David Morse

Drive Angry (2011, Patrick Lussier)

Drive Angry is T2 with a supernatural bent. It’s like Lussier wanted to make a 3D Terminator movie, couldn’t, and came found a way to make it possible to do most of the action scenes of one. Actually, Drive Angry isn’t just some supernatural movie. It’s all about Nicolas Cage breaking out of Hell (which is just a prison—Satan isn’t that bad of a guy and the lack of a cameo is one of the film’s big problems)—to stop a Satanist cult from sacrificing his granddaughter.

Along the way he runs into old friends and makes new ones. William Fichtner is the emissary from Hell sent to bring him back. So it’s a chase and be chased movie.

Cage is not very good, which is probably a combination of bad writing (his character’s boring) and bad direction from Lussier. Lussier can compose an inoffensive shot, but he’s terrible with actors.

And it seems like he knows it, so he casts great actors whenever he can. Fichtner alone is probably worth seeing the film for. He’s got this playful performance (his writing is pretty good) and it’s just amazing.

Then there’s David Morse, who only has one big scene and he nails it in that fantastic David Morse way. As the bad guy, Billy Burke is surprisingly good. He swaggers around like a demented Elvis.

Unfortunately, leading lady Amber Heard is unspeakably horrific. She’s nightmarish.

Drive Angry’s about twenty minutes too long, but Fichtner frequently makes up for it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Patrick Lussier; written by Todd Farmer and Lussier; director of photography, Brian Pearson; edited by Devin C. Lussier and Lussier; music by Michael Wandmacher; production designer, Nathan Amondson; produced by Michael De Luca; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Nicolas Cage (Milton), Amber Heard (Piper), William Fichtner (The Accountant), Billy Burke (Jonah King), David Morse (Webster), Todd Farmer (Frank), Christa Campbell (Mona), Charlotte Ross (Candy), Tom Atkins (Cap), Jack McGee (Fat Lou), Katy Mixon (Norma Jean) and Pruitt Taylor Vince (Roy).


The Hurt Locker (2008, Kathryn Bigelow)

When The Hurt Locker gets predictable, it gets into trouble. Of the super predictable events, there was only one thing I didn’t get right. The Hurt Locker, which uses its recognizable faces in bit parts better than any film in a while (I don’t know the last time Ralph Fiennes was so good–he ought to do a spin-off), eventually falls victim to its traditional, melodramatic narrative.

It’s too bad, because as it plays out in vignettes, The Hurt Locker is incredibly impressive. Maybe it hiccups too when Brian Geraghty’s character, who’s something of discreet protagonist (he gets his own scenes while Anthony Mackie does not), exits. While Jeremy Renner turns in a fantastic performance in the lead, it’s a flashy, movie star performance.

The film succeeds because of Renner, Mackie and Geraghty and their relationship with one another. Except when it draws attention to those relationships developing, then it runs into a lot of problems–Bigelow and writer Mark Boal don’t set up the film to allow for big melodramatic expositional reveals so when the film concludes on them… well, it feels icky.

There might not be a good way to end the film though, since it is such a haphazard collection of events–much of the film revolves around the bomb squad unit’s missions and once it doesn’t, well, it’s a signal flare of the end of the second act and the beginning of the third and it’s all downhill from there.

It’s still an impressive work.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow; written by Mark Boal; director of photography, Barry Ackroyd; edited by Bob Murawski and Chris Innis; music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders; production designer, Karl Juliusson; produced by Bigelow, Boal, Nicolas Chartier and Greg Shapiro; released by Summit Entertainment.

Starring Jeremy Renner (Staff Sgt. William James), Anthony Mackie (Sgt. J.T. Sanborn), Brian Geraghty (Specialist Owen Eldridge), Ralph Fiennes (Contractor Team Leader), David Morse (Colonel Reed) and Guy Pearce (Sgt. Matt Thompson).


The Crossing Guard (1995, Sean Penn)

I can’t decide what moment of The Crossing Guard is my favorite. I have it narrowed down to two. It’s either the (louder) one at the end, where Jack Nicholson realizes where he is and how he got there, or it’s when I realized Anjelica Huston–who starts the film in a support group–has never spoken in her support group. She just goes and sits and wants to speak and never does. The Crossing Guard opens, after that scene with Huston and the juxtaposed Nicholson scene (Huston goes to support groups, Nicholson hangs out at a strip club), with this beautiful, victorious Jack Nitzsche music. It sounds like it’s a sports movie about a guy who never thought he’d play again, but then did. Nitzsche repeats this piece of music throughout the film and, each time it plays, it gets a little less victorious, a little less triumphant, until the end, when it’s about defeat.

The Crossing Guard is about compassion and submission. Penn doesn’t exactly hide these themes, but there isn’t a single scene where he lets the film get aware of itself enough to think about its themes. The Crossing Guard features a scene where Nicholson wakes up from a nightmare and calls ex-wife Huston on the phone to tell her the dream and it’s one of the best scenes in the film. This scene shouldn’t work, because relating a dream… it shouldn’t work. Penn breaks a couple major narrative rules in The Crossing Guard to great success. There isn’t a false moment in the film and only one where he holds a shot too long (but it’s featuring Robin Wright Penn and he basically casts her as an angel in the film, so he gets some leeway).

The most difficult task for the film’s viewer is connecting with the characters. It isn’t hard to connect with David Morse, whose puppy-dog eyes (which Wright Penn even comments on) and sweet, quiet demeanor visually collide with his hulking figure. His remorse and guilt are palpable. The scene where he tries to explain himself to parents Richard Bradford and Piper Laurie (who are both wonderful and share a fantastic small scene near the beginning) is devastating. It’s a hard moment in the film, where it becomes easier to objectify the film itself–Penn keeps the trailer where Nicholson threatened Morse’s life visible through the window behind Morse–than to listen to what Morse is saying. There isn’t a single explanation in The Crossing Guard. Penn demands his viewer interpret each moment and, if he or she doesn’t get it right, there’s no make-up exam… the film just moves forward.

Nicholson, for instance, is playing a tragic golem. He moves through his life fueled by alcohol, cigarettes and hatred. There are occasional peeks into the person he was before, but it’s all implied. The scenes with ex-wife Huston don’t even offer the most insight, instead it’s how the strippers flock to Nicholson. In this beautiful performance, which gives Nicholson two amazing–once in a career for most people–scenes, the most impressive thing he does is show an exceptional capacity for love. He never shows love for the strippers–Kari Wuhrer and Priscilla Barnes–but they sense it. Barnes has a great scene where she’s yelling at him, but it’s clear even when she’s angry with him. The scene where it’s clear Nicholson’s loved by the junkies, the masochists, the hookers and those who have squandered everything is another candidate for best moment in the film.

And when Nicholson’s humanity returns to him, when the automated processes start to slow, when the clay starts to crack–when it becomes clear just what Nicholson and Morse are both looking for… The Crossing Guard overwhelms.

And Penn isn’t even finished yet.

Penn’s direction–it’s very quiet at times, lots of discreet camera movement–Vilmos Zsigmond does a beautiful job–is sublime. It’s assured and measured. Just like the script’s implications, Penn’s visual moves are perfect. He even plays with the viewer’s perception of movie star Jack Nicholson as such as lackluster person. I kept wondering, as I watched it, if it was going to get better (which, given how great it is from the start, seems impossible). It does.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced and directed by Sean Penn; director of photography, Vilmos Zsigmond; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designer, Michael D. Haller; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Jack Nicholson (Freddy Gale), David Morse (John Booth), Anjelica Huston (Mary), Robin Wright (Jojo), Piper Laurie (Helen Booth), Richard Bradford (Stuart Booth), Priscilla Barnes (Verna), David Baerwald (Peter), Robbie Robertson (Roger), John Savage (Bobby) and Kari Wuhrer (Mia).


The Indian Runner (1991, Sean Penn)

Halfway through The Indian Runner–I’m guessing at the location, but halfway sounds about right–there’s a stunning montage. It might be the best way to talk about the film, or at least to start talking about the film, because The Indian Runner resists any standard–or glib–entry angles. It’s a five character montage, taking place in the late evening and then the late night. David Morse lies in bed, smoking cigarette after cigarette–as close to the filter as he can accomplish–wife Valeria Golino asleep beside him, watching the Democratic Convention riots on the news. Four states away, his brother, played by Viggo Mortensen, steals a car from a man going to a birthday party (his birthday party, in fact). Mortensen’s girlfriend, Patricia Arquette, spends an evening watching Gilligan’s Island with her parents, hoping Mortensen will call. Across town from Morse, he and Mortensen’s father–Charles Bronson–watches home movies of the two as children. Penn includes the birthday party in this montage of his main characters and there’s where The Indian Runner is something. It’s frequently indescribable. This montage, where Penn is able to plummet into the depths of his characters, doesn’t have any dialogue. It takes the length of the song playing on the soundtrack. It’s like nothing else.

What Penn brings to The Indian Runner–as an auteurist–is a thorough understanding of how to apply (and I hate to use the term) pre-Miramax independent filmmaking techniques to a mainstream American story. The montage is an easy example. Not so simple is, for instance, Arquette’s constant shrieking–or the graphic child birth sequence–or Morse (a deputy sheriff) harangued by a lonely woman. Or Golino smoking pot and Morse giving her time to put it out before he sees her. Or Bronson telling Morse he’s glad he married Golino, even though she’s a Mexican. The Indian Runner is based on a Bruce Springsteen song and Penn captures that complicated pride Springsteen feels about people and being American. It’s like nothing else.

Penn has some amazing directorial moments–the end is a visual delight, though it’s hard to use the word delight while discussing The Indian Runner, since–even though it’s a positive affirmation of the human condition–it’s a constant downer. But the scenes where he lets the people talk… those are something else. The Indian Runner isn’t dialogue heavy. It’s conversation heavy–but that description isn’t right either. People talk and people listen. Charles Bronson spent the last half of his career in schlock, but fifteen seconds of his performance in The Indian Runner leaves a fine epitaph, revealing an immensely capable actor if only he had the opportunity. Penn’s script is extraordinary, but his direction of it–the way he can introduce a character, the time he gives the actors–makes it. The script is so fine it allows David Morse to emote while wearing sunglasses.

The character development is another high point. Mortensen’s the screw-up son (even before Vietnam, which makes The Indian Runner somewhat unique), but it slowly becomes clear he’s the one more like Bronson. Mortensen’s regret at failing to make Bronson proud is palpable and devastating. It comes at a moment long before Penn even plunges deeper into the characters’ depths–the climatic scene near the end gives the impression of reaching bottom, but the denouement reveals otherwise. It’s almost limitless.

I suppose, since I’ve talked about Bronson and Mortensen (a little), I could spend some time talking about the other actors. Glibly, because it’s one of the few subjects related to the film where I can get glib. Penn gets a great performance out of Valeria Golino, something I previously would have said was impossible. Arquette’s excellent. Morse–in this quiet (especially when compared to Mortensen) role–is amazing. So many of Morse’s scenes are spent without verbosity, just with him looking at something, watching something… Penn’s ability to get a performance out of his actors is incredible, especially for a first time director.

The Indian Runner doesn’t have a single misstep. Everything Penn does is perfect. It’s one of the most impressive debuts.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Sean Penn; director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond; edited by Jay Cassidy; music by Jack Nitzsche; production designer, Michael D. Haller; produced by Don Phillips; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring David Morse (Joe Roberts), Viggo Mortensen (Frank Roberts), Valeria Golino (Maria), Patricia Arquette (Dorothy), Charles Bronson (Mr. Roberts), Sandy Dennis (Mrs. Roberts), Dennis Hopper (Caesar), Jordan Rhodes (Randall), Enzo Rossi (Raffael), Harry Crews (Mr. Baker) and Eileen Ryan (Mrs. Baker).


Extreme Measures (1996, Michael Apted)

Thanks to a frantic trip through the New York skyline and Danny Elfman’s familiar score, Extreme Measures’s opening credits play like an unused Batman sequel opening… until the two naked guys run out on to the street. It’s an odd opening (and the naked guys and their plight are compelling enough one forgets Elfman until his credit comes up… then the opening makes more sense).

Strangely, Elfman quickly shifts gears and turns in a reasonable thriller score. Apted’s a great thriller director too–there’s one particular sequence I found myself getting agitated while watching, even though it’s perfectly clear the movie is not going to have some twist ending. In fact, the film gets off to a really unique start and keeps a solid quality pace until the resolution turns out to be a twenty minute, real time sequence. Really drags the movie down.

The reason for Extreme Measures being so damn peculiar is Hugh Grant. I’m not sure if he’s changed lately, but during his 1990s rise, Grant was actually rather unique–every movie, he played a variation on his Four Weddings and a Funeral performance. Had his British accent, that tight smile, the goofy hair. Extreme Measures is like watching some guy who ought to be bickering with Sandra Bullock instead get chased around by crazed FBI agent David Morse (Morse is fine playing a… crazed FBI agent, but I hate seeing him wasted in shallow roles). It’s hilarious and it really does work well for a thriller.

Unfortunately, besides Grant, the cast is questionable. Some of the problems stem from it being a thriller and everyone being a suspect, so there isn’t the opportunity for good character relationships (though a nice, lengthy build-up to a betrayal scene would not have hurt–however, Sarah Jessica Parker is terrible and the betrayal scene might have been centered around her and… it would have instead been awful). It wasn’t until the middle I realized there wasn’t going to be a romance between Parker and Grant. Then I realized it maybe wasn’t even giving the impression there was going to be one. I just assumed; it wasn’t so much anything in the movie, rather Parker was supposed to be playing a regular person… except, regardless of acting talent, Parker is a movie star… which probably made her performance even worse.

Gene Hackman is sort of around–I remember he was revealed as the villain in the trailer and it wouldn’t have been possible to show him as anything else. All of his scenes suggest great villainy and he’s a lot of fun when he’s being the villain, it’s when he supposed to be human too. Doesn’t work, makes Extreme Measures seem unaware of its place as a straight thriller with incredibly goofy aspects.

Bill Nunn’s in it a bit and he’s good, so is John Toles-Bey, so is Paul Guilfoyle. The ending’s failure could have been easily averted, but since Grant’s character actually had very little visual to lose or fight for (he’s doing it because he believes in being a doctor) there’s a bit of a quandary. But the ending they went with simply didn’t work following the twenty minute sequence. They sped the film up and then slowed it too suddenly. They needed to give things actual time to sit; instead the ending feels forced and empty.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Apted; written by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Michael Palmer; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Rick Shaine; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Doug Kraner; produced by Elizabeth Hurley; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Hugh Grant (Dr. Guy Luthan), Gene Hackman (Dr. Lawrence Myrick), Sarah Jessica Parker (Jodie Trammel), David Morse (Frank Hare), Bill Nunn (Burke), Paul Guilfoyle (Dr. Jeffrey Manko) and John Toles-Bey (Bobby).


Twelve Monkeys (1995, Terry Gilliam)

Twelve Monkeys is one of the more unhappy films. Unhappy films are difficult to pull off–The Godfather Part II is the finest example–but Monkeys does it. When I say unhappy, I don’t mean a sad ending or an unpleasing one or an unrewarding one. Not even a cynical or downbeat one. An unhappy film, if it does its job, sucks the empathy from the viewer and chucks it in an incinerator. The unhappy film leaves the viewer spent and unwilling to try again. They’re tragedies in the truest form and films, being the most commercial form of fiction–in a reasonable sense, I’m not counting television (with some notable exceptions, of course)–tend not to go too far in to real tragedy. A person wouldn’t want to see it again or, more modernly, double-dip on the DVD releases. To do it right is to make an experience worth the draining effect. These films are not infrequent (at least not during the period Monkeys was made), but they are somewhat occasional.

Monkeys has something else to make it a rarity, anyway. It has a script from David Webb Peoples, who hasn’t had a new script produced since Monkeys came out in 1995. While Gilliam might bring the mood of the film, the sets, the warped technology (and, according to IMDb, Willis and Pitt’s excellent performances), the Peoples (and Peoples, written with his wife) script brings the perfect plot structure–including a fantastic, three-act structured forty minute first act–and the romance.

If Gilliam is responsible for getting Willis’s great performance out of him, the Peoples got the stunning work out of Madeleine Stowe. I’m a big Stowe fan, lamenting her absence from cinema on a weekly basis, but I’d forgotten her performance in this film. It’s easily one of the finest performances in the 1990s, but probably since then too. Stowe’s function in the film is to convince the audience and she takes it to a level beyond, the one where it’s possible for Twelve Monkeys to be so depressing, but also so rewarding.

The film moves through time and frequent settings–whether the future or mental hospitals–the first act definitely establishes some common grounds. Then Stowe and Willis go on the road–the only defect has got to be some of the blue-screened driving composites, I was hoping they were some homage to Hitchcock, but I don’t think so–even though the settings still repeat and become the familiar, the terrain the film crosses in to is new. There’s a scene in the woods with Stowe and Willis fighting–she’s kicking him–and I realized I was watching a wholly unique moment of cinema. The best moment in the film, direction-wise, is that scene in the woods (as well as the scene returning to the woods). Gilliam is showing the viewer something he or she cannot see anywhere else; more, it’s impossible to incapsulate–to get the most from that scene, one has to watch what comes before and what comes after, regardless of how it turns out–which is what makes Twelve Monkeys one of those films. The rewards are in appreciating it.

Sometimes I think I’m remembering wrong and the 1990s wasn’t such a superior decade for filmmaking. Then I watch a film like Twelve Monkeys.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Terry Gilliam; written by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples, based on the film La Jetée by Chris Marker; director of photography, Roger Pratt; edited by Mick Audsley; music by Paul Buckmaster; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Charles Roven; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Bruce Willis (James Cole), Madeleine Stowe (Kathryn Railly), Brad Pitt (Jeffrey Goines), Christopher Plummer (Dr. Goines), David Morse (Dr. Peters), Frank Gorshin (Dr. Fletcher), Jon Seda (Jose) and Joseph Melito (Young James).


16 Blocks (2006, Richard Donner)

Bruce Willis has had more comebacks–commercial and artistic–than any actor I can think of… Pulp Fiction was artistic, Die Hard: With a Vengeance was a commercial one, The Sixth Sense was both (his performance any way), and he’s due. (I just realized, the trips tend to come with comedic ventures). 16 Blocks is probably not his best performance–though he’s excellent–but it is the first sign he’s going to age gracefully. Willis’s generation of actor–and even the one before his, if Harrison Ford is any indication–has been rather uncomfortable with the whole aging process. It’s always these fifty year-olds with three year-old babies. None of those perks for Willis in this film. He’s fat and slow and, even when he gets going, he never really moves fast.

The film is far from perfect–it’s got an intense set-up and the first forty-five minutes were incredibly smart, the film kept the audience in the dark, letting the actors do their work. It’s not quite a real-time film, which is good, since those never really work out, but there’s too much thrown into the film… too much construction. Richard Wenk writes good dialogue and good characters, but he runs out of situations. He also plays three major tricks on the audience, all but one are expected, but the film’s so affable it’s impossible to get upset with it.

Mos Def contributes a lot to the affability and he and Willis are great together, with Willis actually doing different work than he usually does in his buddy films. David Morse, of course, turns in the best performance. Watching this guy chew gum is amazing….

There’s also the playful tone Donner takes with the film. Donner knows how to make a film entertaining and never takes 16 Blocks off track. The editing is good and the cinematography is great–so good I thought I’d recognize the name, but did not. It’s a lower budget film for Donner, who–I think–put together the financing himself, and it’s a practice he should stick with. He knows what he’s doing.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; written by Richard Wenk; director of photography, Glen MacPherson; edited by Steven Mirkovich; music by Klaus Badelt; production designer, Arv Greywal; produced by Avi Lerner, Randall Emmett, John Thompson, Arnold Rifkin and Jim Van Wyck; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Bruce Willis (Jack Mosley), Mos Def (Eddie Bunker), David Morse (Frank Nugent), Cylk Cozart (Jimmy Mulvey) and David Zayas (Robert Torres).


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