Alice suggests they should be thankful they survived, and that they will be together “for a long time to come.” Bill suggests forever, but Alice says “Let’s not use that word. It frightens me.” Is this the sign of a marriage falling apart, or is it just two people being completely honest with each other for the first time in a long time? She says she loves him and there’s one thing they need to do as soon as possible—”Fuck.” Roll credits.

ALICE

Is it a joke? I know I’m not the only one who’s synced it up with the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme. Just like the mysterious endings of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, we really have to break down the rest of the film to begin to understand the ending.

Every time Alice has used the word “fuck,” it has been out of disgust. She asks Bill about the girls at the party “Did you by any chance happen to fuck them?” In her dream, everyone around her was “fucking,” and she was “fucking” other men.

Conversely, she only uses the phrase “make love” twice, both in reference to the naval officer. On vacation, she and Bill “made love,” but she was thinking about the naval officer the whole time. In her dream, she “made love” to the naval officer, but every other sexual encounter in the dream was “fucking.”

If the movie ended with Alice saying “Make love” instead of “Fuck,” it would be a hopeful ending. However, her use of “Fuck” suggests that there is nothing left of their marriage except animalistic sex, the thought of which she finds grotesque. As she points out, they’re “awake now.” They will probably try to work things out, but the sleepwalking is over, and they are going to find out soon that they are not holding onto anything worth saving.

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Angel Heart

Angel_Heart

  • Year: 1987
  • Director: Alan Parker
  • Starring: Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet, Robert De Niro

While it’s not rare for horror films to have mystery elements, there aren’t too many films with equal parts mystery and horror. Alan Parker’s Angel Heart borrows from film noir and horror, two incredibly atmospheric genres, and creates a film just drenched in New Orleans.

Based on William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling AngelAngel Heart starts in New York in 1955. Private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) gets a call from the law firm of Winesap and MacIntosh. They represent Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro), who is trying to track down former crooner Johnny Favorite who owes him… something. Okay, so it’s pretty obvious who Louis Cyphre is, but that’s not really the mystery of Angel Heart.

cyphre

Appearance-wise, Cyphre is an incredibly creepy Devil. He meets Harry at a creepy cult church in a seedy part of the city, and just look at his long, slick hair and beard. At times, he also carries a creepy cane with a skull on top. He is going to stand out no matter where he is, and for the creepy voodoo and Satanist themes this movie presents, he’s the kind of Devil they’d worship.

It turns out Johnny disappeared from a hospital years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. Angel assumes it to be a pretty easy missing persons case, and scopes out the hospital find it. This leads him to Dr. Fowler (Michael Higgins) a morphine-addicted doctor whose addiction Angel tries to use to get answers out of him. He locks Fowler in his room, leaves, and comes back to find him shot through the eye.

Afraid he might get charged with the murder, Angel tries to get off the case, but Cyphre tempts him with more money. Angel continues to interview more and more people who might have known Johnny, and he soon finds himself in New Orleans.

A lot of characters only have a scene or two, but that’s because they often wind up dead, often murdered in extra-horrifying ways. For example, Margaret Krusemark’s heart is cut out and Toots Sweet is forcibly choked to death on his own genitals. Like in Se7en though, it’s more about what we don’t see. We see Margaret’s corpse, but we (for obvious reasons) don’t see the murders committed in full detail.

Well, let’s just get to the enormous reveal—Harry Angel is Johnny Favorite. Yeah, it sounds like something that shouldn’t work, but it does. Why?

First of all, Angel Heart came out in 1987, long before a lot of the famous “split personality” twist movies came out. Second, it’s not really a split personality twist. Unlike Unnamed 1999 Film and many others, Johnny Favorite and Harry Angel were both real people. Johnny, through an obscure and horrifying ritual, killed Harry and absorbed his persona. Since this movie deals with dark spiritual themes from the beginning, it’s not just an Outer Limits twist (See my review of Somewhere in Time for more on that…).

Plus, all of the actors (except one, who we will get to), are playing this material incredibly straight. Harry, for obvious reasons, laughs things off at first, but as the plot progresses, he accepts it as the horrible truth. There’s a reason the tagline was “Harry Angel is searching for the truth… Pray he doesn’t find it.” If Mickey Rourke didn’t just hit the climactic scenes out of the park, the movie might have collapsed upon itself. Just watch his heartbreaking performance in the “I know who I am scene.” At first, the cry of “I know who I am” is a scream of denial when he sees his own name on the dog tags, revealing that he was the victim of Johnny’s ritual.

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When Cyphre appears, it becomes a confident boast. Harry is trying to convince himself that it’s not possible, and at first he believes it. Over just the course of a few minutes, though, his confidence falls apart. Rourke never overdoes it with histrionics or huge tears, but rather a personal breakdown. It’s such a natural performance in a supernatural film that we completely believe it. His naturalistic acting is reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando, with the internalizing and the breakdown of a confident persona.

After looking the mirror, he cries a few more “I know who I am”s, but he can’t lie to himself anymore. He finally accepts who he truly is, Johnny Favorite, and mutters an accepting “I know who I am,” this time actually meaning it. He tries to shout it once more and lie to himself, but it doesn’t do any good. There are plenty of creepy, unsettling, and downright horrifying moments in Angel Heart, but nothing is scarier than Harry Angel accepting the truth about himself. This is the emotional weight of the film, and Rourke makes us feel every ounce of it.

As I mentioned, most of the supporting cast only gets a scene or two, but they are all memorable. Charlotte Ramping is great as the upper class fortune teller Margaret Krusemark, and Brownie McGhee is rightfully creepy as Toots Sweet. Stocker Fontelieu only has a few minutes of screen time as Margaret’s father Ethan, but we learn so much about his character. It’s creepy just how much he smiles as he talks about conjuring up the Devil and Johnny selling his soul. The music and the pace of this scene, in addition to his delivery, make what could be just an exposition scene terrifying. Of course, there’s also the stereotypical cops on Angel’s trail, but since Angel is actually the villain, they turn out to not be the worst people in the world. Plus, Pruitt Taylor Vince is just so slimy as Detective Deimos, who talks so much that his partner 1948 Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey is perpetually silent.

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Did I break my record for most obscure reference?

Sadly, the reason a lot of people know Angel Heart is for the controversy surround Lisa Bonet. Her performance is sublime, but unfortunately it got overshadowed at the time by the fact that she did a sex scene. Yep, shocker, an of-age actress did a sex scene and the world reacted in horror. Okay, so there’s a little more than that I guess, but it got blown way out of proportion. She was only 19 and Rourke was in his thirties, and since Bonet’s character Epiphany was Johnny’s daughter, it did turn out to be an incestuous scene. The biggest controversy, though, was that she was on The Cosby Show.

I’m not gonna do it. I’m not going to make a joke or show a picture of Bill Cosby from The Devil and Max Devlin. It’s not funny. It’s enraging that she was kicked off The Cosby Show for this.

There is one weak link, though, and surprisingly it’s Robert De Niro. You don’t need me to tell you that De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time, but his performance here feels like it’s out of a different movie. He’s over-the-top and feels like he’s winking to the camera too many times. There’s a scene where he mentions that some view the egg as a symbol for the soul, so of course he eats an egg. Rourke is wonderful in the scene, particularly when he throws salt over his shoulder, but De Niro eating the egg just isn’t that creepy.

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Angel Heart does manage to do a wonderful job of blending film noir and horror. In the “I know who I am” scene, Harry throws out a theory that Cyphre is just a man pretending to be the Devil so he can get away with murder. The mystery fan in me really thinks this would be a good twist, and if the film was a straight mystery/film noir, yeah it would be, but it’s a horror film too. If there was nothing supernatural involved, we would miss out on all of Harry’s nightmares and a lot of the creepy imagery and foreshadowing.

Intercut throughout scenes, we get repeated images of ceiling fans, tapping feet, chickens, someone climbing stairs, an apartment lit in red light, all played over Trevor Jones’ nightmarish score. Some of them go on to have meeting later in the film, while others remain a bit ambiguous. Obviously, the red room is where the occult ritual took place, and it’s implied that chicken blood was involved in this too. The ceiling fans were originally going to be foreshadowing for a scene where Herman Winesap is decapitated by one, but this was ultimately, um, cut. We do get a brief scene of his death in a montage during Harry and Epiphany’s sex scene, though. I don’t know, the ceiling fans kind of seem even creepier without having any actual payoff. They just play up the seedy atmosphere of all the movie’s locations.

Plus, if the supernatural turned out not to be real, we would lose the film’s greatest metaphor—PTSD. Think about it. Johnny Favorite comes back from the war literally a different person. No one can recognize him. He has triggers like looking in a mirror that ultimately lead him to violence. Ultimately, the reveal of his true identity is written on his dog tags.

We also get some clever teases throughout about Harry Angel’s true identity. When Margaret asks for his birth date, he says the exact same day as Johnny’s. However, we later learn that he was just doing this to learn more about Margaret and Johnny’s relationship. When Ethan tries to get Harry to sample the gumbo, he passes, saying he has “an acid stomach,” referencing the ritual where Johnny cut Harry’s heart out…

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WITH A SPOON!

On that note, let’s check out the final score.

Story (19/20 Points)

It’s really dark, throwing almost every conceivable horrifying act imaginable (incest, cannibalism, horrifying murders) into the mix, but a lot of it is suggested rather than shown. The mystery and horror elements mix wonderfully, and the climax is thrilling.

Faust (20/20 Points)

Rourke should have won an Oscar for the “I know who I am scene” alone.

Devil (12/20 Points)

De Niro completely looks the part, and he has a couple fine moments, but his tone is way off. He’s playing it too lighthearted for a movie this serious.

Supporting Cast (20/20 Points)

There is a huge supporting cast, but they are all give memorable turns. Lisa Bonet and Stocker Fontelieu in particular stand out, but they all just add to the atmosphere and story.

Experience (19/20 Points)

I want to give a perfect score, because the music and cinematography is flawless. However, twice in the movie, a character’s eyes turn yellow, and it just looks hokey and shouldn’t have been done.

FINAL SCORE: 90%

Angel Heart is not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of either supernatural horror or film noir, you’ll like it. If you’re a fan of both genres like me, you’ll love it.

Next week, another iconic actor takes on the role of Satan in 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate.

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Crossroads

crossroads

  • Year: 1986
  • Director: Walter Hill
  • Starring: Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca, Jami Gertz

The classic Faustian legend has found its way into Americana over and over again, but the most famous is probably through blues music. The rumor of a musician selling his soul to the Devil for his talent has been attributed to many musicians from blues godfather Tommy Johnson to Bob Dylan of all people. The most famous, though, is Robert Johnson.

rj
There’s an evil looking face in the right corner. You will never un-see that.

Robert Johnson recorded a mere 29 songs in his time, but he is one of the most influential guitarists of all time, with his songs being covered by Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and many, many others. His songs also seem to support the devil myth, with “Hellhound on My Trail” and “Me and the Devil Blues” being some of the darkest. To be fair, selling your soul to the Devil was probably metaphorical for switching from sacred music to secular, but that doesn’t stop people from believing the myth. I’ll try not to ramble about Robert Johnson too much, but his story is really a fascinating one, helped along by the mysterious persona he built for himself in his short life.

Robert Johnson’s song “Cross Road Blues” mentions his friend Willie Brown, who is the focus of this film. Our lead character Ralph Macchio (played by Ralph Macchio) is an adept guitarist at Julliard…so he’s named Eugene Martone, but he’s just playing Ralph Macchio. He wants to be great at something, so he meets an old master who teaches him how to do it his way, and at the end he wins a competition in his field.

So Ralph discovers that there’s a Willie Brown (Joe Seneca) living at a local nursing home/prison who might be the Willie Brown that Robert Johnson knew. Ralph gets a job there, but Willie is abrasive at first, not wanting to talk about music. After a while though, they get to talking about Robert Johnson, and Willie promises Ralph the lost 30th song that Robert recorded if he breaks him out and takes him to Mississippi.

Willie too made a Faustian deal in the past, at a crossroads in Mississippi. He met the Devil’s assistant (Joe Morton) there, who told him to come back every Saturday night for lessons. It’s kind of weird that he still has to work at it, instead of the usual instant gratification that comes from these deals. Couldn’t he have just practiced on his own?

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So lessons are $12.75, bring your own harmonica, and make sure to be on time. He may be Satan, but he can’t tolerate lollygaggers.

Anyway, so we’ve got a promising setup, seeped in delta blues legend. Surely we’re going to have a compelling story involving these characters… Nope, it’s just a road movie. It’s just Ralph and Willie getting into various situations during their trip to Mississippi. They get their money stolen, they sleep out in barns, they play music at bars, they get kicked out of bars. They start out on rough terms with each other, but grow to like each other.

willie

Along the way, they meet a teenage runaway named Frances (Jami Gertz). Since she and Ralph Macchio are the male and female leads, they get together despite having no chemistry. They are constantly at odds and seem to not like each other at all, but then all of a sudden they sleep together.

Frances tries to convince Ralph that Willie is not the real Willie Brown and that he just wanted someone to break him out. Ok, whatever, this could be a plot point, albeit a cliched one, if Willie wasn’t completely standoffish at first. If Willie was just looking for a way out, why did he act like a right jerk to Ralph in the beginning? But no, the movie tries to hang it over our heads that maybe this isn’t the real Willie Brown.

The only notable thing that happens along the way is that Frances leaves. Okay, so we were expecting that, but she doesn’t return. She just leaves, and Willie tells Ralph that now he can understand the blues. I kept expecting her to just magically turn up at the end, but she doesn’t. It’s not anything groundbreaking, but even something slightly unique in this bland road trip was nice.

So they get to Mississippi, and Willie reveals that there is no 30th Robert Johnson song (shocker) and that he intends to summon the Devil to cancel his decades old deal. After the huge waste of time the road trip was, we’re finally getting the meat of the story. He summons the Devil in the daytime.

Look, I’m trying to get somewhat invested in this film, but the daytime? REALLY? Anyway, the Devil’s assistant drives up and taunts him again. I actually like how we only see his assistant for a while, because it’s good build up to the actual Devil. Joe Morton kind of plays him as this smug conman, and he’s enjoyable. Then, Scratch himself approaches, played by Robert Judd.

judd

And here we have the best part of the movie. He only speaks in this one scene, but he steals the whole thing. Just look at his evil grin. He’s the perfect Devil for this kind of story, so smug and completely in control. I just wish his scenes could have been a bit longer. I’m fine with the dramatic buildup, but give us more.

As this movie has shown before, all original things must come to an end, so then it just turns into “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Ralph Macchio suggests a guitar duel, but since Willie only learned harmonica, that’s out of the question. Ralph then offers to play and puts his own soul on the line, and they’re transported to a bar where the Devil’s guitarist (Steve Vai) plays.

So the two play some licks back and forth, and when it seems to be a draw, Ralph throws in some of the classical guitar he’s been practicing and wins. The Devil tears up the contract without a fight or even a word, and Willie and Ralph plan the future of their music.

What is there to say about Crossroads? It takes the fascinating legend of Robert Johnson and does nothing with it. By the time we get to the titular crossroads, we’ve lost all interest, and it’s a fairly short movie. The music is by the aforementioned Steve Vai and the great Ry Cooder, and any time it breaks away from the story to play some music is at least a nice diversion. Ry Cooder claims that the movie “went down the tubes,” and I am curious as to what it could have been. There must have been something interesting in the original draft, but it’s almost entirely lost here. Let’s check out the final score.

Story (7/20 Points)

Every. Single. Road Trip. Cliche.

Faust (9/20 Points)

I mean, no one plays Ralph Macchio like Ralph Macchio, but his character is just annoying here. I guess the real Faust is Willie Brown, and Joe Seneca is fine, but his entire arc is predictable.

Devil (15/20 Points)

Both Joe Morton as Scratch’s assistant and Robert Judd as Scratch himself are great in their confidence and sliminess, but they’re both very underused.

Supporting Cast (5/20 Points)

There is not one supporting character who stands out. Jami Gertz’s Frances is another cliched character with nothing unique about her at all, and all of the people they meet along the way are boring.

Experience (9/20 Points)

The blues music is nice, but in a movie about Robert Johnson himself? They could have done more.

FINAL SCORE: 45%

It’s a harmless film, but it’s mostly just a waste of an hour and a half. Robert Judd’s Devil is the best part, but he only has two short scenes, and the second is him just watching the guitar duel and ripping up the contract. If you want to watch a road movie with some blues music thrown in, you might like it, but I can’t really recommend it for any other reason.

Next week, we go from Mississippi to Louisiana with 1987’s Angel Heart.

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