Flesh and Bone

Flesh and Bone

Flesh and Bone

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Reviews of the latest films.
March 21 1999 3:30 AM

Flesh and Bone

Clint Eastwood, oddly, runs to the rescue; Guy Pearce gets blood simple.

True Crime
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Warner Bros.

Ravenous

Directed by Antonia Bird
20th Century Fox

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D.W. Griffith raised "crosscutting" to an art in his racist 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, in which he jumped back and forth between "renegade Negroes" preparing to ravish a white maiden and Ku Klux Klanners galloping chivalrously to her aid. In True Crime, director Clint Eastwood demonstrates at once how far the medium has come in terms of race and how far it has backslid artistically--to about 1910. As a white journalist (played by Eastwood) hastens to save an innocent black man (Isaiah Washington) from execution for the murder of a pregnant white convenience-store cashier, Eastwood cuts from the reporter's car careening around hairpin curves to poison-bearing tubes being inserted into the black man's veins: screeching car, needle in vein, screeching car, poison descending the tube, screeching car, clock going tick-tick-tick, glazed expression on the dying man's face, screeech... Not even Robert Altman, who parodied this sort of climax in The Player, was cynical enough to let his sellout filmmaker play the intravenous card.

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Melodramas like True Crime are all pretty much hustles, but the good ones are stylish enough to make you love the old song and dance. This one tends toward unlovably brazen pokes and shoves, yet there are moments (mostly in the script) when a higher sensibility can be glimpsed through all the galumphing crumminess. The film's most emblematic character is a beggar who trails people outside the offices of the Oakland Tribune yelling, "Gimme pussy on toast!" or "Gimme money on toast!" TrueCrime gives you sleaze on toast--a heap of tabloid bathos, a dusting of high-mindedness, a dash of gallows humor. It's a bizarre concoction, but it's riveting--and I use that term advisedly, in the sense of a hack-'em-up serial killer riveting somebody's head to the side of a door.

The film presents Eastwood as Steve Everett, a philandering ex-alcoholic with (I swear that the movie exhumes this phrase) a "nose for truth." After a young female reporter whom Everett has plied with drink crashes her car on something called Dead Man's Curve, the former New York hotshot is forced to fill in at a "human interest" interview with Frank Beachum (Washington) a mere eight hours before his scheduled San Quentin demise. That's the cue for what in movies is called a "conversion narrative," in which a heretofore lost soul pursues a seemingly lost cause--and, inevitably, finds redemption.

The script, credited to Larry Gross, Paul Brickman, and Stephen Schiff (from a potboiler by Andrew Klavan), is often laughably schematic, but much of what's outside its ramrod narrative is masterfully orchestrated: the physical exam on Beachum that begins the film (he's in perfect health to be killed), the meetings between the warden and his guards on execution procedure, the testing of the different colored phones--one connected to the governor's office--outside the lethal injection chamber. The raunchy patter between Eastwood and James Woods as his editor in chief might have made for classic scenes if the former had known how to rein in the latter: Woods has ballooned into such a self-congratulatory grotesque that he now upstages his own blowhard characters. Two funny, affecting sequences exploit every father's pained awareness of his daughter's unmet needs. In one, the besieged Everett is obliged to take his little girl to the zoo, so he stuffs her into a cart and races past the animals ("Speed Zoo!") while hollering out their names--at once thrilling the child and endangering her life. In the other, Beachum's daughter, visiting for the last time, loses a green crayon she needs to draw grass, and her mounting hysteria conveys her grief at the loss of her daddy more eloquently than any direct expression ever could. The scene's punch line--the prison guards comb the parking lot for the crayon--might be the best, most irrationally moving moment in the movie. Unless that moment is Everett's retort to Beachum's wife (Lisa Gay Hamilton) who cries out angrily, as if confronting a wayward savior, "Where were you all this time?" Shrugs the journalist, by way of expiation, "It wasn't my story."

That the actor has condemned so many killers to death with his .44-caliber Magnum gives the liberal thrust of True Crime a certain piquancy: Only Eastwood can go to San Quentin. But is he plausibly cast as a journalist? As the taciturn protagonist of vigilante pictures, Eastwood could be a hoot, and his struggle to articulate something clearly beyond his range resulted in the one true multidimensional performance of his career: the aging Secret Service agent of In The Line of Fire (1993). But this is not a man who strikes me--either in interviews or on the big screen--as being at home with words. His comic acting style is based on a gunfighter's paranoia, on letting others speak (and draw) first; the verbal forwardness of Everett sits uneasily on his 68-year-old frame. In any case, it has become painful to listen to Eastwood talk. That voice, which never had much timbre, has grown so raspy that you can practically see the flakes of his vocal cords swirling around his head like dandruff.

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T hat's not an appetizing image, but I'm preparing you for Ravenous, the cannibal saga I predict will elicit the most derisive reviews of any film this year. I'd like to recommend it, but it's too silly. On the plus side, it's ravishingly well directed by Antonia Bird (Priest, 1995), who reportedly came on board two weeks after shooting had commenced and as such had little say about the thrust of the script. She could not alter the coven of frontier cannibals to, say, lapsed Catholic priests, although I bet that the idea crossed her mind. Even so, the first half of Ravenous is tantalizingly scary. A captain, Boyd (Guy Pearce of L.A. Confidential, 1997), is decorated for heroism in the Spanish-American War and then exiled to an isolated fort high in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California--a seemingly godforsaken place where, at least in winter, the only passers-by are starving wagon-trainers. Why exile a hero? It seems that he initially played dead in the heat of battle, then awoke to find himself lodged under a messy corpse, the blood from which was running into his mouth. Invigorated à la Popeye the Sailor Man, he proceeded to capture the enemy regiment single-handedly. Not a man you'd want to have hovering around your mess hall.

Bird and her cinematographer, Anthony B. Richmond, create a world of blinding white peaks and deep black crevices in which demons might lodge--a world of humans driven batty from fear and isolation, where reaching out to other people sometimes takes the form of ingesting them. The metaphor would be better if left suggestive, if the strange new appetites were somehow the product of anxieties associated with American westward expansionism and "Manifest Destiny." But the second half of Ravenous is almost literally a dumb vampire picture, in which the chief vampire woos a reluctant half-vampire who has pangs of conscience about cooking and eating his fellow man("Join us! You know you want to!" etc.).

By all means see Ravenous if your taste runs to bloody cannibal pictures. (I found it less of a gross-out than, say, You've Got Mail, which would have benefited from a touch of flesh-eating.) Although Pearce brings little to the party but his cheekbones, Jeffrey Jones makes a wonderfully mordant fort commander, and Robert Carlyle--who pops up out of the wilderness with burning eyes and a tale of having been forced to cook and eat his horses, dogs, and traveling companions--might turn out to be a major actor. Carlyle looks like just the sort of fellow who'd think it his duty to explore things that the rest of us, deep down, want to know about but wouldn't dream of investigating ourselves. He's someone you could actually imagine taking aside and asking, "Er, Robert, tell me ... does it really taste like pork?"

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.