Andy Garcia and Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken – three of my “if he’s in it I’ll watch it” actors. Not to mention, great dialogue and a story line that never quits. This one is definitely a keeper.
The most interesting thing about it is the character of Jimmy (that’s Garcia). He’s a decent guy in a place and time where decency is a scarce commodity. He studied to be a priest, but lost the calling and became a gangster, but then he lost that calling, too, and turned “citizen” and started a business. His company is called Afterlife Advice, and the time frame of the story is back when videography was still done by professionals. The videos made by the dying people are one of the best things about this movie, and nobody who discusses it mentions them. One viewer grouches that the film’s title doesn’t make any sense, which seems kind of obtuse. Obviously, one thing to do in Denver when you’re dead is provide your relatives with guidance from beyond the grave. Half a dozen of these vignettes are interspersed throughout. It’s art within art, like the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty. Come to think of it, The Dreamers uses the same device, with clips from classic films that reflect the story, or complement it, or comment upon it.
At work, Jimmy has the gravitas of a funeral director. With friends, he’s demonstrative. I can’t remember a movie where so many straight guys hug so many other straight guys. For an example of his style, I like the conversation with a gay colleague who shows him an ad layout. Jimmy is not impressed. “Every fag in the world is good at this kind of shit, and I gotta wind up with one that’s klunky?”
In one conversation, there’s a reference to Jimmy’s boat fund. This establishes him as a man with hopes and dreams, a future with something in it that’s innocent and nice. What this means in filmic terms, of course, is that he doesn’t have a future. What he does have is integrity. When things go south in a big way, he does his best to look after the people who are in jeopardy because they trusted him. Everybody’s always telling him how different he is, like, how noble. (Being told such things must make life difficult for anybody who really is noble.) They call him Jimmy the Saint.
He’s a guy who, as Damian Cannon put it, “treats everyone without judgment and tries to be all things to all men.” Jimmy can function in any surroundings, and the way he does it is not by changing, but by being his same self everywhere, and it works. There are such people, and they’re fascinating. I imagine Duncan Grant having the same kind of low-key magnetism. He was a painter, related to Virginia Woolf. In all the millions of words written by and about the Bloomsbury Group, nobody ever went on record as disliking him. It’s so easy to envision Andy Garcia as Duncan. Grant was mostly gay, but that’s exactly the point about this kind of charisma. It can be found in anyone – straight male, straight female, gay male, gay female – and it envelops everyone. Even psychopaths will sometimes, though not always, respond to the aura of a person like Jimmy.
Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead became, from the first, one of my all-time uber-favorites. I’m gonna go on record that this is a great fuckin’ movie. After the third or fourth time I saw it, I went online and looked at comments by regular people and criticisms by critics. Taking note of their objections, I watched the movie again. Directed by Gary Fleder, it was written by Scott Rosenberg, supposedly in two weeks. Once that becomes public knowledge, some smarty-pants critic will always say “The script was written in two weeks, and it shows.” Actually, some incredible scripts have been swiftly written. John Byrum wrote Inserts over a weekend. The creation of one of these self-contained, self-referential worlds is best done in an intense burst. Philip K. Dick wrote that way, too.
Reviewers make fun of the home-brewed gangster slang, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. I went pretty far into the linguistics angle, far enough to write a whole separate piece about it. Another thing the opinionators like to say about Things is that it rides on the coattails of Reservoir Dogs, copying Tarentino’s mood, style, etc. And who is anybody to accuse Rosenberg’s script of being derivative, anyway, when Reservoir Dogs provided such a renowned example of plagiarism? And – here’s the interesting part – Things was written first. Take that, Reservoir Dogs.
So. Two toughs approach Jimmy with an invitation that can’t be refused. He’s been summoned by his old mentor, The Man with the Plan, a quadriplegic crime boss played by Christopher Walken, who has never been more menacing. Walken does put some strange emphases on words. But it doesn’t matter. He’s the creepiest. The Man is sentimental about his deceased wife, and that’s related to the old-time connection with Jimmy somehow.
The Man confides to Jimmy that his son Bernard is “crazy as a shithouse rat” – and you’ve got to respect him for that. Not many parents can admit that their kid is a serious mess. Bernard has become especially deranged since his longtime girlfriend broke up with him. He expresses his grief through gratuitous violence against random victims, but The Man isn’t so much bothered by that, as by his son’s most recent indiscretion. Bernard hopped the fence of a schoolyard and interfered with a little girl, in full view of dozens of witnesses, which got him arrested. The Man has a plan for his boy’s rehabilitation, and wants Jimmy to recruit some muscle and make it happen. He presents Jimmy with the news that he’s bought the note on Afterlife Advice from some other gangster, so basically, Jimmy really doesn’t have a choice. The Man even sweetens the deal by offering $50,000, which Jimmy can split with his helpers as he sees fit.
The new boyfriend is on his way to Denver. This suitor is to be intercepted, convinced to quit the relationship, and turned around and pointed back to where he came from. “It’s just an action, not a piece of work.” They’re not to kill the orthodontist, only rough him up enough so he’ll go away and dump the woman. Bernard will then get her back, and be happy, and give up the egregious misbehavior. That’s the plan.
Jimmy can relate to Bernard’s problem, because he too is in love. He’s just met the very beautiful sweet innocent yet so sexy Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar). She is lovely and very slinky. Her thighs don’t touch when she walks. She looks like the mermaids painted by fairy tale illustrator Arthur Rackham. There is something fetchingly weird about her top lip, like collagen gone wrong. Dagney is made for candlelight or anyplace else where she can glow softly. The first question Jimmy asks her is, “Are you in love?” because if so he’ll back off. He smells her hair – it’s a fucking shampoo commercial now? But here, as in so much of what we call art, superficial things signify deeper truths. Even though we don’t like to admit it, scent plays a big part in attraction. Because of their relative heights, his nose happens to be in line with her hair, but it’s her he’s smelling.
Some viewers have complained about the rather goofy pickup dialogue sequence, but when people scope each other out as candidates for carnal interaction, the words don’t matter. I mean, you’ve got to say something. The real action is in the looks and the moves, the vibe. Later on he says to her, “You’re a thing to be amazed by,” which is not bad, as declarations of love go. One online critic complains about Dagney’s voice. Picky, picky.
So Jimmy goes to collect the helpers he needs. Franchise is an extensively tattooed biker type, who now has three kids and another one on the way. His wife doesn’t want him to have anything to do with it, but of course he needs the money.
One guy is called Pieces, although when they go see him, he insists “My name is Olin.” He doesn’t want to be called Pieces any more. He has a circulation problem that makes his fingers and toes fall off. But I don’t think the nickname came from the medical condition, I think that’s a grotesque coincidence. I bet he got the nickname way back, in prison, or long before. Olin Pieces is something even kids could think of. (If I misheard the name and it isn’t Olin, then, as Emily Litella would say, Never mind.)
The third recruit is a black guy called Easy Wind, and the fourth is Easy Wind’s natural antagonist, a headcase called Critical Bill, because critical is the condition in which he tends to leave his opponents. He works for an undertaker. Jimmy and Franchise arrive to find him in boxer training mode, using a corpse for a punching bag. Jimmy catches Franchise’s eye with that conspiratorial, slightly rueful, yet indulgent “whattaya gonna do” smile that one parent might flash to another when their kid does something typical, slightly reprehensible, but nonetheless cute. A Johnny Cash song blasts from the stereo, and Bill coordinates his punches with the rhythm as skillfully as any good percussionist who complements the beat of the band’s main drummer.
Bill explains to Jimmy that this new exercise program is actually healthy. Since he’s been on it, he hasn’t beat up any live people. “It keeps my powder dry,” he says. Which is actually a stupid analogy. Dry is the condition in which powder is supposed to be kept, so it can be ignited and explode at will. Wet powder is the kind that isn’t dangerous. So it doesn’t make sense, which is why it’s good dialogue for this character, who is basically dumb as a box of rocks. Here’s a real-life example. I once interviewed a conscientious apartment building manager, who wanted to emphasize how very much the place had improved since he took over. “I turned it around 360 degrees,” he said earnestly. No doubt he had heard of situations being turned around 180 degrees, and figured, if that was good, then 360 degrees must be twice as good. He was clueless in regard to the fact that if something rotates 360 degrees, it’s right back where it started. This is the kind of thing Critical Bill would doubtless also say.
They’re going to set up a roadblock, with two team members posing as police officers. Billy begs to be one of them, promising to behave himself and let Pieces do all the talking. Against his better judgment, Jimmy gives in. There’s that pesky decency again, wanting to give the guy a chance. Big mistake.
Jimmy spends a night with the beautiful Dagney, and then it’s time to rock’n'roll. The crew stakes out the road. Pieces and Critical Bill are in a squad car, Jimmy and Franchise are in a truck (which is where the “cops” are supposed to bring the victim to be beaten up.) Easy is in a car. They wait and wait, and then it’s night, and then it starts to rain. When the orthodontist finally shows up and gets stopped, he doesn’t believe they are cops, and smarts off to them. He won’t get out of his van, and of course Critical Bill loses patience and goes berserk. Jimmy can’t see any of this, he’s relying on Easy’s radio report from his vantage point. For some reason, Easy downplays the degree of resistance the victim is putting up, and the loss of control experienced by Pieces and Bill. When Billy threatens the victim with a knife, Pieces points his gun at Billy. The crazed paramilitary fanatic seems to back off, but the orthodontist is stupid enough to mouth off one more time, and Billy stabs him fatally. Suddenly, a woman appears and screams. It’s Bernard’s ladylove, who has been sleeping in the back of the vehicle. Totally startled, Pieces shoots her fatally.
Jimmy and his friends take the bodies to the funeral home to be slid into a trick coffin along with a legitimate corpse. Jimmy calls Dagney but there’s no answer. He goes to see The Man with the Plan, who is now attended by a corrupt cop, Lt. Atwater. The Man’s for-old-time’s-sake sentiment just barely allows him to spare Jimmy’s life. “We go back,” he says. He tells Jimmy to “put it in the wind” – accept banishment instead of death. He has 48 hours to get out of Denver. “It’s the milk of human kindness I’m giving you,” The Man says. But the other four fuckups are history. Like the standup guy he is, Jimmy says “It wasn’t their fault. They were following my orders. I take full responsibility.”
Personally, I think Easy should be assigned a large part of the blame. When the “action” went down, and he was the one who could see what was happening, he should have apprised Jimmy sooner. But he waited till the situation was catastrophic, then reported to Jimmy, “They fucked it.” Then he descended on Pieces and Critical Bill, throwing all the blame solidly on them.
Anyway, The Man sentences the four accomplices to “buckwheats,” this gang’s term for execution in the most painful way possible, generally with a hot lead suppository inserted at high velocity, if you get my drift. The victim takes fifteen or twenty minutes to expire, and it’s not pretty. Jimmy meets with his crew at the cemetery to give them the news, and they ask if he is also condemned to buckwheats. Jimmy the Saint is a guy who, generally, tries to be as honest as he can, but this is a dilemma. He lies and tells them the same fate awaits him. Or maybe he figures The Man lied to him and he’s dead meat too. Which may explain his reaction when Lucinda shows up on the street covered with bruises.
Lucinda is the junkie prostitute Jimmy is sort of a big brother to. In a typical interaction, she hits him up for money and he warns “You’d better stay clean.” Lucinda wants to get out of the life and find a straight job, but most of all she wants to have a baby, because that might keep her off heroin. This has the unmistakable ring of truth to it. It’s an unfortunate fact that people have babies for the most putrid reasons. Anyway, one of Lucinda’s regulars had beaten the shit out of her. Jimmy takes her to the office building where they guy works. They bust into a conference room where he roughs up the john in front of everybody and tells them why. Pure wish-fulfillment. Haven’t we all dreamed of such a magnificent act of revenge? Even as the security guards drag Jimmy away, he’s still holding onto the scumbag by the neck, dragging him along too. Would Jimmy have made this magnificent gesture in the normal course of events? Or is he extending himself because he’s under sentence? It’s the kind of thing somebody would do, knowing he only had a couple of days left to live. I know I have my list, and you probably do too.
To deal with the four marked men, an extremely skilled contract killer known as Mr. Shhh is called in. This is where it all starts to go a bit over the top, but then again, isn’t that what movies are for? This one does depict a strange moral universe. Even Mr. Shhh is not one-sided. He gratuitously breaks up a 4-on-1 alley fight – maybe because he has a shred of decency, maybe just to keep in practice.
In the latest viewing of Things, I paid more attention to such matters as composition, etc. Looking at it as a graphic novel, I really get it. Scenes are framed like the panels in a noir “comic” book that has nothing funny about it. The set decoration is expressive. In the funeral home, when the crew fight over whose fault it all was, the background is a window made up of many small squares, all red, backlit so you get the feeling of the flames of hell. In The Man with the Plan’s house, he and Jimmy talk against a similar backdrop, a window with numerous small panes, only this time there are red and white squares, like a chess board for the deadly game they’re playing. I was amazed, at the end, to see so many music credits flow by. I hadn’t realized I’d heard anywhere near all those songs. The selections in the sound track fit in seamlessly, always a propos and never obtrusive. And in the club, the live band is Buddy Guy. Excellent choice.
Jimmy knows a black crime boss who owes him a favor, so even though the gangster doesn’t like Easy, he agrees to protect him. Besides, this gangster likes The Man with the Plan even less, so there is the principle of, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Jimmy meets with Pieces, to pay him off, but he says no, keep the money – “You do something good with it.” This is quite a scene, actually. Pieces has no intention of running, and he explains why. It’s a great thing for a person to be ready to die because he feels like he really lived. How many of us can say the same? That’s the gist of the Pieces philosophy. Maybe this explains why, when Mr. Shhh shows up to execute Pieces, the contract killer complies with his request to “do it quickly.” No buckwheats here.
Jimmy’s in the diner when in comes Bernard, who doesn’t yet know that his ex-girlfriend is dead. He’s upset because he can’t get in touch with her. The softer side of Bernard shows, and he swears he doesn’t mean anybody any harm. He just wants to hear her say in her own voice that things are okay with her and the new guy. (Well, duh, you’d think it would be obvious.) “Her happiness is more important to me than my happiness,” he avers. Jimmy’s natural, instinctive compassion battles with disgust for this pervert, who is the cause of everything going to hell. He knows that Bernard is sincere in this moment, but also knows he’s full of shit, because he can’t help himself and will surely go on being more erratic. This conversation is one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie.
The person with no intention of going gently into that good night is Critical Bill, who turns his apartment into a fortress and, clad in jungle-commando drag, sustains himself on speed. He also pees in a gallon milk jug and keeps it on top of the refrigerator. Perhaps because going into the bathroom would require leaving his post, perhaps for some other reason. Regardless of the fact that he begged to wear a police uniform and take a more active part in the roadside “action,” he tells Jimmy, “It was irresponsible of you to put me out on point.” We all know people like this. Nothing’s ever their fault. Critical Bill also tells his side of the story concerning the rumor that he’s a fecal freak. Setting the record straight, he assures Jimmy that he actually only ate shit once, only a tiny little portion, and it was on a bet. For $500, who wouldn’t?
Mr. Shhh shoots up a whole nightclub full of people to get to Easy. Franchise packs up his family, ready to leave town. He accuses Jimmy of not being as nervous as a fellow buckwheats candidate ought to be, and naturally he’s pissed. Jimmy goes to see The Man with the Plan and asks him to spare Franchise’s life for the sake of his wife and kids, which is a mistake. Jimmy sees The Man’s corrupt police lieutenant talking to Dagney, confronts him in a parking lot and beats him with a bat. They end up back in the presence of The Man, and Jimmy berates him for having Franchise killed when he’d said he wouldn’t. Here comes one of the most-quoted lines of dialogue.
“You gave me your word,” the outraged Jimmy says.
“Jimmy, don’t you see? I’m a criminal. My word doesn’t mean dick.”
The Man humiliates Jimmy and directs the thugs to kick the shit out of him. Dagney is threatened with dire consequences if Jimmy doesn’t get out of town for real this time. Yes, he still has the option to escape, but he’s now sentenced to live in constant fear, knowing that The Man might change his mind any day and have him killed either quickly or slowly. And he’s not to take the woman he loves with him, or he will definitely be killed, after watching her die in some gruesome way. This is another similarity with Inserts, where the director who has failed to please his criminal overlord is punished by having his film released in a form he loathes. He’ll have to live on knowing, as the boss says, “It wasn’t what you wanted.” The Man with the Plan is going to make Jimmy live on in circumstances where he doesn’t dare include Dagney in his life.
Knowing that his days are numbered anyway, Jimmy decides to do the worst thing he can to The Man. He kills Bernard. I have to say I didn’t see this coming. I never thought Jimmy the Saint would do such a thing. There may be a continuity problem. After killing Bernard, Jimmy dragged him out of the car and threw his cap after him. But a bit later, he drives past the goons who are still waiting for Bernard outside the bowling alley, and frisbee-flings the cap at them. Maybe he went back and got it.
Meanwhile, Mr. Shhh nails Critical Bill, and it’s spectacular. As he approaches Bill, the knife slides down his sleeve and into his hand like a burgeoning erection. Here’s a neat parallel – Bill winds up being killed by Mr. Shhh because he can’t resist mouthing off one last time, which is the same way the orthodontist got himself killed by Bill. Neither of them can keep their mouth shut when appropriate. Then it’s Jimmy’s turn to die – but not before he knocks up Lucinda and makes an Afterlife Advice video for his kid.
This film popularized, though it didn’t invent, the term “boat drinks.” It’s kind of an all-purpose expression of camaraderie, a salute to a utopian future, like “Next year in Jerusalem.” At the end, there’s a heartbreaking scene where Jimmy and his crew of four are out sailing on a beautiful day in a tropical climate, enjoying “boat drinks.” The film started with a scene of blissful innocence, the little girls jumping rope on the playground. It concludes with a scene of blissful innocence, the friends in their floating Valhalla. Even in heaven, Critical Bill has a knife in his hand.
NOTE: Michael Oppermann quotes an interview in Melody Maker which isn’t online: Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg said, “I lost my father after a three-year battle with cancer. Rather than writing directly about that experience, I decided Denver would be a metaphor for terminal disease. It’s like, 30 minutes in, these guys have seen a ‘doctor’, and he’s told them they’ve got days to live”
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