Shooting Blanks

John Sayles misfires with Men With Guns

Sayles thinks he's condemning merely the doctor's ignorance. But the movie in effect condemns the doctor's race and class in toto. In a framing device reeking of warmed-over magic realism, an Indian mother tells the doctor's story to her angelic daughter. As the mother explains why city people are different, Sayles fades from their vibrant female faces into the movie proper. The first thing we see is a Visible Man-like model of the brain and upper body, standing in the doctor's office. To Sayles, there's no magic or instinct left in contemporary Western civilization. With trademark Sayles subtlety, he introduces us to his hero when he happens to be giving a rectal exam to an army general; this bloated jefe declares that Marxists spread stories of unrest to fill the common people's love for drama. If only Sayles could do that! He doesn't dramatize--he demonstrates. And what the opening section demonstrates is the vacuity of the doctor's world. Everyone from his racist son-in-law to the aging women in his waiting room come off as empty, silly or malicious.

Once the doctor hits the road, the movie threatens to spring to life as a political variation on Ingmar Bergman's geriatric road movie Wild Strawberries. (I kept waiting for Sayles to tip his hand by introducing some Strawberry People.) The film reneges on that promise--only Luppi's wounded patrician eyes provide a little bit of soul. Despite a parade of crippled consciences and a mystical overlay, all that's potent about the movie are its melodramatic set pieces. To Sayles' credit, he conveys the horrific sway that "men with guns" hold over pastoral communities. But Sayles' heavy hand shows again when the deserter buys three bullets for an empty gun and dubs them "the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost," or when the doctor then plays with the gun without realizing that it's loaded.

Cinematographer Slawomir Idziak gives the film a distinctive tawny-and-dirty-green palette; the paths between palm trees sometimes register as nightmare alleys. Too bad Sayles' filmmaking instinct is deficient: He doesn't know how to make images lodge in our minds and tingle. He never ranges beyond the functional. He lacks the lyric impulse that might lend a menacing shimmer to a machete. And he tries and fails to conjure the emotional immediacy that would give a lift to the whole ensemble. When the urchin nonchalantly swings that bone, Sayles keeps the existential terror at one remove; it won't haunt me the way the Mexican bandits surrounding Bogart do in Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which moved across similar terrain). Sayles doesn't see action poetry in reality, only hackneyed prose.

Despite the smart-alecky edge to some of the dialogue, Men With Guns has an implicit, brutal sanctimony. Sayles largely ignores any fruitful interactions between whites and Indians. The doctor proves to be so out of it that he's unworthy of exemplifying what Goldman calls "the dilemma of the conscious liberal" caught between political extremes. Indeed, the hero is almost as irrelevant as the picture's comic-relief tourists (Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody): enlightened, educated Americans who end up looking ridiculous because they're not sufficiently politically engaged. The only ones Sayles gives a pass to are the remaining unspoiled Indians. He may be a man of humane concerns, but in Men With Guns his attitudes are strictly brown and white.

Men With Guns
Directed by John Sayles.

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