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The Mexican

Director: Gore Verbinski
Cast: Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, James Gandolfini, David Krumholtz, Gene Hackman

(Dreamworks; 2001)

Hard Places

Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican features two of the prettiest movie stars on the planet—Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts—but it works extra hard to be an anti-star vehicle. At times it resembles a romantic comedy, at others a dark melodrama, at others a brutal mob movie, and at still others, a po-mo take on the instability of genres and texts.


Perhaps because of its own generic loosey-goosey-ness, The Mexican had trouble getting started at the box office. This despite conventional industry wisdom that either of these two stars can open ANYTHING (witness the survival of the dreary America’s Sweethearts over the past couple of weeks). The DVD release of The Mexican—with a number of deleted scenes and commentary by the director, writer J.H. Wyman, and editor Craig Wood—both confirms some of my suspicions about the filmmaking process (the guys were in love with the project, and high-minded about it too) and also offered alternative readings that now seem obvious (for much the same reason).


The film concerns Jerry (Pitt) and Samantha (Roberts), in love but driving each other crazy. They actually aren’t even together for most of the film, as he’s off on a gangster mission in Mexico, and she’s back in the States. The movie begins with the couple’s break-up, and then spends the rest of its time getting them back together. Jerry is a hapless sort of guy (Verbinski says in the commentary that he “the kind of guy who, when he orders a chicken salad sandwich and a turkey sandwich arrives, he’ll eat it anyway”), and so he’s sucked into a plot beyond his experience. In this plot, a couple of ruthless gangsters, Nayman (Bob Balaban) and Margolese (Gene Hackman, who doesn’t show up until the last scene), 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, that the gun is priceless and it is cursed.


The curse stems from the gun’s mythically weighted history, along the lines of the Maltese Falcon. The film shows three versions of this legend, in tinted, old-style movie footage. Briefly, the pistola was crafted 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—indeed, Verbinski says in his commentary that the ultimate choice that each of the primary characters has to make in the film is between life and love—but it ends up inflicting awful violence anyway, as guns tend to do. The downside of this repetition is that it presumes (I think) that there’s comedy in watching the quaint Mexican villagers shoot each other unintentionally or deliberately, again and again.


As much as it helps explain the motivation here, when Verbinski and company extol the beauty and moral soundness of their Steve McQueenish hero, Jerry—or more accurately, Pitt as Jerry—the film does lapse at times into a familiar representational jingoism. To be fair, The Mexican does spend much of its time casting aspersions on U.S. tackiness, in the form of truck stops and Las Vegas hotels. While Jerry is finding, losing, retrieving, and then re-losing the gun, Sam 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.” She’s kidnapped by a gay hitman who calls himself Leroy (James Gandolfini) 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 one of the deleted scenes shows something more about how the filmmakers imagined this role, as one of several challenges to prejudice and stereotyping).


Sam and Leroy’s relationship is the most intimate in the film for the rest of the film: they’re less vicious captor and frightened captee than comrades. Their friendship develops when Leroy outs himself for Sam; his gayness ostensibly makes him sensitive by definition, especially for a hitman. Though again, a deleted scene, where Sam and Leroy watch the club performance of a drag queen for whom Leroy is developing “feelings,” does give insight into how the filmmakers conceived this character: the club scene is better left out of the film, as it was, but it’s interesting to see the elaboration of the romance.


Before Sam and Jerry are reunited, he spends a few onscreen minutes with his erstwhile partner Ted (J.K. Simmons, whose deleted scenes involve a complete change of character and marriage to a Mexican woman). 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 and credit cards: in Mexico, their usual privilege is diminished. 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.


Throughout the commentary, Verbinski and Wood do most of the talking (soft-spoken Wyman only pipes up occasionally), but throughout the commentary, you get the feeling that all three of them are rather liking watching what they’ve wrought (and it is a very good-looking movie). There’s actually a lot of downtime in their narration, as they pause to admire or reflect on their work. As Verbinski helpfully notes, the film begins, under the credits sequence, with a car accident (that was not in the script, he adds), the “inciting incident of Jerry’s life,” while Wood observes that the film concerns the effects of an “external agency” on the lives of its characters.


As he also notes during another scene, “There’s good writing here,” that’s simple and conveys something about the “human condition.” Yes and no—the writing is often very good, but the grand human condition business is overstated. Despite this kind of inflation, the commentators are more often self-conscious (as when they laugh with each other over the very idea of doing such commentary: “I think it’s time to talk about the nature of commentary,” observes Verbinski. “Why?,” he wonders, are they expected to do and why do they agree to do it? You have to like the humility that makes them ask themselves such a thing. The commentary isn’t revelatory in the way that some DVD filmmakers’ tracks can be, but it’s smart and low-key, and seeing the film again is a worthy venture.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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