The Informant! (2009)

The Killer by Matz & Luc Jacamon (1998-2007)

Gran Torino (2008)

Ronin (1996)

(Spoilers abound)

The leads in The Informant! & The Killer provide a constant narration more concerned with observation than exposition. Most of what you learn along the way is trivia. The narration’s more important function is tonal. The observations return so continually, and in such a unique, unmistakable voice, that they set the basic rhythm for the works, and lend a particular feeling to a set of events that one could feel very differently about under different direction. It keeps things moving along in a certain way, and this ties in to how the respective leads have a form of personal disorder that allows for the commission of serious crimes and misdeeds without any searching moral self-awareness. What we hear from them is their internal monologue, and how little it grapples seriously with the choices they’ve made in their lives is the crucial indication of how far they’ve gone astray. They aren’t hiding things from you, in the sense of a unreliable narrator; they seem to be simply unaware.

The informant, Mark Whitacre, nonetheless accomplishes a great act: he provides evidence for years to the FBI, under incredible strain, and his work allows the FBI to prosecute a price-fixing scheme of massive proportions. He improves the lot of all Americans. Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino improves the lives of a smaller number of people in a much greater way, and like Whitacre his accomplishment is inextricable from his own downfall. Because the two are so drastically out of place with the people they become surrounded by and involved with, this is almost inevitable; they are able, in fits and starts, to accomplish something, and preserving their own terms and their selves in the process is a tall order. With both there’s a comment on how you can and can’t exploit institutional power for your own ends. Whitacre needs the FBI’s assistance for a deluded career move, and in bringing the government in both brings its scrutiny upon him and accomplishes something he articulates, genuinely, as a positive end. Walt’s final actions depend on the police coming to arrest his murderers and the political weight of the death of a white veteran rather than another poor immigrant. Unwitting or conscious, their fates seek to say something important about the utility of power in achieving positive societal ends and the inevitable injustice of its specific applications.

In neither case is this aspect clear from the start, and The Informant! & Ronin understand and make great use of how the meaning of films and the events they can depict can shift during a full viewing. As it becomes increasingly clear that Mark Whitacre is engaged in far more than a noble whistle-blowing, so it becomes clear that Sam (Robert De Niro) has a far different agenda than first appears. The significance of events changes depending on the information you have, and these characters possess more than the viewer. In neither case are they hiding something from the audience; the natural trust for both actors, and the assumption that what we’re told basically explains what we’re seeing, allows the films to progress without anything resembling active deception. In both cases the sense that things are a bit off, combined with the difficulty of pinpointing precisely how, makes for a fitting complement to the 90s political contexts of both films. The films can riff on what the targets and enemies really are for American power, and how comfortable we should feel with those arrangements, without needing to make any explicit political commentary.

In its third volume, The Killer veers hard into just this kind of overt politics as the assassin lead becomes mixed up in the United States’ power games within the Caribbean and Latin America. While its political lens is cynical and paranoid—though if anyone has reason to be cynical and paranoid about the U.S., it’s Latin America—it’s curious that the killer winds up interacting with characters who could well be colleagues of Sam, which is to say American operatives who are murky about their end-goals and even short-term intentions. While Ronin declines to indulge in the political sermonizing of The Killer, both works share in a prominent way a set of strategic stakes that become more and more relevant as events progress. The two also share a more basic relationship in pacing: scenes of competent planning, preparation, speculation and rumination leading into action set-pieces that are both wildly organic within the fictional world and magnificently choreographed as an aesthetic experience. Along the way, the closed-off leads gradually accrue obligations to friends and lovers. The effect is to gradually expand and elevate the significance of their actions, allowing the characters to keep on killing lots and lots of people without the game starting to feeling hollow.

Adding to the emotional connection is that, as with Walt in Gran Torino, De Niro’s Sam does these things in another’s interests: whether on behalf of a comrade, a political ally or a neighborhood friend, these two men put their strength and competence toward a greater end. That nobility of purpose does not preclude either from having an overall bemused attitude toward those around them. The scene where De Niro grabs and embarrasses Spence (Sean Beam) would not be out of place in Gran Torino, a mixture of deep skepticism toward the worth of those younger and less experienced combined with a fierce care for safety, sensibility and doing things in a proper way. This connects strongly to the lingering question in both works, namely whether the careful, pragmatic use of violent force can actually be honorable. Differences in the number of shots the leads fire and overall body counts also can’t obscure that the axis of moral significance in both works—laid out in Ronin in a single scene—centers on questions of how to redeem cold pragmatism through “something outside of yourself that has to be served.” (De Niro’s flip attitude in the scene in question isn’t borne out in practice later in the film, where he clearly seeks to be honorable, and even his stated version of a mercenary ethos defines itself in opposition to the older codes.)

Perspectives can in this way drive everything that characters do. After all, Walt acts how he does through much of Gran Torino because he’s created a worldview where his responses are appropriate. His negative assessment of the world justifies how he acts, in keeping with how the world-is-shit philosophy of The Killer‘s titular assassin allows him to believe that a dead body here or there, at this or that moment, doesn’t really matter amid a much larger degradation. This oversimplification also allows for a baroque vividness; the sheer depth of confidence and self-assurance of these two leads, how difficult it is for them to come to hold something like “bad conscience,” allows for everything to play out in a style that come through much more simply, cleanly and effectively than typical experience. Though Walt’s worldview in part comes from the loss of his wife and how he’s haunted by his actions during the Korean War—and though he actually is a morally admirable character, as opposed to the truly indefensible actions of the killer—it’s clear that a general stance of confidence in yourself and antagonism toward the world by itself has no inherent philosophy. Oversimplifying the world can just as easily lead to a principled retreat into traditional values as it does to a nihilistic rejection of fundamental ethics.

Without introducing an explicit moral take on his surroundings, The Informant‘s Whitacre is quite similar to these two leads in his tendency toward isolation, both in narrative terms and in his relations with other characters. While works where we really only get to know the lead obviously come to take on that perspective, the tendency is more toward a growing sense of the world than a narrowing of focus. Yet in all three of these cases the concerns of the work fall more and more on one man. The emerging sense in The Killer of a man who isn’t simply a cog in the machine or a man for hire but an independent agent of almost superhuman capacities fits in with the gradual narrowing of his concerns and the push for him to fight for what we wants to keep. Similarly, the country gone to hell seen in Gran Torino becomes a lesser concern than the soul of Walt Kowalski. The outcome of the price-fixing scandal barely registers after the precariousness of Whitacre becomes evident. The stakes of the world in which these isolated characters live become more and more invested in those particular characters.

This burden on key characters in The Informant! & The Killer develops alongside a set of increasingly contentious relationships among supposed collaborators, the beating heart and operating tension of the first half of Ronin. In each the suspense comes from asymmetrical information and, most importantly, a lack of clarity about respective agendas. All of the characters, heroes, villains, and middlemen, are capable and competent operators. What they lack is a full sense of the lay of the land and the intentions of the people sharing that space. This lends all three works a real unpredictability to conflicts within any given scene as well as a greater uncertainty regarding what form and structure the story will eventually take.

An additional unpredictability of character only enhances these compelling aspects of Ronin & The Informant!, where the characters aren’t entirely who they say are. More importantly, the actors aren’t playing who we think they are, a harmony that extends to Gran Torino. We believe De Niro is an amoral operator, that Damon is fundamentally decent, that Eastwood will in time get to kicking ass and killing folk. In all three cases the characters, the actors, and the films themselves turn and in a great deal achieve their impact from turning your assumptions on their head. And with all three so explicitly keyed in to ideas of power and identity, they have something to say about how who we are is a constant negotiation between the space in front of us and the accrued weight behind us, suggesting that radical breaks are less effective than rewritings or re-contextualizings of past actions.

For all that roiling insecurity, however, the infusion of violence and strength in Gran Torino & Ronin gives their characters a cool and collected competence evident in The Killer as the core of the assassin’s being. Most striking is how these characters operate in a world without any real intrusion of law enforcement during actual danger: violent men are left to do their best in a menacing world, and all three are entirely confident in their ability to handle themselves. This adds to the respect we have for the lead characters, always a crucial concern, and it also adds a very real sense of dread. There’s little question that the characters will be able to accomplish what they set out to do. What’s far less clear is whether they will act in the right manner—for themselves, by the standards they hold, and in the eyes of the audience.

How these four works play with the wide array of methods and permutations available to get at these questions of moral obligation determines the types of answers they can provide. This is one of the advantages of looking at accomplished pieces of art: they resonate with and throw into relief the successful approaches they share with other great work. In this, they reveal a great deal. Looked at in tandem, their individual qualities become easier to recognize. They’re each their own; their interlocking combinations, something more.

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