”For everything you give an audience, you always have to take one thing away,“ says Christopher McQuarrie, the Academy Award–winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects. ”They always have to pay for the story.“ In his directorial debut, The Way of the Gun, McQuarrie set out to make the price as steep as he could.
At the center of the film are ruthless criminals Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), who, for a multimillion-dollar payday, kidnap a woman (Juliette Lewis) who‘s carrying the child of a wealthy mob middleman and his cold-blooded trophy wife. As Parker puts it, ”The longest distance between two points is a kidnapper and his money,“ and to prove the statement, McQuarrie ensures that theirs — and ours — ”is a grueling and violent trek.“ Employing a series of betrayals and deceptions that leave every character morally compromised in one way or another, the writer-director ends the film with multiple deaths in a raging gun battle, a graphic operation in a Mexican whorehouse and the most cynical of redemptions.
At times, the whole thing can be crudely excessive. The key, however, to discerning McQuarrie’s motives is a shot that comes after an early shootout that occurs largely offscreen, when the camera passes by a fleeing Parker and Longbaugh to linger on the body of an innocent bystander, a woman we‘ve never met lying in a pool of blood. For the sake of your entertainment, McQuarrie seems to be saying, this is what gets taken away. It’s the first hint in the film that The Way of the Gun was written from something close to anger.
McQuarrie clearly wants the film to gnaw at our conscience. Given the intensity of this wish as it‘s expressed on the screen, it’s something of a surprise to meet the writer-director in person. Soft around the edges, with a bushy brown beard, this unassuming 30-something resident of Seattle doesn‘t seem particularly angry. But get him talking about the work he’s been doing in Hollywood since the critical and commercial success of Suspects in 1995 and the sparks of frustration begin to fly — sparks he eventually fanned into the moral apocalypse of The Way of the Gun.
It was during the late 1990s that McQuarrie and his longtime partner, Suspect‘s co-producer Kenneth Kokin, learned firsthand that the bottom line always trumps an Academy Award and that, by the same rationale, studio executives don’t care about complex human behavior, the realities of violence and the true nature of the gun. ”My sensibilities lean towards a slightly darker, more fatalistic approach to storytelling,“ says McQuarrie, who turned to writing early on as a way to cope with an acutely difficult adolescence in New Jersey. (When the Columbine shooting comes up during the interview, he says, ”I knew those kids in high school, I was one of those kids.“) ”But movies now do everything they can to eliminate all but the most positive emotion. It‘s like watching Prozac un-spool onscreen for two hours.“
For McQuarrie, the brutal saga of Parker and Longbaugh is mirrored by his and Kokin’s fate at the hands of the studios. ”Theirs is a melodramatized version of the relationship between myself and Ken,“ he says. ”In every situation, we‘re fighting the natural order, fighting for what we believe in, and we end up completely bloody and the money drives off with someone else.“ By 1998, having had to put aside his dream project — an epic biography of Alexander the Great — and relegated to doctoring what he calls ”bottom-of-the-barrel, nobody-can-get-these-ideas-made movies,“ McQuarrie was ready to quit the business. He backed down at the insistence of Del Toro, who urged him to write another crime film. McQuarrie resisted the idea, not wanting to be pigeonholed and believing he couldn’t top The Usual Suspects — ”I put everything I had into that film.“ When he decided to return to the genre, he says, he was determined to transform it.
Drawing on his experience as a security guard in New Jersey and as a lifelong gun owner, he wanted to take Hollywood‘s action conventions to task. Which is why, he says, The Way of the Gun isn’t as much about the consequences of real violence as the lie of movie violence. It‘s an aspect of the film that McQuarrie discusses with the insider passion of a corporate whistle blower. ”The one thing that frustrates me more than anything else is that no studio has ever told me to tone down violence. They only ask you to make it more presentable,“ he begins, building steam. ”You can murder anyone you want as long as the person deserves to die, and the studios will accept certain criteria for why someone deserves to die: because they’re obnoxious or cast in a two-dimensional light. They‘ve become completely blind to the fact that what they’re doing is making glorified and completely anesthetized violence that says revenge is okay and that certain people deserve to die.“
In trying to counter Hollywood‘s ”deserved death,“ McQuarrie didn’t want to appear preachy, which, for him, is the death of the art of screenwriting, or to take on the role of moral crusader — he insists that he doesn‘t know if movies cause violence — rather, he wanted to throw the issue in the audience’s lap. Just as he undermines our trust in narrative in The Usual Suspects, in The Way of the Gun he dispenses with the conventional cues that direct audiences to root for this character or applaud when that one dies. As corrupt as many of the characters are, almost every one gets a chance to express, at the very least, a frail humanity. Enough, McQuarrie hopes, to get the audience wrestling with its conscience.
For the director, with the lie of the ”deserved death“ goes the lie of the gun. Having worked with firearms professionally, McQuarrie is particularly bothered by Hollywood‘s depiction of guns for what at first seems an equally disturbing reason. ”Guns have been so overdramatized, the gun has been emasculated in film,“ he says, later clarifying the remark. ”I don’t want to ‘remasculate’ the gun. I‘m saying, let’s learn to reacquire a respect for the power of guns. This culture is so indifferent and disrespectful of guns that we should be terrified. What I wanted to do was take what people love about [action] movies and strip off all the bullshit and jam it in your face for what it really is,“ he says. ”If you love to see guns, here is what happens when guns really go off.“
But throughout the film, whenever McQuarrie cuts short the gunplay to linger on a body or wait quietly with a minor character facing death, he seems to be struggling with more than his stated themes. At times, he seems to lack faith that the tropes of the action genre can be used as fine tools instead of blunt instruments: He himself seems uncomfortable letting such moments go on too long or appear too often. ”No matter how far you try to deviate from the conventional, after a certain point it just dissolves into the boring, uneventful and lame,“ he says. That may be true in certain instances, but here it means the film‘s excesses frequently overwhelm its more meaningful moments of restraint.
Which is one reason why, despite McQuarrie’s stated intentions, Artisan is promoting the film in its television-ad campaign as if it were Pulp Fiction Returns, delirious pop candy for the action crowd. That it might be received as such worries McQuarrie, and if it is, he‘s willing to accept some of the blame. ”I know there will be people who will not get it and condemn it for glorifying violence,“ he says. ”And I know people will love it for the action and not get what I’m trying to say. It was my first film — it‘s a visual history of watching me learn how to direct. But if I can create for one moment a sense of horror at an act of violence in film, then I’m on my way to becoming a good filmmaker. What I hope is that they don‘t kill me before I get to make the next one.“
The Way of the Gun opens September 8.