Keepin’ It Real

Series 7: The Contenders sends up Survivor; Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt hit it off in The Mexican. 

Series 7: The Contenders
Directed by Daniel Minahan
USA Films

The Mexican
Directed by Gore Verbinski
DreamWorks Pictures 

Even devoted viewers of such “reality-based” TV series as Cops and Survivor must be unnerved on some level by the tension between the breezily impersonal showbiz scaffolding and the real, messy, often devastated lives of the subjects. In this genre, the bargain that we make with fictional narratives—that pity for human suffering is essential to our engagement so long as it doesn’t impede our enjoyment—begins to seem slightly psychotic. Near the end of Survivor, a woman told her rival (and the tens of millions who were watching): “If I were to ever pass you along in life again and you were layin’ there, dyin’ of thirst, I would not give you a drink of water. I would let the vultures take you and do whatever they want with you, with no ill regrets.” In her anger (and greed), she had just humiliated herself everlastingly, and it made for great television—a water-cooler classic.

The beauty of Series 7: The Contenders, Daniel Minahan’s nightmarish satire of reality-based game shows, is that it’s just as discomfitingly seductive as Survivor. Presented as the marathon, hour-and-a-half recap of the seventh season of a series called The Contenders, the movie offers nothing more than what the folks at home would actually see: the edited-down, punched-up footage of a show in which six “randomly chosen” contestants try to kill one another. Each “player” has his or her own 24-hour camera crew, and the action is strategically punctuated with straight-ahead interviews—earnest monologues in which he or she ruminates on the life leading up to this selection and the grim but unavoidable task ahead.

The Contenders has more in common with Cops than with Survivor, insofar as the latter’s victims (oops, players) choose to be there, whereas these contestants find themselves Kafkaesquely fingered by a network that makes its own laws. (Well, there’s a prime-time, bouncing-ball lottery, complete with a frozen-smile stewardess type, but it’s suspect.) Series 7 might have been even more compelling the Survivor way—if we were watching volunteers who thought this would be a kick until the realness of the situation penetrated their media-thickened skulls. But Minahan’s choice (he conceived and shot the movie—on digital video—before the first season of Survivor had aired) allows the chosen and their families to pass through multiple stages of surprise and grief before arriving, by necessity, at militarism.

The effect is similar to George Romero’s newsreel-realistic Night of the Living Dead (1968), in which the characters never quite get over their shock at the relentless approach of death. Filtered through the cool lens of a TV network and tricked up with whooshy graphics and portentous teasers (“Coming up next: It’s time for Dawn to take control!”), the fear is more primal than in such camp exploitation satires as Death Race 2000 (1975) or The Running Man (1987). Series 7 is often outlandishly funny (Minahan has the syntax of “reality TV” down cold), but the laughter sticks in our gut. Who’s to say that—minus a teensy bit of conscience—we wouldn’t dig this stuff for real?

What can I tell you without spoiling the surprises? Series 7 opens with a scene from the previous season, in which the pregnant Dawn (Brooke Smith) brusquely walks into a convenience store (the camera trailing behind her) and fires three shots into a man standing at the counter. For some reason, Dawn (and her unborn child) must go on to face a new set of challengers in her western Connecticut hometown: Connie (Marylouise Burke), a middle-aged ER nurse; Tony (Michael Kaycheck), a burly asbestos-worker with a drug problem; Franklin (Richard Venture), a reclusive old man; Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a teen-age blonde propped up by her dad and mom (Donna Hanover); and—most traumatically—Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), an ex-soulmate of Dawn’s who’s dying of testicular cancer. 

Brooke Smith was Sonya in Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) and the prisoner in the pit in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and she’s potentially a major actress—she gives Series 7 the fierceness it needs to keep from turning into just a giggle. A big, slatternly girl with a nest of bleached hair, Smith’s Dawn is so unremittingly bellicose from the first frame that our initial response is to want her to get blown away. But the innocent baby she’s carrying (she’s in her ninth month) gums up our responses: Who can blame her for wanting to live to give birth? Dawn’s lingering affection for Jeff is the deepest emotion in the movie—which the “makers” of The Contenders realize and exploit for all its worth. (“Will Dawn shoot the only man she’s ever loved? Coming up: a very special season finale …”) You finally don’t know who’s manipulating you more—Minahan or the fictional producers of The Contenders. And are they necessarily at cross-purposes?

That’s a question to ponder after you’ve seen Series 7—where Minahan and his targets overlap. There are people here we don’t mind watching die: Michael, who snorts cocaine and tries to make a getaway with his newborn baby; Franklin, the seething old man who was paranoid even before “they” came for him; and especially Connie, the sour, crabbed, middle-aged nurse with the cross dangling from her neck and the syringe full of poison. Connie is a combination of Nurse Ratched and Michael Myers from Halloween—she’s mythically horrible. She gets a reprieve in our eyes when she’s genuinely torn by the choice of killing Dawn or delivering her baby—but she instantly squanders it when she hisses to the contraction-wracked young woman, “You should be sterilized!”

Morally, it takes Series 7 down a peg that our feelings for Connie, Franklin, and Michael are so resolved—that we don’t see more of their humanity bleeding through the movie’s tabloid-TV framing. Or is that the ultimate joke? In the network behind The Contenders—with its lottery and cameramen and ever-ready SWAT teams—we can discern the workings of a totalitarian state that turns people against one another for profit. It’s only fitting that we emerge from Series 7 feeling both entertained and implicated.

The same can almost be said for The Mexican, a passably diverting entry in the Tarantino genre of splatter and yuks and soulfully bumbling hit men. The deaths aren’t shrugged off—they have some sting—and the resourceful direction of Gore Verbinski (from a script by J.H. Wyman) points up tragedy and comedy alike. The big stars, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, play adorable innocents swept up in one of those cross-and-double-cross conspiracy plots that don’t bear much examination. Pitt, in the employ of gangsters who’ve evidently seen too many Mamet plays, goes to Mexico to recover a legendary pistol known as “The Mexican,” which comes with a story of thwarted love and murder. (The saga of the “cursed” gun is periodically dispensed by sundry narrators and illustrated by an overexposed, silent-movie-ish re-enactment complete with the clickety-click of an old projector.) Roberts, meanwhile, heads off to Las Vegas to pursue her dream of becoming a croupier and gets kidnapped en route by a businesslike but affectionate hit man (James Gandolfini). Gandolfini’s best moment comes when he stares into a motel mirror, lifts the bags under his eyes, and combs his beard. The rest of the time you can’t help feeling—after his endlessly nuanced Tony Soprano—that he has outgrown this sort of schtick.

After a teaser opening in which they mostly yell at each other from a distance, the stars don’t meet up again until 90 minutes into the movie. They turn out to have a likable non-rapport—they’re so confident of their respective superstardom that they relax with each other instead of competing. Pitt overdoes the clumsiness—he can’t even stick a credit card into a pay phone without fumbling it, then he turns out to be superfast on the draw. But he’s unusually easy to take. With his straw hair, appraising blue eyes, and slightly pouchy cheeks he’s like a chipmunk cartoon of Robert Redford. (He could almost pass for the soulful James LeGros, who did such a great send-up of him in Living in Oblivion [1995].) As a high-strung, over-psychoanalyzed chatterbox, Roberts has a lot of shrill lines, but hey—she’s Julia Roberts. If she can so easily disarm the buttoned-up David Letterman, it’s entirely credible that she can disarm 1) a no-nonsense hit man; and 2) a carping movie critic. Her delivery of the word “Naugahyde” is likely the most hilarious in motion-picture history—but I welcome responses from those who’ve seen funnier.

The Mexicans in The Mexican tend to be of the hairy, bulbous, snaggletoothed variety, so when the picture’s outcome turns on our gringo hero restoring the pistol to its proud place in Mexican culture (accompanied by a Spielbergesque ark-of-the-covenant-type choir), it feels a little cheeky. People with such reverence for Mexican history and folklore wouldn’t lay the tequila-swilling, trigger-happy bandito stuff on so thick.

Disclaimer: In 1997, I co-wrote a book called Shooting To Kill with Christine Vachon, a producer of Series 7. Needless to say, I have no financial stake in her company, Killer Films, although I wish to hell I did.