There’s a grand tradition of filmmakers implicating the viewer, clucking their tongues at your voyeuristic compulsion to watch women taking showers (Psycho), to spy on your neighbors (Rear Window), or to use the suffering of others as entertainment (Funny Games). Aside from being hypocritical (or self-flagellating), this tendency to make the audience feel guilty seems hell-bent on undermining the pleasurable experience of movies, like a talking candy bar that tells you the horrible things you’re doing to your body by consuming it.
On the other hand, these films rightfully acknowledge that it might not be such a good idea to wallow in the casual, consequence-free violence that many movies sell. Perhaps that talking candy bar isn’t such a bad idea, after all.
What’s curious is that there are relatively few movies that acknowledge the power of the moving image without then indulging its worst behaviors. Funny Games might be the worst offender, with its blunt excoriations blended with pointless cruelty. If you want to feel awful about the state of the culture, this is the movie for you. (And lucky us: Writer-director Michael Haneke is re-making his movie in English.)
At least Haneke kept his sadistic boner in his pants. Sometimes the prurient interests win out over a noble goal, as when intended satire was indistinguishable from the visceral thrill of violence and its presentation in Natural Born Killers. If violence is a monster, Oliver Stone’s movie is its face.
So Spike Lee’s Inside Man is a refreshing and unfortunately rare example of responsible entertainment.
This is not “responsible” in the sense of “good for you.” Erudition and enlightenment have no place in this pulpy bank-robbery movie. Rather, Lee and screenwriter Russell Gerwitz announce early in Inside Man that nothing too traumatic will befall any of the characters, and then they keep that promise; they implicitly give the audience permission to enjoy the film. Especially considering the potential for violence in the premise, this is an exceedingly gentle movie — and I mean that as a compliment.
“My name is Dalton Russell,” says the lead bank robber (Clive Owen) at the outset. “Pay strict attention to what I say because I choose my words carefully and never repeat myself.” Here the movie establishes itself as a puzzle, a game. That playfulness is confirmed later in the movie when the monologue is repeated.
Russell doesn’t give the speech again, mind you; the filmmaker shows it again. But that authorial intrusion is reassuring, because it reminds us that someone is flying the plane, that he has a sense of humor, and that he remembers his pledge to you.
The promise is delivered structurally; before the movie has shown how the robbery/hostage situation ends, we see people who were in the bank now being interviewed by the police. The obvious information being conveyed is that the people survived, but the tone of the interrogations tells us something more valuable: that there was no great tragedy. Watch with impunity! Get attached to the characters! Root for the good guys and the bad guys.
It might seem like a minor thing, this safety that the filmmakers have provided in Inside Man. But it really isn’t. Consider, for example, what has become of the horror genre in recent years, with its insistence on portraying agony and with mutilation and torture so explicit that the experience is nearly sympathetic — you can almost feel the characters’ physical pain.
There is a valid place for making the audience feel awful, but there also needs to be a sanctuary for the essential triviality of cinema — a place for relatively innocent thrills and chills in which nothing is really at stake and nobody gets hurt too badly. Many of us use movies to escape from real life, and Inside Man provides that without insulting anybody’s intelligence.
Beyond that, I’ll say little. I could claim that I’m trying to preserve the surprise, but the reality is that we watched the movie in September, and October has turned into November, and my brain is a sieve. I will note that Jodie Foster is never credible as a corporate problem-solver, and that using a Nazi artifact to signify villainy is an unwelcome intrusion of the real world into this genre fantasy. Plot holes and shit holes are all the rage over here if you’re interested.
All of that is quibbling, really, and none of it detracts from what is a wholly pleasurable movie experience — nothing more, but certainly nothing less.