Dan’s most recent article has done half my work already. Pajiba’s most fine-tuned reviewer (I only steal from the best) has captured the essence of Hollywood dramatic filmmaking in few words: too many directors think it’s enough now to “throw a lot of plot and emotion at the screen,” but in doing so, they “also throw up enough of a shield to keep anything from truly connecting.” Well said, Carlson — and I’ll take this further than you probably intended it to go, because I have a bone to pick with Hollywood that I can’t stop gnawing on. Whether it’s a lauded Oscar-winner like The Departed, or a loathed Oscar-winner like Crash, or something that sits somewhere between the two, like Mystic River or Gone Baby Gone, these movies suffer the same symptoms, to varying degrees. Some of these films are definitely better than others, but they sit on the same sliding scale. It comes down to how much pap individual viewers can stomach, and those who have a higher tolerance are the lucky ones, because they can enjoy what these movies otherwise do well; they can take pleasure in legacy Hollywood magic like sweet production values, technical competence, and narrative suspense while ignoring sham scripts and grotesque overacting. I risk the wrath of our readers — and of some of my colleagues — by admitting (not for the first time) that I’ve come to detest the big-star Serious Film. Gavin O’Connor’s Pride and Glory just strengthens my antipathy and my need to agitate against what American dramatic cinema has become.
I’m talking dramatic cinema of a certain stripe — film that mythologizes the Boston or New York working classes in cartoonish ways, that pits brother against brother in the world of crime or law enforcement, that crafts characters by violent act and shouting match, and that relies on a viewer’s sense of inclusion within the onscreen community to win him over emotionally. These films tend to be larded with doily-dotted family suppers and slow-motion funeral processions for dead uniforms. They are the bastard sons of The Deer Hunter and other great American films of a past era. They’re designed by and for USians, and while there’s nothing wrong with taking that prerogative (at all), directors shouldn’t be surprised — and domestic audiences shouldn’t be offended — when these movies fail to play to those born beyond the haze of the American mystique. Pride and Glory by its very title embraces this style of filmmaking and ticks off all the boxes. It swims in manufactured realism and stinks of ball sweat. It force-feeds us canned sentiment rather than stoke the real emotions already in our bellies — emotions that just need to be nudged a little to come alive and fill us, and that resent being smothered from above. These movies are the cinematic equivalents of Céline Dion songs: they’re considered high quality goods by their makers, who have no clue they’re drowning us in phony feeling. They’re all decibel and no heart. Though inferior, Pride and Glory is slightly lower in key than The Departed, and it gnashes a little less than Mystic River — but it, too, proves how hard it is to pull off real realism onscreen; it tries to conjure up a slice of life, but because even its calmest moments are over the top, very little about it feels authentic.
The movie opens on a cop league football game in New York City. Nothing’s more American than football and an Irish cop family, apparently — at least according to Hollywood (pairing the two offers us a double shot of patriot in case that first swallow doesn’t take). O’Connor films the game with a hand-held camera that can barely make out the players and spectators. There’s a lot of dark and a lot of grain and grime, all of which announces Reality and hints at the narrative darkness to come. Playing for the NYPD is Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell), who’s married to the sister of fellow police officer Ray Tierney (Edward Norton). Tierney has cop in his blood — his father Francis (Jon Voight) is a retired officer, and his brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich) is across town investigating the deaths of four other cops from their precinct, who went down in a tenement shoot-out. We’re less than five minutes into the movie before Farrell is pulling at his hair and breaking shit — he takes the news of the deaths badly and spends the rest of the film staring so intensely at other actors, he’s practically cross-eyed. Norton is serene relative to Farrell and relative to what we’ve come to expect from movies like these. Both Egan and Tierney are shallow characters indistinguishable from similar types we’ve seen over the years — there’s really not much to build on, here, so Farrell continues to mistake twitching for acting, and Norton forges through the story with as much dignity as he can scrape off the walls around him.
Even if you haven’t seen the trailers, or somehow missed all the telegraphing O’Connor and Farrell thrash at us in early scenes, the fact that Egan is dirty is no spoiler. We’ve seen too many Brother Gone Bad movies to miss what’s coming. Tierney joins the taskforce set up to hunt the cop-killer, a dealer named Tezo (Ramon Rodriguez) who has every junkie, crook, and shop-keep in Washington Heights under his control; no one wants to rat on Tezo or the dirty cops who run with him. As Tierney works within the framework of the law, Egan’s corrupt blue line destroys evidence, beats up civilians, steals from tills, and intimidates whoever needs intimidating to keep the secret under wraps, and to locate Tezo — it’s in Egan’s interest, and in his blood, to kill the cop-killer before the taskforce finds him. O’Connor uses a template that’s seen a lot of use in the past decade: male bonding made acceptable thanks to uniforms CUT cozy family scene tinged with melancholy CUT scene of ultra-violence CUT poignant husband-wife moment CUT cozy family jeopardized by father’s crime connection … second verse, same as the first. Some scenes are competent if generic (like those fleshed out by Jennifer Ehle’s believable performance as Francis Jr.’s dying wife) and some practically spoof their own genre (Tierney’s interrogation of a junkie is laughable, especially after “The Wire” broke the freaking mould and made more meaning in two seconds than Pride and Glory does in its two hours plus). Not even the film’s most extreme moments — a hot iron brandished over a baby, a near-riot, a scene where a man’s throat is forced open by a police baton — hit like O’Connor wants them to hit. Nobody onscreen seems to believe in the violence or emotion they’re generating, and that lack of disconnection Dan wrote about washes everything out.
Expecting realism in a fictional product is a fool’s errand, but it can be done. My problem with the Pride and Glory school of filmmaking isn’t the use of exaggeration or sentiment or formula or oversimplification per se — these are good tools in capable hands, and they play roles in many of my favorite books and movies. My problem with this type of film is that it uses these in the service of realism — that it demands to be taken not just as realism but as Reality, even as it misrepresents it. It’s unaware that its own devices are so blatant (and the first rule of realism is Hide the Devices). It coats everything with a sheen and it overplays its hand while posing with faux nuances; directors can’t have it both ways without insulting our intelligence. It’s not so much the final product that irritates — which in this case is neither stinky nor stellar — but the dishonesty of the filmmakers’ intentions and their reliance on stereotype. The Irish-American cop bit sinks to new lows or rises to new heights of hilarity here, depending on how you look at it (spoilers follow). At film’s end, O’Connor milks a perverse heroism out of Egan that hits our throats like Ipecac: the dirty cop is exalted when he accepts death by mob while a banshee vocalist drips from the speakers. This Haggis-stupid piece of filmmaking is preceded by a fistfight between Tierney the Good and Egan the Terrible — the fight is meant to determine whether or not Egan will submit to being arrested by his friend. It takes place in an Irish pub. To the tune of Celtic reels. Och alas. The set-up is lazy and the pay-off is cheap, and it pains me to think that anyone could take O’Connor’s product as seriously as it takes itself. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on October 25, 2008.)