The Player – 1992
Director – Robert Altman
Starring – Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Lyle Lovett, Fred Ward, and Peter Gallagher
I’ve had a little time since watching this movie to let it sit in my brain and smolder, and just like the other Altman movies that I’ve seen, smolder is exactly what it’s been doing. As I’ve said before in my review for The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman seems to work best after a couple of days of thought and rumination. This theory holds strong for the Player, the ultimate meditation on movies, the formulaic happy ending, and the cost of entertainment.
The player in question is Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, a studio executive whose job is on the line thanks to the “next-hot-thing” producer played to the nines by Peter Gallagher. Mill, who, has for some time been receiving death threats, crumbles under the mounting pressure. He pieces together the evidence at hand, and finds the man he believes to be his harasser (the battery acid spewing Vincent D’Onofrio as Dennis Kehane). They meet, and heated words eventually turn physical. Fully feeling the danger of losing his job, Mill lashes out at the writer and, in the heat of passion, accidentally kills him. Upon the realization of what’s happened, Mill makes it look like it was a simple robbery.
It is at this point that the typical Hollywood set-up begins to fall away. We have the obvious path that we believe the story is going to follow, man commits crime and runs from the cops only to be caught and tried justly in a court of law Instead there are a few twists and turns that complicate things. One of those turns comes as Altman is playing with the juxtaposition of Hollywood ending, and realism. We expect the police to conduct a thorough investigation, put together the clues and come out in the end with the criminal in handcuffs, but what we get instead is the slow steady bending of the conventions of Hollywood film.
After the gravity of his crime has sunk in, Mill falls in love with the dead man’s girlfriend. As his fascination grows, this motivates him to distance himself from his current steady girl. He spends more time planning his romantic interludes than he does evading the police, who at this point have solidly fingered him for the crime. It is through chance, and bad eyesight, that Griffin manages to remain a free man, but this distraction only seems to get in the way of his new obsession.
The seeming indifference of Mill to the severity of his crime is mirrored in the cut-throat world of movie making. Directors, writers, executives, and actors, all give up their integrity and vision in order to claim a piece of the back end. It is only in this type of world that a man could not only get away with murder, but profit quite heavily from it. It is this environment that managed to produce this very movie. I bet the studio execs were less interested in what the movie was actually saying, and instead, focusing their attention on how many star cameos could be packed in, and the impact said cameos would have on the opening weekend box office.
Altman was smart enough to see this this fact, and in lesser hands, I can only imagine this movie would’ve never been made. The films ending, gives us both a saccharine hollywood finish AS WELL AS the realistic, gritty, unsettling ending.
Griffin Mill escapes unscathed from his crime, he’s used the confidence and authority it gave him to manipulate his way to the top, dispatched of his former girlfriend, while making off with his new love. The bad guy wins, and not only does he win, but the people who are honest and hardworking end up losing (Dead, Rejected, Un-Employed, etc.). In the end, we are left feeling both satisfied and let down. Altman, gives us what we want, and then makes us feel guilty for wanting it.
Movies are so important to this film, they are not only central to the plot, and to our involvement with resonance of the story, but they also inform us about the state of the characters, and the state of the movie itself. Just short of actually breaking the “fourth wall” and talking directly to the audience, we are given various signposts and clues referring to the lineage from which this film comes. The opening segment is an homage to the long tracking shot in Touch of Evil, and sets the stage for the eventual murder story to come. Likewise little clues into the psyche of the characters comes from the movie posters that they are surrounded by (or the lack of), and the movies that they talk about and watch (M, The Bicycle Thief, etc.). The Player utilizes our common social knowledge of movie cliches to actually get beyond them, and become something more. It is not only a commentary on film, but on the responsibility of the audience as voyeurs as well.