Judge Erich Asperschlager is more of a mumbling man.
"You may ask why I did what I did, but what choice did you give me? How else could I get your attention?"
Writer/Director Frank Cappello's He Was A Quiet Man is one of the best fantasies I've seen in a long while. Though you won't find any swords or dragons in this black comedy about a low-level office drone who dreams about opening fire on his coworkers, Cappello uses clever special effects to blur reality, giving us a peek into a disturbed mind.
The film is carried—in fact, elevated—by a nearly unrecognizable Christian Slater (Bobby), who gives an amazing performance as the mentally unstable Bob Maconel. Gone is the young-Nicholson grin, replaced by crooked teeth, thinning hair, and oversized glasses. He does the difficult job of not only bringing the character to life, but making him sympathetic.
Slater's job is made easier thanks to Cappello's layered script, which moves effortlessly between comedy, drama, romance, and thriller. It's the kind of story that sticks with you long after the final shot, with an attention to detail that rewards a second viewing. It's not perfect—once you get beyond the core group, the characters ring hollow; and the ambiguous ending might rub some viewers the wrong way—but for a low-budget indie project shot in a mere 21 days, it's an impressive and stylish film.
Facts of the Case
Supply manager Bob Maconel goes to work each day, prepping himself for the moment he'll work up the courage to take the revolver he has stashed in a locked desk drawer and kill his office mates. The problem is, just as he's about to carry out his plan, he's beaten to the punch by another disgruntled coworker who goes on a shooting spree of his own. When Bob sees the gunman turn to finish off Venessa (Elisha Cuthbert, Love Actually), a pretty young woman on whom he has a crush, Bob shoots the man dead, saving her life. Hailed as a hero, Bob finds himself the center of attention of local media, coworkers, and the company's CEO, Mr. Shelby (William H. Macy, Magnolia), who gives him a big promotion. The only person who isn't happy, it turns out, is the woman he saved—the woman he loves. Paralyzed from a bullet to the spine, Venessa's furious that Bob didn't let her die, and she asks him to help her finish the job the gunman started.
The real strength of Cappello's film is his ability to keep the audience guessing. This applies to the plot, certainly, but also to the tone, which shifts over the course of the film. What begins as a disturbing portrait of a man on the edge moves into comedy, character drama, romance, and thriller, finally turning back on itself as the story implodes and all of its elements come together in a haunting finale.
It's hard to watch He Was A Quiet Man and not draw comparisons to other films: Besides the thematic similarities to movies like Taxi Driver and Fight Club, the office scenes play like a darker version of Mike Judge's Office Space (bolstered by Slater's Bob Maconel looking eerily like a thin Milton), while the surreal fantasy elements—like Bob's foul-mouthed talking goldfish—are reminiscent of similar moments in Amélie and Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures.
No matter how much faith they had in the script, seeing the finished film must have been a relief for everyone involved. Making a good movie is hard enough with big studio support. That Cappello was able to pull off a good-looking, compelling movie on a shoestring budget with three weeks of principal photography and no time for reshoots is an amazing accomplishment.
In his commentary, the director professes the boredom with predictable scripted drama and comedy that led him to write He Was a Quiet Man. He wanted his script to keep the audience on their toes, and it does that. What's so impressive about Cappello's story is that he's able to tie everything together despite the crazy twists and turns. Though there are times the movie threatens to spin out of control—after an abrupt tonal shift, or during a particularly trippy sequence—the trading of clear narrative for spontaneity is, overall, refreshing.
The film's distinctive visual style is a handy byproduct of Cappello's special effects experience. By doing the work himself, he was able to play around with ideas that might otherwise have been too expensive. The effects shots range from the subtle to the absurd, but in every case support the story's exploration of Maconel's twisted psyche—for example, the talking goldfish, which acts as a kind of waterlogged devil-on-his-shoulder. Whether by design or fiscal limitations, most of the effects are obvious, but because we're left to wonder how much of what we're seeing exists in Bob's mind, the "fake" look fits. It's a visually striking film, with a dynamic tonal range that shifts with the story—from saturated hyper-real colors to the drabness of cubicle life. The music, too—presented in an underutilized surround mix—shifts between musical styles that include instrumental score and folk-rock songs.
All the clever direction and effects work in the world wouldn't have been able to sell the story if Christian Slater hadn't nailed his performance. The film lives and dies with Bob Maconel, and Slater so inhabits the character we're willing to accept some of the less-fleshed-out characters that surround him. His physical transformation isn't quite on the level of Charlize Theron in Monster or DeNiro in Raging Bull, but Slater's willingness to alter his appearance is a physical manifestation of the commitment that comes through his performance. Maconel could have been played as one-note crazy, but Slater is nuanced enough that even at his creepiest, Bob is endearing.
Elisha Cuthbert, shedding her teen dream persona, does a decent job as the volatile Venessa. There are times she struggles with the emotional weight of the role, and she never really manages to be credible as a claw-her-way-to-the-top executive, but given the physical demands put on her—she spends most of the film unable to move from the neck down—it's a performance that shows she can do more than run away from kidnappers and cougars. She and Slater manage to sell an unlikely romance; their scenes together are among the best in the film. William H. Macy, meanwhile, does what he can with his part, though he doesn't get enough screentime (or good lines) to have a real impact. The rest of the cast feel—perhaps purposely—like props in Bob's story.
Rather than existing for the sake of bullet points on the back of the box, the bonus features are mostly additive. Most of the time, it's obvious why deleted scenes got cut from the final product. In this case, it seems a shame they didn't make it in. All of them provide information about Bob's motivation or a particular plot point. The alternate scenes are two different takes at the ending—each more explicit about what "really" happened. The excised scenes get a director's commentary, as does the feature itself. Cappello uses the commentaries to explain his vision for the film, and to point out the workarounds and flexibility necessary to finish a movie with so few resources. Also, because he was fully involved with the project from beginning to end, we get a rare overview look at the filmmaking process. How often is the writer the same person responsible for the CGI? Rounding things off is "The First Look at He Was a Quiet Man"—your basic behind-the-scenes promotional piece—and the theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The decision to throw everything into question in the film's ambiguous final minutes is bound to be divisive. I found it thought-provoking; others are bound to find it infuriating. The ending is arguably the weakest part of the film, though it works better than it might have. I appreciate the bonus feature inclusion of two alternate endings, both of which more neatly wrap up the story. At first, I preferred them to the theatrical ending, but Cappello does a good job in his commentary of explaining why he went the way he did. Like it or not, the film is an expression of a singular vision.
He Was a Quiet Man is (for lack of a better term) a successful experiment. Frank Cappello set out to make a film that eschewed predictability, kept the audience off-balance, and stayed true to his original vision. For the most part, he's done it. A lot of the film's flaws can be attributed to lack of budget and time—or explained away by the plot's ever-present fantasy loophole. Thanks, however, to a compelling script and Christian Slater's powerful performance, the end result is playful and thought-provoking. He Was a Quiet Man's ambiguity—especially at the end—won't satisfy everyone, but for those willing to live in Cappello's world, it's worth experiencing.
Bob Maconel is free to go, provided he attends mandatory counseling and gets rid of that freaky fish. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• First Look at "He Was a Quiet Man"
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