The Devil's Own: A Study in Stills

Alan J. Pakula is one of the greatest directors in American cinema and the language of modern thrillers has made me miss his kind of movie more than I ever thought possible. The sparseness of his body of work is all the more tragic because his final film has gone all but completely unheralded. The Devil's Own must not have looked like much in 1997, considering what was going on in world cinema, but its pleasures are ripe for rediscovery for fans of old texture. Abbas Kiarostami's staggering Ta'm-e gīlās won the Palme d'Or that year beating out Happy Together and L.A. Confidential, and elsewhere Pedro Costa's Ossos and Tsai Ming-Liang's The River were outstanding examples of a new direction in international arthouse cinema. On the mainstream front, next to the Bruckheimer productions that flanked it, The Rock and Con Air, it's tame as can be. That was the paradox of 90s action cinema: The best ones were just well-staged dramas with a few very capably handled set pieces that would often contain a few character details and move the story to a new location. Ingenious, really. And we've all but abandoned those principles today, trading the tripod for the shoulder, film for digital and somehow we've embraced the appalling silliness of people looking into the camera to deliver intimidating dialogue. Increasingly I find that I don't just feel out of step but homesick. This sort of filmmaking was everywhere while I was growing up, and I'm starting to realize how much I value it as something more than just a totem of my childhood. 

The Devil's Own only changes location once and its few moments of action are independent of the main narrative, to wit Brad Pitt's IRA rogue (looking like a golden haired Robert Redford) trying to gather weapons to take back to the fight without arousing the suspicion of his American host, Harrison Ford. Director of Photography Gordon Willis, who also never made another movie, creates a sumptuous visual/thematic palette for this story of clashing cultures and sensibilities. Pitt's character is intruding upon Ford's life and home, standing in opposition to his laid back personal life and ridged moral code. Pitt and a few other criminals that Ford encounters walk through the Z-axis, across thresholds and into doorways into a life they haven't earned the way Ford has. Willis, famous for shooting the Godfather trilogy among other acts of practically insane artistry, chooses a gauzy amber colour for his vision of an old family model in a new, old world. The knick-knacks and ornate decorations of lived-in suburban homes, businesses and streets may never again look as opulent. Pakula seemed to be channelling John Ford's tales of honor and dedication among the Irish, and the emotions and payoffs are much bigger, much more archetypal ("This isn't an American story, it's an Irish story." is Pitt's justification for a sad ending) than was typical of his previous work. It's hard not to see a little of John Wayne or Tyrone Power in Harrison Ford's simple, flawed hero and his performance very quietly moves one without one's permission. Pakula and Willis treat the home like the temple it is to both Pitt and Ford, unnatural figures invading sacred landscapes, without altering a single detail for the sake of streamlining the narrative. We're introduced to Ford lying on his couch with his socked feet up in the air, Pitt viewing his domesticity through a window with envy. Ford looks like he's a part of the couch, like he was painted there. He fits the surroundings and they fit him just as well. The care put into these frames has largely left mainstream American cinema, though James Gray has proven himself a more-than-worthy heir to Pakula and his jaundiced views on nostalgia, family and loyalty, who, when enlightened by his subject was one of the sharpest voices we had. Klute, The Parallax View and All The President's Men may be vastly superior works to Presumed Innocent and The Pelican Brief but The Devil's Own was proof positive that the genius behind some of the best political thrillers of all time hadn't shed his skin entirely just because his chosen field had marched on. Things had changed but Willis and Pakula were still capable of transcending popular form and dated subjects, right up to the end. They knew that the story had already been written all over the streets that had shaped it.

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