By Simon Abrams
Press Play Contributor
While Tony Scott’s last two action films have thrived on the notion that blue collar heroes are the best kind, Stuart Gordon’s recent horror films treat blue collar protagonists as ticking time bombs. The characters in newer films by the director of Re-Animator and From Beyond are driven mad by the knowledge that if they are poor, they can be replaced. In films like Stuck and King of the Ants, working-class stiffs lose their job, possessions, health and sanity in a flash. It’s that loss of agency -- or as John Canyon (Dennis Hopper) puts it in Gordon’s Space Truckers, of “independence” -- that makes Gordon’s films so Hellish. The current recession (don’t you dare tell me it’s over) has made us hyper-aware of the fact that now, anyone can suddenly lose their ability to maintain their personal standard of living. And that means almost everyone has the potential to snap at a moment’s notice. Gordon’s films plunge us into that nightmarish reality headfirst.
Not all of Gordon’s recent skid row chillers are equally strong. Films about what it’s like to suddenly be truly powerless should all have a puissant follow-through, and some of the films don't have it. While Stuck and King of the Ants are both extraordinarily vivid portraits of working class Hells, they don’t have the sustained queasiness of Edmond, Gordon’s adaptation of David Mamet’s eponymous play. Edmond, whose screenplay Mamet also adapted, stands apart because it does not allow the viewer to walk away from the horrible events they’ve just seen, as both Stuck and King of the Ants do to some extent. Even Space Truckers, which makes uneven comedy of Canyon’s attempts to stay above water in a world where you have to sell out to remain financially viable, is not nearly as successful as Edmond is at cornering viewers and never letting them escape from the hero’s plight. Edmond not only drags us through the Hellish reprieve from sanity Edmond Burke (William H. Macy) involuntarily takes, it also shows us the scars he’s left with once he comes back down to Earth.
Still, of all the protagonists in Gordon’s class-conscious fantasies, Space Truckers’ John Canyon has more in common with Edmond’s Burke than either Stuck’s Tom or King of the Ants’ Sean Crawley. Like Burke, Canyon has standards that he expects to be met both in his business dealings and in his personal life. Naturally, these standards are not met. For instance, Canyon wants to be paid for hauling square-shaped mutant pigs across the galaxy at the same time that he hands his cargo over. He doesn’t get that professional courtesy. Instead, he gets a punch thrown at him when he refuses to take a 75% pay cut (he does arrive two days late but his employers also knew full-well his rig was slow). The punch doesn’t connect. But the punch he responds with does.
This scene mirrors the one in Edmond where Burke insists on paying a pimp once he sees the prostitute he’s buying a blowjob from. The deal goes sour after Burke gives the pimp his money up front and winds up getting threatened at knifepoint for it. Burke gets away unscathed because he’s also carrying a knife. He only remembers this when he realizes he’s not going to get what he wants. Both these confrontations end after the crooks who threaten Gordon’s working class stiffs spit out blood and teeth.
Canyon is also like Burke in that he talks out of both sides of his mouth. When Mike Pucci (Stephen Dorff), a young protégé who initially appears to be a would-be rival, asks Canyon if his fiancée Cindy (Debi Mazar) is seeing anybody, Canyon cagily replies, “A gentleman doesn’t answer that sort of question.” This runs counter to Canyon’s ethos of shooting from the hip and never equivocating when it comes to giving people what they’re owed. The same is true of Burke: he makes a big to-do about how everybody around him is afraid to be honest with themselves and each other. But after he kills somebody, he’s confronted by a police officer just before stepping into a mission. And he starts to stutter. And then he reflexively tells a series of lies: he gives a cop that accosts him a fake name and insists that he’s “an elder in this church.” Judging by the confused but excited looks of the mission’s parishioners, Burke has never been to that church before in his life. When push comes to shove, Burke’s righteous indignation mellows. And in the period afterward, he finds himself completely lost.
At the end of Edmond, Burke winds up in jail. He cannot walk away from the crimes he’s committed in the same way that both Tom and Sean do at the end of Stuck and King of the Ants. That’s because the one act of violence Burke commits isn’t ever treated like a deluded but in some way righteous or even necessary act. It’s a wanton death, pure and simple. So when Burke finds himself locked up in a prison cell, he’s finally forced to really think about what comes next for him. He tells the prison chaplain that he is sorry for everything he’s done but that he doesn’t believe in an after-life or in the power of God.
That prison cell is Burke’s Hell, a fact that he eventually gets used to. He asks his cellmate, who rapes him when they first meet, if he thinks they’re in Hell. No answer is necessary because just asking that question is enough to tell us that, in Burke’s mind, he already knows where he is. All the pseudo-revelations he experiences while bleating about how important it is to be open about one’s own personal prejudices and how he needs to just ride out his “self-indulgent” flight of “madness”—all of those experiences were just precursors to the final circle of Hell Burke finds himself in at the end of Edmond. Burke was never in control of his life, and now that he’s gotten used to that idea, he just lies there and takes it. He’s well and truly stuck inside his head and nothing can ever really save him now.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.