So what the fuck happened?
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8 Million Ways to Die is a mess.
Not a glorious mess, or an interesting mess. It’s not a fiasco on the scale of Super Mario Brothers, or a spectacle of excess like Bonfire of the Vanities. It’s not a well-meaning genre exercise like One from the Heart. There is no cult following around 8 Million Ways to Die. There likely never will be.
As something of a connoisseur of messes, I so badly want 8MWTD, based on Lawrence Block’s 1982 novel, to be a flawed but exceptional ’80s noir; glossy, sleazy, neon-drenched. 8MWTD lacks the recklessness of To Live and Die in L.A., and the precision of early Michael Mann.
Yet it’s cut from the same bolt of crime fiction cloth. The plot, the characters, the action scenes, are all in the vein of other, superior films. Looking at what 8MWTD lacks helps to appreciate what makes films like To Live and Die and Heat resonate.
To put it another way: 8MWTD is to Heat what Johnny Mnemonic is to The Matrix.
On paper it seems a can’t-miss aggregation of talent. Veteran director Hal Ashby working with rising stars Jeff Bridges, Roseanna Arquette, and Andy Garcia. The script, by Oliver Stone, was adapted from one of the most celebrated detective novels of the time, the 1980s answer to The Long Goodbye.
So what the fuck happened?
Matthew Scudder isn’t as well-known as Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. But among aficionados of detective fiction, Lawrence Block’s long-running PI is something special. The star of 17 novels and a recent novella, Scudder’s backstory is more noir than hardboiled: he’s an alcoholic former NYPD detective who resigned when a stray bullet from his gun kills a seven-year-old. A guilt-ridden Scudder takes up residence in a sleazy SOR, and accepts work as an unlicensed private detective from the nearest barstool. His drink of choice? Coffee laced with bourbon.
Scudder is as much a product of ’70s and ’80s New York as films like The Taking of Pelham 123 and Prince of the City. Here we have the first problem with the film adaptation. Scudder is the quintessential Gothamite. He works in a vertical jungle rather than the sprawl of Los Angeles County, rarely drives, and associates with members of the Irish mob. Stone’s script relocates Scudder to Los Angeles, making him a member of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department. He bungles a drug bust, drinks his way through the internal investigation, and when we next see him, he’s sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a six-month pin from Alcoholics Anonymous. While Block’s novels are full of dark corners and shadows, Jeff Bridges’s Scudder is a sweating, Hawaiian shirt-wearing man at the center of a much brighter, much louder world.
Maybe setting shouldn’t exert such an influence on American detective stories. Then again, when’s the last time anybody mentioned the London-set remake of The Big Sleep?
The first four Scudder novels are enjoyable reads, but the fifth, Eight Million Ways to Die, proved revolutionary. After several blackouts and health scares, Scudder joins Alcoholics Anonymous. From then on the character white-knuckles through 12-step meetings, his encounters with violence and evil all the more harrowing as they threaten to derail his progress.
Scudder’s sobriety becomes a running theme of the series, which treats alcoholism with a realism and gravity that wouldn’t become common until TV characters like NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz began confronting their demons on a weekly basis. At the time, Block’s novel broke new ground in the genre, an admission that Marlowe, Spade, and all of us might have a problem – or at least a hobby with consequences.
A novel has the virtue of climbing into the head of its characters, making their struggles ours. How would Stone, Ashby, and Bridges represent Scudder’s alcoholism and recovery?
Surprisingly straight-ahead, and with gravity, if little subtlety. Once in recovery, Jeff Bridges’s Scudder is shown sharing his story at AA meetings, employing the AA handbook as bedtime reading, and sweating profusely. Through much of the film he looks uncomfortable in his own body.
After failing to protect call girl Sunny (Alexandra Paul) from a mysterious threat, Scudder falls off the wagon. We’re not treated to his night out, but we sure see the aftermath: a hilariously bent-backed, nearly naked Scudder wakes up in a detox ward with no memory of what happened. He badgers a nurse to let him leave, which he does, of course, against her wishes.
Soon Scudder is back in a bar, Coke in hand, pressing Sunny’s friend and coworker Sarah (Arquette) for information, while watching her down shots of vodka. He takes Sarah back to his house, but turns down Sarah’s attempted come-ons. During a half-hearted, booze-fueled seduction, Sarah retches into his lap.
(Yes, you have found yourself reading about a film where Roseanna Arquette vomits onto Jeff Bridges’s dick.)
What follows is a cold shower and a chaste night’s sleep, and a growing relationship between Scudder and Sarah. We’ve seen films where the good-hearted private eye turns down seduction before; rarely does he advocate the seductress join a rehab program.
All of which is admirable enough. The dark side of alcoholism is fertile territory to explore for a crime film. Somehow it rings false, though, playing against the coke-fueled hedonism of ’80s Los Angeles. Scudder comes across as a joyless prude, compared to swaggering coke dealer Angel Maldonado, who has a snow cone machine built into his limousine, or Sunny’s pimp Chance (Randy Brooks), whose hilltop mansion boasts a miniature railroad. The bad guys aren’t just having more fun than the hero; they seem to operate in a different, more glamorous world altogether.
“The Set Was Not a Happy Place.”
According to Block, “The set was not a happy place.”1 Ashby came across to him as withdrawn and morose, suffering from his own addictions. Ashby’s style of directing, according to Block, involved letting the actors do takes where they exaggerated their emotions, before reining them back in for subsequent takes. Since Ashby did not have final cut, some of these “dialed up” takes were used in the film.
The scenes with Bridges and Garcia are the most tonally “off.” Munching a snow cone, Scudder repeatedly attempts to buy into Angel’s drug business. Angel seems amused, then angry, then unreasonably confides that he murdered Sunny to send a message to others. The scene devolves into a banal exchange of threats and endless fuck-you’s. A later scene in a warehouse, when Scudder has recovered Angel’s cocaine and is threatening to set it on fire if Angel doesn’t hand over Sarah, is even worse. “Cut her loose” and “Give us the coke” are repeated over and over, at varying levels of theatricality.
These scenes, creations of Stone’s script, are not terribly original. Stone told Block he wanted a “Mr. Big” antagonist for Scudder to butt heads with.2 Scenes where a private eye is told to lay off … or else, and then later sets up the villain while bargaining for the safety of the woman he loves could have come from any Burt Reynolds/Golan Globus collaboration. Paradoxically, Garcia’s Angel Maldonado is both the most enjoyable aspect of the film and the part that fits the worst into the story.
Arquette, Bridges, Brooks, and Garcia all have strong moments in the film. Alexandra Paul, a talented comic actress, is woefully miscast as Sunny, the sex worker who hires Scudder to protect her. Her voice is Betty Boop high, and she acts not just virginal but embarrassed by the topic of sex. That changes as soon as she’s in Scudder’s house. Sunny attempts to seduce him by delivering dialogue like, “The street light makes my pussy hair glow in the dark.”
Forget that sex workers aren’t like that – movie sex workers aren’t like that, either. It’s neither a realistic portrayal nor a recognizable stereotype. If Sunny is acting naïve, the audience is never clued in to the modulation between this and her real personality. As such, she seems out of place, a born victim, and not an interesting one.
Arquette’s Sarah is better, both in that the performative aspect of her work is more noticeable – she dresses in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit for a client, but remains all business with Scudder – and that she seems at home in the vice den of Chance’s mansion. Scudder calls her the “Pete Rose” of the brothel, meaning a player-manager, and we buy it.
Sarah distrusts and dislikes Scudder from the start, claims Sunny’s death is his fault, and after waking up next to him naked, accuses him of molesting her while she was passed out. She warms to him when he explains that all he did was clean her vomit off. A cup of coffee later, they’re bonding over Scudder’s love of his daughter, and he tells her she looks better without all that makeup. This hastily assembled pile of uncomfortable clichés and masculine fantasies is a fault in the film that can’t be written off as “of its time.” If Sunny is meant to be less naïve than she seems, and Sarah more vulnerable than she lets on, neither of them seem to have motivation to like or trust Matt Scudder.
“I Live in a World I Didn’t Make.”
So is there anything worth salvaging in 8 Million Ways to Die, anything enjoyable?
The opening shot of the Los Angeles freeway, set to James Newton Howard’s synth-driven score, captures the arid beauty of smog-smeared ’80s L.A. A car chase with a flat tire is no worse than you’d see in any episode of Rockford, though hardly better. Garcia and Arquette do admirable work with what they’re given. And Bridges? While he confided to Block that “He really wished he had that one back,”3 there are moments during his early drinking phases, where he’s belly-up to a neon-framed bar, that are both well composed and haunting. Owen Gleiberman, reviewing Amy Scott’s documentary Ashby, lauds Bridges’s performance, claiming it “remains the last thing on film that had an Ashby-esque essence.”4
There is incompetence at play in 8MWTD, in the editing, the script, and in some of the performances. But the fundamental flaw of the film is its attempt to spin against the way it drives, to challenge the tropes of crime films while still heavily relying on them. Boozing detectives, hookers with hearts of gold, swarthy drug dealers with standing armies of goons: either overturn these hoary clichés or run with them.
In a way, 8MWTD comes up against the same genre paradox that Raymond Chandler outlined in his much-quoted essay on crime fiction, “The Simple Art of Murder.” Chandler asserted that the problem with detective stories was that if the story “started out to be about real people … they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot.”5 The character study and the pulp thriller are poor bedfellows in the wrong hands. Chandler’s career could be seen as an attempt to square this circle, to break away from the-butler-did-it mystery stories and write about real people, while still providing the propulsion of a good pulp story. Block’s best fiction does the same.
It’s a rare film that can upend a genre’s conventions while also upholding them. Unforgiven comes to mind. Like 8MWTD, it deals with reformed alcoholics, sex workers, and violent men. It uses our expectations to raise questions about the mythmaking of the west, going darker that previous westerns, more nihilistic, and yet satisfying the part of us that aches for Clint Eastwood to gun Gene Hackman down.
Perhaps Ashby and Stone were attempting something similar with 8 Million Ways to Die. Gleiberman writes of Ashby’s heyday, “By the time an Ashby movie was over, you knew every last facet and hidden beauty wart of the people on-screen.”6 To bring realism and depth to a private eye story, to update the Chandler lineage to account for the excesses of coke-fueled Hollywood: these are admirable goals. Perhaps Ashby was angling for a deconstruction of “give-us-the-dope-or-the-girl-gets-it” type scenes. Perhaps he wanted the comfort of a genre paycheck while he told an intimate story of a man’s battle with the bottle.
The film ends with a sober Scudder addressing an AA meeting taking place on the beach. “I live in a world I didn’t make,” he says, at peace with the day-by-day struggle of sobriety. It should be a fitting denouement to Scudder’s ordeal, and yet it speaks to the uneasy marriage between the film’s revisionist tendencies and its reliance on clichés. It’s clear that something was lost in 8 Million Ways to Die. It remains the Great L.A. Crime Film That Wasn’t.
And a fucking mess.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film’s DVD or Blu-ray, reproduced in compliance with the fair use provisions of copyright law.
- Christopher Whener, “A Walk among the Tombstones with Lawrence Block.” Screenwriters Utopia, September 14, 2014. “http://www.screenwritersutopia.com/article/b4d9cd9c [↩]
- “Eight Million Ways to Die: Lawrence Block,” a video interview with the writer included on the 8MWTD Blu-Ray. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Owen Gleiberman, “Film Review: Hal,” Variety, January 30, 2018. https://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/hal-review-sundance-hal-ashby-1202680558/ [↩]
- Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder.” Atlantic Monthly, December 1944. Available at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b62d/a95d1fc9b94589375d364f3259f25c45ad8a.pdf [↩]
- Gleiberman, op cit. [↩]