Simpatico Simpatico directed by Matthew Warchus ...

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    That such film-buff speculation rarely yields a disappointing image is proof of the actors' low-key excellence. They each possess the chameleonic Method skills of Brando and De Niro, though they're not always called upon to use them. Their resourcefulness and what-the-hell sense of adventure is a legacy of 70s filmmaking, and proof of their thoroughly modern temperaments. Yet at the same time, their solidity and general lack of fussiness is pleasingly old-fashioned; it allies them with movie stars of an earlier era?guys like Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster, who were equally believable as rich, powerful men and broad-shouldered, hard-drinking palookas. Like those actors?Mitchum especially?Nolte and Bridges share a certain decayed magnetism, a weary and wary sensibility. They communicate a sense of having lived in the world, with all the wonder and heartbreak the phrase implies. Between them, they have about 60 years of experience before the camera, yet you could count the sum total of their phony performances on two hands and a couple of toes. That Geoffrey Rush, Roberto Benigni and other first-time Best Actor nominees have Oscars and these men don't is proof that the Academy Awards are more about momentum than justice.

    Simpatico won't get either man a statuette?or many good reviews, for that matter. And although the film is worth seeing, I suspect it will vanish from screens as quickly as it appeared. It's the kind of movie that sinks like a stone on first release, then starts showing up in heavy rotation on repertory schedules and cable lineups a decade later, its title preceded by words like "underrated" or "neglected."

    An ambitious adaptation of the same-named Sam Shepard play, Simpatico was originally supposed to open in December to qualify for the Oscars. It got bumped at the last minute by distributor Fine Line?presumably because the end-of-season competition was too intense and glitzy, and the studio's marketing masterminds decided it was too small and weird to make a dent in the critical consciousness. I don't disagree. Simpatico isn't a great movie, and even in its finest moments it's not conventionally "powerful" or 'important" or any of those other phrases that seem to pop up in newspaper ads Oscar-baiting dramas. It's a tricky piece of work, more intellectually impressive than emotionally resonant; the plot pinwheels by in flashbacks and flash-forwards and dream images, suggesting not a contemporary indie movie but the chronology-scrambling 1970s bonghit dramas of Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don't Look Now). But its ambitious structure and original vibe made a strong impression on me. So did the fine performances of Nolte and Bridges, two cult superstars who approach the equivalent of a Marvel Comics superhero team-up with zero vanity.

    Bridges plays Lyle Carter, a Kentucky millionaire who's married to his high school girlfriend, Rosie (Sharon Stone), and is about to close on a lucrative deal to sell his prize racehorse, Simpatico. During negotiations, Lyle gets an out-of-nowhere phone call from his old pal Vinnie Webb (Nick Nolte), back home in Southern California. Vinnie says he's been arrested and desperately needs help; against his better judgment, Lyle hops a plane and is soon drawn into a complex plot that forces him to reexamine past sins. When Vinnie and Lyle were teenage horseracing fans (they're played in flashbacks by Shawn Hatosy and Liam Waite, respectively), they pulled off a preposterous scam at the track that made them and their gal pal Rosie (the younger Rosie's played by Kimberly Williams) rich. But in order to keep the scam a secret, they had to obtain the silence of a racing commissioner (Albert Finney) who had discovered what they were doing. So they executed a more mundane but equally treacherous plot to force the man's silence and complicity. To paraphrase Balzac, behind every great fortune lies a crime. Vinnie carries around a ratty shoebox containing proof positive of the crime, and the other major characters nearly drive themselves to the brink of insanity worrying about what's in it and what effect it will have on their lives if somebody opens it.

    Although early touches suggest we're about to watch a self-conscious and perversely funny film noir (Vinnie is a bum who tells people he's a private detective; the racetrack setting evokes Stanley Kubrick's The Killing), Simpatico turns out to be something else?a ghost story of sorts. But unlike a conventional ghost story, which clearly separates the dead from the living, Simpatico transforms both conditions into metaphor. The characters are at once dead and alive, substantial and ghostly. They are haunted by what they've done and, as a result, their life on Earth is a kind of purgatory; they wander from youth toward death, willing themselves to forget the past and sometimes succeeding. But it's only a matter of time before they have to face the truth.

    This is a timeworn setup for Shepard, who co-adapted the screenplay. Like True West, A Lie of the Mind and other works, Simpatico embraces ideas of guilt, sin and redemption and then rejects them. It also presents brother characters (de facto, in this case) who are bound by a dark past and who must effectively change places to set the universe aright. The script amps up the classic Shepardian themes with amusing grace notes, like the way major characters reinvent themselves (or consider reinventing themselves) by changing names and towns. Finney's racing commissioner, Simms, a haunted and fascinating man whose complexity unfolds along with the story, has recreated himself under a new name and built a career as an expert in the bloodlines of prize horses. This, too, jibes with the script's interest in the way sin tends to linger, coloring people's lives even when they think they've put the past behind them and moved on. There even appears to be metaphoric significance to many of the characters' names: Lyle is a liar, Vinnie Webb spins a web of trouble, Simms is living a simulation of a respectable life and Rosie's role in the initial scheme requires that she be deflowered.

    The whole package is so beautifully designed and heartfelt that I wish it had more impact. The intricate structure, which withholds clarifying bits of information until the last possible moment and constantly flashes forward and backward, collapsing time and space, owes a lot to American and British movies made in the 60s and 70s, after the French New Wave showed filmmakers how to scramble a narrative omelet with postmodern zest. But Simpatico is perhaps too ambitious and mathematical for its own good; scenes that should be allowed to unfold slowly in order to maximize emotional impact are sliced and diced in service to the script's mosaic vision, and the actors are often cheated of the opportunity to build up a satisfying head of dramatic steam. As much as I admire the movie, I can't say I love it. At certain points, I found myself wishing that a funnier, looser filmmaker had tackled this material?Steven Soderbergh in particular, whose recent crime trilogy, The Underneath, Out of Sight and The Limey, are mainstream genre entertainments constructed with surprising intricacy, but also empathy and humor. Much of the humor here comes from the actors' stray expressions and off-kilter line readings. They're goofing in the margins; the sense of play should have been moved closer to the heart of the story, since it's all ridiculous anyway.

    The cast nearly saves the movie. Bridges conveys the anxiety of a faker who's on the verge of being found out. Nolte, wild-haired and hollow-cheeked, is perfectly cast as a man who never quite gave himself over to the dark side but lives a guilt-ridden hermit's existence anyway?a purgatory on Earth. Stone is effective as the middle-age incarnation of Rosie, though she's done the hard-drinking-rich-babe-on-the-edge routine perhaps a few too many times before. Still, her final scenes attain a startling degree of horror and despair, due equally to Warchus' adept staging and Stone's appropriately driven, helpless reactions to what she's fated to do.

    The big surprise, however, is Catherine Keener as Cecilia, Vinnie's unrequited love, who becomes a reluctant ally of Lyle and Simms. Lately she's specialized in lovelorn urban neurotics, best pals and hardcase women who manipulate slow-witted men; in other words, sometimes she's Thelma Ritter, other times she's Rosalind Russell. In this movie, she's doing something new: playing an innocent, fresh-faced character, a supermarket checker who always wanted to go to the Kentucky Derby and briefly considers selling out her integrity to get there. It's not easy to play an uncorrupted audience surrogate, and although Simpatico gives Keener a couple of Keener-esque lines ("Americana bores the shit out of me," she complains), mostly she functions as the conscience of the movie. That's often a recipe for audience boredom, but this actress makes decency interesting; she wins us over immediately and keeps us in her court until the final frames. She's like Teresa Wright in The Best Years of Our Lives and Shadow of a Doubt?an uncrushed flower petal in a trash heap of deception. I believed everything she said and did; but then, I always do. Keener is the best young character actress in movies today. If she graduates to leads?and she will?the current A-list women better watch their backs.

    Framed One of the more pleasing developments in recent movie history has been the return to prominence of director John Frankenheimer, a 69-year-old master who cut his teeth on live tv and went on to do a string of classics and near-classics in the 60s and 70s until a drinking problem temporarily took him off the cinematic radar screen. He's back doing fine work, mostly for cable: TNT's Andersonville and George Wallace and HBO's Against the Wall and The Burning Season were so urgent, relevant and beautifully constructed that they put so-called "important" theatrical films to shame. He hasn't duplicated his tv success on big screens because the material hasn't been up to snuff and he hasn't recovered enough of his long-lost clout to call dibs on the best screenplays. (He wanted to direct Eric Roth's CIA drama The Good Shepherd, legendary as one of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood, but it looks like Martin Scorsese is going to make it with De Niro. What can a person do in that case but shrug, step aside gracefully and wish the other guy luck?)

    The Island of Dr. Moreau, which he took over when the previous director got fired, was a disaster from which he was lucky to escape, and 1998's Ronin was a thrillingly executed but rather hollow action epic?the equivalent of a master pianist doing five-finger exercises. I'll be interested to see if he can do anything with the casino-heist thriller Reindeer Games, which opens later this month. Ehren Kruger's script is exciting action trash in the fratboy tradition of Shane Black (Lethal Weapon), but the setting offers Frankenheimer plenty of opportunities to stage his specialties: double-crosses, large-scale mayhem and commentary on television and surveillance.

    In the meantime, fans of first-rate genre filmmaking can check out "Countdown to Genius: The Films of John Frankenheimer," a series that runs Feb. 11-17 at the Screening Room. Though it's nowhere near as comprehensive as the 1996 twin retrospective of his tv and film work at the Museum of Television and Radio and the Museum of Modern art, there's plenty of good stuff on display. You can see Seven Days in May, Birdman of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate again if you want?and with their deep-focus black-and-white compositions and nerve-jangling cutting, they're best appreciated on the big screen. (They screen Feb. 11-12, Feb. 13-14 and Feb. 15, respectively.)

    But I'd like to steer people to lesser-known Frankenheimer works that are more demanding and in some ways just as rewarding. All Fall Down (Feb. 15), Frankenheimer's third movie, is an all-star 1962 drama with Warren Beatty and Eva Marie Saint, based on William Inge's play about a young man's destructive and doomed affair with an older woman. The Iceman Cometh, Frankenheimer's uncut, four-hour tv version of the Eugene O'Neill play, features a superb performance by Lee Marvin as Hickey; both the acting and the overall vision are superior to the recent Broadway production.

    Best of all is 1964's The Train, starring Burt Lancaster as a French resistance fighter trying to stop a Nazi train full of stolen French art treasures from leaving occupied France at the end of World War II, my pick for the greatest action film of the 60s, maybe of the sound era. Look closely at the long takes, raked camera angles and frighteningly exciting first-person touches (including a camera attached to the nosecone of a Spitfire as it strafes a locomotive) and you can see the first glimmerings of contemporary action film stylistics. The film's look and feel are echoed in subsequent movies as diverse as John McTiernan's Die Hard (note the grime-streaked Burt limping around with that submachine gun strapped to his shoulder) and Schindler's List. Side note: As usual, Lancaster did all his own stunts, even after tearing knee muscles during a golf mishap. When you see him staggering up and down mountains cringing in pain, it's not acting; it's commitment.