Everyone knows that Brad Pitt is prodigiously appealing. But even though he’s always on the cover of People magazine, he’s not really a conventional movie star. While he’s certainly popular, as well as talented and very pretty (beautiful, really), Pitt actively resists the onus of being a star. While more regular celebrities, like Leo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, are paid a lot of money because they can “open” films just by being in them, Pitt has adopted an alternate route. He opens movies, but he acts as if he’d rather not. Aside from a few high profile bungles (Legends of the Fall and Meet Joe Black leap to mind), Pitt has been fairly assiduous about choosing films that demonstrate that his pretty presence can be—even should be—overwhelmed by various elements, for instance, grisly dead bodies (Seven), CGI elephants and Bruce Willis (12 Monkeys), Mulder pretending to be a photographer (Kalifornia), many many mountain vistas (Seven Years in Tibet), verbal incoherence (Snatch), or commercially successful anti-commercial message-making (Fight Club—although, honestly, in this case, Pitt’s frequent bare-chestedness tends to reinforce his bodily glory, despite and because of all the black eyes and bruises).
In The Mexican, Gore Verbinski’s slow-moving, border-crossing road picture, Brad Pitt is at it again. Cast in something approximating a romantic comedy (though it’s not nearly so zany and cute and comical as the trailers might lead you to believe), opposite Hollywood’s very brightest and best-marketed superstar, Julia Roberts, he’s also trying (sort of, maybe) to stick to his anti-movie-star guns. And so he looks caught between a rock and a hard place. Poor guy. As much effort as he puts into not being Brad Pitt, there he always is—Brad Pitt.
On its good-looking surface (being well-composed and carefully lit), The Mexican is a love story. More precisely, Jerry (Pitt) and Samantha (Roberts) are in love but drive each other crazy. They actually aren’t together for most of the film (which is a good thing, because when these characters are together, they’re monotonous and sometimes unbearable, her especially—loud and whiny), but the plot nominally concerns the efforts of these sparring, sparkless partners to “get it together” and love each other unconditionally. Even though this happy ending does not actually occur on screen, the film hints heavily that it might, sometime later, after the final credits are over. Here’s a clever bit (not): the movie actually begins with the couple’s break-up, and then spends the rest of its time getting them back together. Jerry is a hapless peon in a standard-issue plot, where a couple of ruthless gangsters, Nayman (Bob Balaban) and Margolese (Gene Hackman) are both wanting desperately to get their hands on a fabulous, antique, hand-crafted pistol called “The Mexican.” Nayman dispatches Jerry to Mexico to get said pistol, without telling him details—namely, the thing is priceless and it is cursed.
The curse stems from the gun’s mythically weighted history, along the lines of the Maltese Falcon. You’re subjected to three long-winded versions of the legend attached to this gun, each in tinted, old-style movie footage, so that the story looks special and corny at the same time, you know, like the filmmakers are aware that the device is cliched but are using it anyway. Briefly, it was made by a Mexican gunsmith long ago, as a present to a nobleman who was to marry the gunsmith’s daughter; but she’s in love with the gunsmith’s assistant, and in each of the different versions, she or the assistant or someone pay dearly for wanting what he or she can’t have. And so, this gun is supposed to be all about love rather than violence, but it ends up inflicting awful violence anyway, as guns tend to do. The awfulness is mitigated by the framing of the story—apparently it’s funny to watch to the quaint Mexican villagers shoot each other unintentionally or deliberately, again and again.
I say this understanding that it’s also apparently funny to watch the present day characters shooting each other—in a foot or a throat on purpose, in a head by accident—because that’s what they do in this relentlessly post-tarantino universe. But for all the shooting and posturing, there’s not much action here, mostly repeated (and I mean, repeated) shots of cars on lonesome Mexican backroads and traffic lights swinging in the dusty wind. The pistola that everyone’s so hot to possess is essentially a plot device that allows the U.S. characters to spend time in hot desert towns across the border. Like other recent films set in Mexico (say, Traffic and All the Pretty Horses), this one is enthralled by what it presents as Mexico’s inherent violence, inscrutable exoticism, and sweaty-faced “banditos,” that is, all that too-familiar iconography that’s “other” from the “American” norm. Such representational jingoism is surely tired, and has been variously deflated over the years (John Huston was wrangling with it way back in 1948’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but this recent revival is particularly troubling, because everyone involved should know better by now.
To be fair, The Mexican does spend much of its time casting aspersions on U.S. tackiness, in the form of truckstops and Las Vegas hotels. While Jerry is finding, losing, retrieving, and then re-losing the gun, Samantha—they’ve broken up, remember—is on her way to Vegas, where she plans to become a waitress and then a croupier, because, she says, she has “the hands for it.” En route, she’s kidnapped by a hitman named Leroy (James Gandolfini, as yet another charming, confused assassin—will he ever get to play another part?), who has been hired to put pressure on Jerry. Leroy first nabs Sam by “saving” her from another hitman (played by Sherman Augustus and listed in the credits only as the “Well-Dressed Black Man”—let’s just say that he’s the only black man in the film, and never appears without his way-cool shades; i.e., he’s as “other” and unknowable as the scruffy Mexicans are). This initial encounter sets up Sam and Leroy’s relationship for the rest of the film—they’re less vicious captor and frightened captee than comrades. It’s a little too endearing, yes. And this endearingness is exacerbated when Leroy outs himself for Sam; the fact that he’s gay ostensibly makes him sensitive by definition, especially for a hitman. Sam and Leroy bond over this little secret (obviously not a good thing to circulate within the hitman “community”), advising each other on love, trust, and commitment—it’s Will & Grace on the road.
Eventually, Jerry and Sam will be reunited, if only so they can scrap some more, because that is the point, isn’t it? Before this happens, Jerry spends a few onscreen minutes with his erstwhile partner Ted (J.K. Simmons, Oz‘s resident neo-Nazi, here toned down and wearing a “comb-over” wig and touristy Bermuda shorts). While searching for the gun and weathering various abuses by locals, these two rather inept gangster-wannabes chat about their chosen profession, their capacities to commit, and their changing status as white men with guns: in Mexico, their usual privilege is somewhat diminished. Pitt and Simmons are very good, and very unflashy, together, showing subtly how Jerry and Ted must renegotiate who they think they are in relation to their shifting contexts. It’s a lesson that the rest of The Mexican might have taken more to heart.