Movie Man Mark Hay is back, with a vengeance.
A few days ago, a Columbia professor up and decked a female co-worker in the face. Totally uncalled for, totally unexpected, and totally scintillating violence. Somehow, as a result, your reviewer has spent the past week arguing the relative merits of violence in film and the qualifications of what makes a good gore-fest with just about anyone who will hear him out. And thus Bwog presents a list of films featuring totally unexpected violence, which are themselves totally unexpectedly good.
If not for some explicit content, your reviewer would recommend that this film be shown in schools the nation over – it is one of the most handi-capable messages ever recorded to film. An unexpected treat shot on a low budget (and with a strange, but marvelous soundtrack) by directors Henry Rubin and Dana Shapiro, Murderball treats as its subjects a group of quadriplegic wheelchair-rugby (known as “murderball” for the utter brutality it involves) players and does so in a way that is absolutely non-exploitative. With the ideal bluntness and distance of a documentary, it explores every facet of handicapped life that one would fear to ask a stranger – sex, self-hatred, misery, phantom pain, and just getting around. But, as with most documentary gems, Murderball is most memorable for those human moments, transcending the sport and the facts of like without limbs, against all probability captured on film.
The film begins with a group of men well past mourning their lost lives and mobility and now playing a brutal sport in reinforced wheelchairs with more verve and intensity than may be seen in most any other conventional sport. As the film evolves, exploring the complex relationships between the players, their pasts, and their families and friends, so evolves the competition between Team America, led by the phenomenal Mark Zupan, and Team Canada, who defeat the Americans for the first time in twelve years under the leadership of former American player turned turncoat Canadian coach Joe Soares. The rivalry between Zupan and Soares and the emotional turmoil this competition inspires as the two teams prepare for a face-off in the 2004 Paralympic Games sparks a series of explosive confrontations, revelations, and touching intersections of lives, dreams, and, of course, rugby.
Fast and joyful, Murderball comes off as a success as an exposé on life after one’s old life ends, as an amazing sports film, and as one of the greatest explorations of the human psyche’s approach to loss, life and adaptation ever set to film. Whichever view one cares to take while watching it, the film is an unexpected treat and a real punch to the face.
El Mariachi (1992)
The violence and energy of El Mariachi are almost as unexpected, absurd, implausible, and pleasantly surprising as was the film’s emergence in American theaters. An unknown film, with unknown actors, shot by then-unknown director Robert Rodriguez for just seven thousand dollars in a Mexican border town and set for direct-to-video release in only Spanish-speaking venues, El Mariachi was destined for obscurity. Its startling rise has been the stuff of legend and generated a great deal of attention upon its release. And it is a film that merits that attention – one of those rare instances where pulp fiction material, real grindhouse stuff, is treated with such irreverent, tongue-in-cheek love and acted with such conviction that it becomes less a B-Movie, more a work of art.
What happens when you give a musician a gun and then start shooting at him? The nameless El Mariachi (Carlos Gallardo) arrives one day in a tiny Mexican town, looking to ply his trade and wanting nothing more than to sing. The same day, an escaped convict by the name of Azul (Reinol Martinez), with similar dress and appearance and notorious for carrying his weapons in a guitar case, returns to town bent on taking out his ex-partner Moco (Peter Marquardt). In a chance meeting, El Mariachi and Azul exchange guitar cases and the musician soon finds himself caught up in a gang war, confused and fully armed, with his only friend a bar girl named Domino (Consuelo Gomez). Utterly disoriented, El Mariachi must fight for his life in an all-out slugfest.
Oddly, a great deal of what makes this film’s action so bright and fascinating, so well paced, may have been (according to legend) the result of the time constraints of the original home-video deal. Whatever the cause, the action certainly is apocalyptic and full of revelry. And the raw emotion of the young, untested actors brings forth an utterly heart-wrenching and transformative conclusion. Thrown into the melee, El Mariachi learns his place in a new world, as does Rodriguez.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Another film noir classic – your reviewer’s favorite. And true, there is nothing unexpected about violence in a noir, nor anything unexpected about the bulk of that violence coming from some femme fatal character. Rather, it is the reluctance and hypnotized action with which a successful and skeptical insurance agent and the nonchalant sociopathy of a gold-digging wife commit their violence in an unholy and confusing union, only slightly of lust and greed, more of sheer momentum and chance, that is, well, rather unexpected. One of the progenitors of the noir movements’ classic style, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity has never been matched in the genre, and rarely in any other film, for the depth and ambiguity of the psychology and actions of his protagonist-antagonists.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurry) is a successful insurance agent just going through the motions who arrives one day to renew an elderly gent’s automotive insurance. He is met, in one of the most provocative shots of legs descending a staircase, by the man’s trophy wife, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who muses openly about the possibility of buying life insurance on her husband without his knowledge. And swiftly, barely knowing each other, not yet sure of their own intentions, the two agree to put a policy on Phyllis’s husband and then to kill him in a bizarre accident to claim twice the money under the policy’s double indemnity clause (hey, that’s in the title!). But things get a little more tense and complicated when Neff suspects that his partner, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) might be on to the nature of the murder. And when it becomes increasingly clear that Phyllis may be more deadly and unreadable than she originally appeared. The game of hiding, doubt, and confrontations that follow is utterly exhausting and totally engrossing and the films end straightforward at first glance, but upon a second viewing so full of untied ends and contradicting actions that it may fuel controversy and speculation far into the future. A classic, to be sure. And even for a noir film, a genre that reliably translates wanton violence and trite, convoluted stories into stunning tales of humanity, Double Indemnity is totally unexpected and all the more beloved for it.
Images via IMDB.com