Published September 1, 2000
The Way of the Gun, a movie written and directed for critics by Christopher McQuarrie — who won an Oscar for the screenplay of that other critics’ movie, The Usual Suspects — begins and ends with a voiceover narration by one of the two stars, Ryan Phillippe, purporting to debunk the idea of a natural order. At first it is unclear whether the order he refers to is a cinematic phenomenon only. It is said to include a moral ordering so that “good guys always win,” which, though once true of movies has never been true of life. But with his concluding animadversions on the subject (“We don’t want your forgiveness…we will not accept your natural order…we didn’t come for absolution; we didn’t ask to be redeemed”), it becomes clear that the succession of attitudes struck by our heroes is meant to suggest something about reality — perhaps a belated attempt to shake a fist in the face of God, as old-fashioned noir cinema often did.
It is just the moral order, however, which makes the noir film tolerable, even appealing — by placing qualities that are intrinsically unattractive (such as greed pursued by violence) into some kind of explanatory context. Here there is no context, apart from a half-hearted and ludicrously unpersuasive comment in the voiceover about how the options for Mr Phillippe’s Parker and Benicio Del Toro’s Longbaugh had “narrowed down to petty crime or the minimum wage.” Viciousness is simply assumed. All the characters are merely rats in a cage, fighting for advantage over each other with more or less ruthlessness. The two or three rats (Parker and Longbaugh, who become kidnappers, plus James Caan’s Sarno, a bagman) who are less ruthless than the rest (nasty corporate or military types) are the heroes. God is present here in the overwrought dialogue of the two kidnappers, but we never have the sense of His presence in the world we see them living in.
The God-talk is all part of McQuarrie’s sententious, self-consciously clever screenplay, with its Coen brothers or Tarantinian, wise-cracking style (“I can promise you a day of reckoning that you will not live long enough never to forget”). This kind of thing certainly appeals to many in the critical fraternity, but here it has even more than usual the effect of distancing us from reality. At the climax of the film, where Parker and Longbaugh are surrounded by a virtual army of armed opponents in a sleepy Mexican town in a scene inevitably reminiscent of the final act of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they debate whether to go after the $15 million piled up in the town square in the following terms:
“There’s always free cheese in a mousetrap.”
“What do you think?”
“I think a plan is just a list of things that don’t happen.”
“If we die, we die alone.”
Clearly, here as at so many other points in the film, we are in movieland and not real life. Of course, the postmodern filmmaker doesn’t worry about that kind of thing, but being unashamed about the use of artifice is one thing when the film is just a playful comedy (as, for instance, Quentin Tarantino’s films are) and quite another when the filmmaker shows unmistakable signs of wishing his ideas — not his moviemaking ideas but his philosophical and religious ideas — to be taken seriously. In these circumstances, that final defiance of the deity, that brave denunciation of “natural order,” appears as nothing but an adolescent prank, like sticking one’s tongue out at the teacher behind her back, or the Satanic imagery adopted by some pop groups.
Don’t waste your time on this junk.