a few more thoughts about the third man
music friday: gerry goffin

by request: casualties of war (brian de palma, 1989)

The “request” comes from the Facebook Fave Fifty three of us did back in 2011. Phil Dellio had this one at #38. He wrote quite a bit about Kael’s review of the film ... she liked it, too. Of course, De Palma was one of her favorites. He also noted that “De Palma’s treatment of the girl is humane and shattering beyond words.” He mentions this in the context of someone who had said this was another “kill the bitch” film from De Palma. I think people’s preconceptions get in the way ... if you’ve decided in advance that De Palma is incapable of the humane treatment of women characters, then there’s nothing that will change your mind. I think this also works against Michael J. Fox in this movie ... too many people couldn’t get past Alex Keaton. Fox was, in fact, perfectly cast: fresh behind the ears kid who barely looks old enough to shave, thrust into the jungles of Vietnam. And he is great in the role.

I don’t know if I can say the same about Sean Penn. Phil tiptoes around the topic: “Penn gives a highly stylized performance that you may recoil from”. (Kael calls it a “theatrical, heated-up performance”.) Penn certainly grabs our attention, but I often felt what grabbed me was Sean Penn, not Sgt. Meserve. As a contrast with Fox’s more restrained performance, it works. It works so well, in fact, that I’m surprised there were no Oscar noms ... it’s the kind of over-acting the Academy often rewards.

As for the rape at the center of the film, De Palma does indeed treat the woman with sympathy. But I can’t escape the feeling that what the most important casualty of that act was Fox’s Eriksson. We can be thankful that De Palma doesn’t rub our faces in the details of the rape ... he gets the point across via actions that are largely off-screen, an example of the respect he gives to the woman. But this means the focus during the rape is on Eriksson, and the woman’s traumas are in part there to emphasize how traumatized Eriksson is.

I may be asking for too much, though, because even if Fox and Penn are the keys to the film, De Palma’s attitude towards the woman matters in a positive sense.

The end of the film is pretty bad. This is not a movie that was asking for a happy ending. In fact, given the failure of the end, I question the need for the framing device at all.

I don’t know where I stand on the continuum of De Palma’s fans and critics. I think Casualties of War is as good as my other De Palma favorites, Dressed to Kill and The Untouchables, and there are plenty of other De Palmas that I like, not just more universally liked movies like Blow Out, but also more disreputable films like The Fury and Femme Fatale. But he has also made some duds (hello, Black Dahlia), and I don’t think he has ever made a great movie. None of which should detract from the achievement that is Casualties of War. 8/10.

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