Thursday, January 19, 2012

9@Night #2: Used (Rob Nilsson, 2007)

Whereas the first film in the series seemed to deal with the fractured memories and experiences of its main character, Used finds that character dealing with his uncertain prospects for the present and future, and even finds him abandoning his past altogether. The film again introduces us to Ben Malifide, now living with the woman who befriended him in the previous film. That woman, St. Tre, is the owner of a strip club, and she's seemingly well off -- she owns a house with a great view in the hills, and she takes Malifide to her high-stakes poker games, where she loses and ends up owing Kenny, a photographer played by Nilsson, 90 grand. Thus, the smallest semblance of a plot is set in motion: Tre ends up taking Malifide's counterfeit money plates (a significant item in the last film) and making her own copy, after which Malifide suspects ill of her and ends up leaving for Nevada to find an old friend he knew in prison.

If Noise was an experimental film with a skeletal narrative, Used is very nearly a genre film, a mixture of crime drama and road movie (the slide guitar soundtrack recalls Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas). As always with Nilsson films, matters of plot don't quite matter so much as the emotional lives of the characters, and nothing is resolved, or even even left unresolved, in the way one might expect. So while film's story arc might seem weak to anyone who thinks film is primarily for telling stories, it's the emotional arcs that are the film's strength. If I mention plot (or lack thereof) often, it is because I think it is central that art film, independent film -- call it what you want -- abandons plot, the idea that a film's ultimate purpose is storytelling, in order to get down to what really matters. This is nothing new, of course. (Any of my anti-plot diatribes can probably be blamed on film school, but that's another story.)

When the film begins, Malafide is bathing outside Tre's house, proclaiming that he's on a vision quest. It's a half-serious joke, and when the time comes for him to leave, he sets out to meet up with an actual mystic, People T. It's unclear how much time has passed between this film and the last, but Malafide is nearly a different character; he has a different haircut, has grown a full beard, and at times seems psychologically unhinged, if only slightly. After leaving Tre's he tries to get rid of his bag, and even begins talking to it. It seems to have been with him quite a while, but it's clear that he would like to be rid of it and his past altogether. After having experienced some luxury for once in his life, he's trying his hand at the life of a tramp, the kind who hops trains. And he does just that, after meet Johnny, played by Edwin Johnson. It's unclear why Johnny is sleeping on railroad tracks when Ben meets him, and we're given few details about his life, but his is another recurring character in the series, and so far one of its strongest performers.

Meanwhile Tre convinces Kenny, to whom she owes the 90 grand, to go to Reno with her where perhaps her nephew will know how to turn her templates into counterfeit bills. I think that's the plan, anyway -- I've watched the movie twice and I'm still a little unclear on the details during these scenes. It's here that Used resembles a more conventinal crime drama -- Tre's nephew is even involved with some shady neo-nazi types who own the bar where he works. His plan to deliver them some free cigarettes via a freght train car fails to come through, and he crosses paths with Malafide and company at the freight station. It is here that Malafide meets an Aldo Modisco, played by David Hess, and over campfire in a homeless encampment they decide to trade identities. Malafide becomes Modisco and hands over the bag, which also contains a package addressed to the Parkway Theater in Oakland. I presume this is an important puzzle piece in the series.

In the end, no one really accomplishes what they had set out to do. Certainly Malafide hoped for something more with People T, who takes him and Johnny to his old spot in the Nevada desert, where he gives them some of his old horse riding mementos, including a chain whose purpose is unclear. Shortly thereafter, People T commits suicide by jumping off the train heading back to California -- it's this that finally pushes Malafide to give up his past for good. Tre's situation, on the other hand, concludes in a less-than-spectacular fashion, with Kenny cancelling the debt but admitting feelings for Tre, who doesn't feel the same. Malafide returns to Tre's, where they reconcile, and there's a montage of People T on his horse that gives emotional closure to Malafide's journey. A shot of the chain that locks the horses pen is a subtle and poetic touch: we recognize it as the chain he gave to Malafide.

Used concludes with us knowing that Malafide will soon be living under an assumed identity. However, the series' next film, Attitude, features Malafide as himself. As such, it is very possible that Attitude occurs within the events of Used. More on that next time.

No comments:

Post a Comment