14 February 2013

Nurse Betty (2000)

The plot reads like any of a possible many cheesy and hackneyed neo-noir flicks: two hit men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock), one on his final job, follow the sole witness and wife (Renee Zellweger) of the man (Aaron Eckhart as a character you can hate completely) they just killed over drug deal gone bad. The wife flees cross country from Kansas to California with the drugs/drug money in the trunk of her car, and creates a new life for herself. However, this summary fails to consider the wondrous, unusual, and utterly candid film that Neil LaBute has made. Wildly beyond any attempts to categorize it, the film flaunts the tenets of all the genres in which it dips: crime drama, film noir, buddy comedy, road flick, etc... and in the course of its execution, it creates a stirring and deeply compelling group of characters.

And that is perhaps the best description of this film, a character study. The two hit men are played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock as a counter to the bumbling antics of previous cinematic buddy duos. As the hit man in training, Rock is uncouth and acts as the uncut, glassy-rock looking lump to Freeman's polished, gleaming engagement ring. His comedic schtick should be odd or at least off putting, but instead balanced with the malice of their actions, it acts as demonstration of one of LaBute's main fascinations: how evil and morally corrupt motivations can hide in even the most beguiling and banal seeming packages. Not to say that Rock's performance is banal, instead it crackles and clicks with Freeman's in marvelous fashion. LaBute represented the same slant of human nature in the criminally underrated, and unfairly/viciously maligned The Shape of Things (2003).

This banal quality of evil is carried over into Freeman's performance, and is beautifully contrasted with Zellweger's. And as Ebert highlights so wonderfully in his review, it is the complementary trajectory of Freeman and Zellweger's characters that makes the film work so well. Zellweger's Betty is launched involuntarily into fantasy by violence, Freeman's hitman is launched into fantasy voluntarily by his life of violence. But there is more to what the film is doing than just the two of them joined in dreamy fantasy. Freeman's aging, evil, but compellingly disassociated hit man is believable paired with Rock's comedic impatience, but it feels more interesting still when considered as contrast to Betty.

As a character study this film is concerned with more than fantasy. It is playing with our ideas about evil and people's responses to evil when it is thrown into the lives of those who do not regularly encounter it. What happens when one confronts the limits of one's own ability to tolerate horror? What does fantasy do for those confronting the unimaginable? There are all sorts of ideas in our social and legal world about "appropriate" responses to certain situations, and psychology will tell you what people should do given a particular stimuli. However, what LaBute does so well in this film is show how the unpredictability of existence is actually more the norm than what legal and psychological parlance tells us. What do we hear more about, the bizarre "you could not make this up" type of crimes, or the horrific crimes that unfold exactly as we are told by Law & Order they should?

And it is this contrast, between fantasy and violence, between death and the sublime, as filtered through the magnificent, nuanced performances of the characters. It is these shifting, precarious roles that make this the sort of film that, every time I see it, I find myself again surprised by how quickly and tightly it pulls me in, while simultaneously repelling me from the violence of the two hit men and the resort to madness taken by our heroine. If given the time and consideration, this is the type of film to teach you more about yourself than you realize based on your responses to what you see the character's seeing, and what you sense the characters feeling.

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