The Way Of The Gun retrospective

News Stuart Turton 3 Nov 2009 - 18:13

Stuart celebrates the overlooked genius of Christopher McQuarrie's The Way Of The Gun...

"You know what I'm gonna tell God when I see him? I'm gonna tell him I was framed."

This was the line that made me go back and watch The Way Of The Gun again. It had been playing on repeat in the endless stupid of my mind for days, but I couldn't remember what movie it was from. Google had more success, but when the result appeared I didn't believe it. It was the right line, but the wrong film. I recalled Way Of The Gun as a lumbering, staggeringly violent crime caper that I forgot almost the instant I watched it.

As it turned out, I hadn't forgotten it at all. My mind had liberated lines and scenes and falsely attributed them elsewhere. Whatever my bias towards The Way Of The Gun as a whole, my subconscious was busy performing sleight of hand to keep hold of the bits I liked. And, when I revisited it, I discovered there were lots of them.

For those of you who missed The Way Of The Gun's first bloody outing in 2000, Benicio del Toro and Ryan Phillipe play Longbaugh and Parker, two petty criminals looking for their big score. While they wait, they subsidise their nomadic lifestyle with blood and semen donations. As Longbaugh explains, "A pint of your blood can fetch fifty bucks. A shot of cum, three grand. You keep your life simple and you can literally self sustain." 

It's in the sperm bank they hear about a rich couple who've hired a young woman to be a surrogate mother. A hasty kidnap and ransom scheme is hatched and we're off. What none of this tells you, and what the film forgets to mention, is that it's not actually a crime caper, it's a western.

The biggest clues are the names: Parker and Longbaugh were the surnames of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Forget the modern setting, The Way Of The Gun is an homage to the westerns of the sixties and seventies and is littered with subtle visual riffs. Take the early showdown, as Parker and Longbaugh face the pregnant girl's bodyguards, who subtly brush their jackets away from their weapons in perfect gunslinger style. There's a barren landscape, a flight to Mexico, an O.K. Corral-inspired gunfight, and a score so perfect Sam Peckinpah is humming it right now as he repeatedly kicks the devil in the balls.

Director and writer Christopher McQuarrie made his name writing The Usual Suspects, and The Way Of The Gun is woven of the same themes and fascinations. There aren't any good guys here. There aren't even shades of grey, there's dirt and blood, bright skies and dark hearts. Even the pregnant girl being kidnapped has an agenda.

All that exists in this world is what you want and what you'll do to get it, typified by a scene-stealing James Caan who plays Joe Sarno, a bagman, bogeyman, broken down old man with the whole world behind his eyes.

Sarno hugs the shadows throughout, getting things done, though you'd never ask what those things are. After all, would you mess with a guy who threatens people with the line "I promise you a day of reckoning that you won't live long enough to never forget."?

That line, by the way, is typical. Being of Christopher McQuarrie stock the dialogue is witty, occasionally profound and ten million miles away from anything a normal person would contemplate saying. However, the dialogue's greatest strength is that it accentuates the prevailing silence.

Parker and Longbaugh converse in grunts, grimaces, sly smiles and narrowed eyes. They revel in ambiguity, their speech forever at odds with their actions. They're unafraid to die, but don't know how to live. They reject sympathy and decency, but when redemption finds them they embrace it grudgingly.

"We don't want your forgiveness. We won't make excuses. We're not gonna blame you, even if you are an accessory... But we will not accept your natural order. We didn't come for absolution; we didn't ask to be redeemed. But isn't that the way it is, every goddamn time," mutters Longbaugh.

This silence is backed by stillness, with lingering shots repeatedly juxtaposed against the frenzy of the situation. Bullets may be flying, but the camera is serene and unwavering. Tears, fear, anger, it's drawn to these things with a voyeur's fascination, and yet, for the most part, it acts like a slightly lost tourist, wandering through the movie bemused, half catching events through cracks and at the end of alleys. Occasionally it misses the action entirely, preferring to dwell on the distant sounds of chaos to the panic of actually being there.

Other times, the camera grabs you by the jaw and forces you to look at something you'd rather not see. This is what makes the gunfights so special.

The Way Of The Gun was choreographed by a Navy Seal and realism takes precedent. These are not gracefully edited bullet ballets, but believably brutal, bloodletting with the aim of getting somebody dead as quickly as possible. And the camera dwells on the consequences, to horrifying effect towards the end of the film.

The Way Of The Gun has the best gunfights I've ever watched, and some of the best dialogue, but while the movie's easy to appreciate, it's almost impossible to like. The pacing's all wrong, for a start. The opening thirty minutes are probably the finest you'll ever witness, and almost completely ruined by the next thirty in which it lurches and staggers and wonders where to go as twist after twist trips it up.

The film revives in the final third, culminating in an epic gun battle staged in the tight confines of a whorehouse. But to survive that long you'll have to endure Juliette Lewis as the pregnant girl, and nothing's worth that. This is a performance so awful I seriously considered going swimming with my television after an hour of it. 

And yet, lines keep repeating in the endless stupid of my mind. Scenes haunt me, I hum the music and wish to god it had been a better movie.

But don't take my word for it. Watch The Way Of The Gun and make up your own mind. After all, as one of the characters correctly points out, "I'd never ask you to trust me. It's the cry of a guilty soul."

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