I always like movie characters who seem to have gotten confused about what decade they’re in. It seems to work especially well for movie tough guys, especially ones who are failing, to some extent, at their toughness. Jean-Paul Belmondo obsessed about Bogart in Godard’s “Breathless,” dressing in a fedora and practicing a cruel turn of lip. There wasn’t much to recommend the American remake from 1983, although Richard Gere was great fun in it, borrowing his style from the early ’60s, with greased hair and an obsession with Silver Surfer comic books. Thora Birch in “Ghost World” tries to toughen her image by dyeing her hair green and dressing as a late ’70s punk rocker, a gesture everybody misunderstands. There’s something both thrilling and lamentable about these retro tough guys. There’s nothing especially tough about playing dress up.
At least, until you meet Barrett, the main character in the locally lensed “Rough Tender,” playing at 7 tonight at St. Anthony Main. Barrett, played by Chris Cummings — who cowrote the film — is a man with a genuine problem, in that he responds to the slightest insult with violence. And it’s not just violence, it’s overkill — he’s the sort who will punch you to the ground and then continue stomping until he exhausts himself. In what seems to be a desperate bid to locate this behavior to an era where it would have been seen as commendable, Barrett dresses as a mid-20th century greaser, in a slick black pompadour and black leather jacket with a fanged skull painted on its back. He drives around town aimlessly in a 1960s muscle car (“It’s not a hot rod,” he snaps at one point when the car is misidentified), does chores for his grandmother (a belittling Claudia Wilkens), smokes cigarettes, and is otherwise purposeless.
That is, until he meets Melony, a young woman with a constant smile and a palpable sense of loneliness, played by Sara Richardson. Although Melony is aggressively friendly, she suffers the twin problems of being a bit of a flake and socially clueless. She repeatedly attempts to befriend a man at a bus stop, played by Sam Landman. And usually men would respond pretty well to a pretty woman making conversation at a bus stop. But this is Minnesota, where anybody who approaches you while waiting for a bus is probably crazy, and so Landman does what we all do — he pointedly ignores her.
Barrett and Melony end up in a relationship defined by its awkward moments. His near-psychosis is always just beneath the surface, and he never completely seems to understand anything she says to him. In the meanwhile, she experiences the whole thing through a distorted lens of juvenile fantasy. “Cool car,” she practices telling him, looking in a mirror. “Cool hair!” She’s both a bit put off by his temper and a bit infatuated by it — both characters have extended fantasy sequences about Barrett’s violence, in which it is attractive and heroic, often playing itself out in time to a rousing rebel rock and roll beat. But it is neither attractive nor heroic. Instead, it’s the time bomb that ticks throughout the film.
This film was a favorite when it was screened at MSPIFF this year, and it’s easy to see why. It’s built around two terrific performances, and Cummings is especially fun as Barrett — he plays the character’s juvenile pouting and tantruming as oddball comic bits, until the character’s temper emerges, and then suddenly it isn’t funny anymore. And the film ends on a wonderfully ambivalent note, suggesting that if Barrett were to lose his surliness and his hair-trigger temper, there might be nothing left to him that is interesting. What is a juvenile delinquent without his delinquency, after all? Just a juvenile.
Speaking of movie bad guys, I want to take a moment to praise “Green Lantern.” I know it’s getting disastrous reviews, and deservedly so. After all, it features Ryan Reynolds playing a smirking, perfectly awful lead, the sort of privileged and spoiled character whose biggest life problem is that he’s always gotten everything he ever wanted, but has lazily walked away from it all. In the contemporary parlance, Reynolds is a d-bag, and out of the blue he gets to be a superhero. He actually responds to this by posing in his costume so he can admire himself in a mirror, and then, when one character doesn’t immediately respond to his awesomeness, petulantly deciding he doesn’t want to be a hero anymore. We’re supposed to care about this character? In the 1980s, he’d be wearing an Izod Lacoste tennis shirt with a popped collar, beating up nerds, and would be the film’s villain, eventually felled by a group of misfits who make, I don’t know, a gun that leaves people pantless.
But if “Green Lantern” lacks a hero, it has a terrific villain in the person of Peter Sarsgaard. This usually handsome actor has taken great pains to make himself unappealing here, wearing a receding hairline and mousy mustache. He affects the mannerisms of the constantly bullied — he won’t make eye contact and won’t face you completely, instead shyly turning his body away so that you end up talking to his shoulder. He plays a meek scientist who becomes infected with an alien force that feeds on fear, and, man, if he started off the film looking drab, he just gets worse and worse. There’s no scene of him posing in a costume of a supervillain. No, he just mutates, his head becoming enormous and distorted. Additionally, Sarsgaard’s character decides that his strength comes from his fear, and so spends an unbecoming amount of time just screaming in terror while writhing about. There’s never been a less appealing film villain.
Wait, I take that back. There’s a marvelous martial-arts film called “13 Assassins” currently playing at the Lagoon, which you probably only have a day or two left to catch. It’s supposedly based on the true story of a small group of samurai who teamed together to battle a much larger force in order to assassinate the Shogun’s half-brother, whose sadism threatened the shogunate.
I doubt the real event played out the way it does in this film by Takashi Miike — the samurai buy an entire village and booby trap the whole thing, and the last 40 minutes of the film are a war of attrition as great heaps and grisly clumps of samurai die hideously. But the film makes it clear why this bloodshed is necessary — the Shogun’s half-brother, Lord Naritsugu, is a beast. He is curiously devoid of emotion, and seems to think it is his imperial duty to rain agony down on whoever comes near him. We see evidence of his violence throughout the film, and it’s bloodcurdling. He’s such a terror that audiences themselves might want to join in in killing him, even if it means cutting down an army of samurai to get to him. I’m about to spoil the ending, so anybody who wants to see the film might want to stop reading right now. He eventually gets his, and his emotionless mask cracks. He spends the last 10 minutes or so crawling through the mud, crying and complaining that he’s in pain, and calling out his terror of death. It’s a humiliating spectacle, so protracted and delirious that it’s almost operatic.
It’s a pity the makers of “Green Lantern” didn’t see this film before they made theirs. Sarsgaard doesn’t get a moment like this in the film, and needs one. When you have an actor who is willing to debase himself for his character’s villainy, let them go to town with it. The truth, as “Rough Tender” suggests, is that the world might be better once these bad guys are gone, but it’s also going be be a bit duller. At least let them leave it memorably.