Off the Path
or the record, I’ll call myself Mr. Parker, and my associate will be Mr. Longbaugh.” By the time Parker (Ryan Phillippe) names himself, about three minutes into The Way of the Gun, you’ve already seen him in a brief spurt of disastrous action, and have a sense of why he’d like to go by a pseudonym. He’s a self-styled menace, swaggering and sometimes stumbling, perpetually exhausted and enraged. You know all this because you’ve just seen Parker and his boy Longbaugh (Benicio del Toro) fight with some stupid guy who insists they stop leaning on his parked car. There’s no reason to fight, except the guy is showing off for his foul-mouthed girlfriend, and Parker and Longbaugh don’t have anything else to do that night. The pair get their asses kicked by the guy’s crew. The partners are lying on the street, bloodied and rag-dolly, as the camera pulls out and up, hanging over them like a vulture.
Such predatory positioning leaves little doubt as to how this movie is going to treat its both its characters and viewers. Parker has named them after the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which means both ways: “our” Parker and Longbaugh are the real deal but also not. There’s no real to be, anymore. The West is long dead, and that noiry voice over that Parker has going is world-weary all right, but not very wise or hardcore, or even cynical: it’s so done already. He and his boy are old school bad-guy partners, with a code and extraordinary loyalty to one another, but they lack proper good guys to fight: the world around them is so confused and vile; there’s no clear moral, legal, or even personal ground. They have, as Parker puts it in writer-director Chris (The Usual Suspects) McQuarrie’s elegant bad-guy-speak “fallen off the path.” At such a point, past crisis and past redemption, you have no choice, Parker observes: “Keep your life simple and you can self-sustain.”
But this being a McQuarrie film, there is no such thing as “simple.” Indeed, within minutes Parker and Longbaugh’s lives are so unbelievably fucked up and complicated that there is no chance in hell that they will ever be able to get back to that first moment when they’re laid out on the street, a moment which, looking back, is suddenly sublime in its simplicity. While this moment establishes their viciousness, aggression, and devotion to one another, it actually sets up very little in terms of what will befall them. All you know for sure is that something will befall them. Something dire and harrowing and, of course, quite off the path.
Tellingly, the plot kicks in just as Parker utters the word “simple.” A sound bridge takes you from their unconscious bodies to the next scene, where the guys essay rather desperately to make some bucks, by selling their sperm (the way of the gun, indeed). Longbaugh informs the interviewer, “I never killed a man, that’s a qualification.” He’s lying, of course, he has killed men. But the fellow at the desk has no idea of this. And at this moment you might not even be so sure, except that you’ve seen Longbaugh behave so violently for no good reason, that you can only imagine what kind of damage he wreaks if actually provoked. The scene works to bond the partners in your mind, intercutting between their interviews at the sperm bank, so their answers seem to interlock and speak to one another, their psycho-killer psyches alternate, like a rhythm. Each makes his case: he’s not homosexual, he’s never had sex with a dead person. And the question that neither can answer because they’re too alienated and too-early abandoned to know: “Any history of mental illness in your family?”
It’s by chance that they come upon a plan, or think they come up with one (though, as Parker says, “A plan is just a list of things that don’t happen”). While waiting to hear if they “passed” the interview, Parker and Longbaugh overhear a phone call concerning a surrogate mother, and the plan hatches. They’ll kidnap this woman who’s been paid to carry a rich guy couple’s child, and demand mad cash. The surrogate mother is Robin (Juliette Lewis), nine months into her pregnancy and waddling hugely. The rich couple is a gangster-businessman named Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson) and his icy-bitch wife Francesca (Kristen Lehman). By the time the kidnapping occurs, you know enough about these people to understand why Robin might decide to take leave of her bodyguards, supersmooth Jeffers (Taye Diggs) and young tough Obecks (Nicky Katt), to take a chance with these leftovers from the wild wild west. Also by this time, you’re quite aware that no good will come of any of it. Parker and Longbaugh make their move as she’s leaving the doctor’s high-rise, nylon pulled down on their faces and guns drawn. A group of bystanders is lolling about in the office building lobby, only vaguely surprised to see the weapons. Or maybe they’re missing something. “Can’t you people see there are guns here?!” whines Parker, exasperated. But civilians, by definition, can not fathom how guns work or what they mean, the way of the gun. Even when they do exit the building, they wait around outside to watch the action, like it’s a movie. Once the shooting starts (which you don’t even see, remaining behind, inside the building with Robin), the civilians become statistics, bodies left behind as the plot moves on.
The Way of the Gun piles up a lot of bodies. The outlaws head from the Southwest U.S. to a dusty, worn-out Mexican border town, followed by Jeffers and Obecks, who are in turn followed by Chidduck’s ace hitman, Sarno (James Caan), the veteran gangster-thug-performer. Sarno describes himself as versed in “the art of adjudication.” And every other guy understands this for what it is: he’s a bagman, cunning, experienced, honorable, not to be trusted. Everyone knows how this bad business will end and each has a mix of reasons pride, money, boredom, bloodlust, greed for not turning back. Such inexorable motion doesn’t require thinking through. When asked who between Parker and Longbaugh is the “brains of the operation,” Longbaugh answers, “To tell you the truth, I don’t think this is a brains kind of operation.” The machinery grinds on.
The ground-up object, of course, is Robin, who becomes, quite literally, meat. During a particularly gruesome and lengthy finale, while the men gather to point guns at one another, her worn-down body collapses in a Mexican brothel, where her doctor Allen Painter (Dylan Kussman), is forced to perform a Cesarean. Robin’s passed out from the pain, and Painter’s standing over the bed, his hands all up inside her bloody gut, a couple of thug corpses strewn about the room. It’s an ugly scene, made uglier by the fact that the gunmen just keep at their business.
The ugliness makes a point, of course, having to do with the effects of violence, its costs and purports. And here at this clear point of brutality and hatefulness where the film, so ambiguously and awkwardly named, poses what may be its central question. What is the “way of the gun”?
Break it down: Can it be that the many measures of meanness, immorality, and chaos that have brought Parker and Longbaugh, Jeffers and Obecks, Sarno and Robin, to this moment come down to genre? Do the movie’s generic roots its patent investments in action flicks, thrillers, gangster movies, Westerns, and films noirs make it just another genre picture or a thoughtful challenge to these familiar (not to say stale) configurations? Where and how does a text transgress or challenge conventions, rather than rehearsing or even reframing them? Is The Way of the Gun “off the path”? Or is “off the path”—once it’s named as such just another path to be on, a way to position oneself against a more traditional path? Is Parker self-delusional instead of insightful? Can he be both at the same time, or does it even matter, given that he is, after all, a fictional character? Is the “way” of this film just another scandalous and generally offensive path? Does that very offensiveness make the path (or the decision to take it) subversive, because it makes you feel uncomfortable rather than complacent, titillated, or thrilled by the violence you’ve paid money to see? And does the “way” involve responsibility and self-awareness? And, I suppose, you might as well, ask, how does it matter, and to whom?