Friday, July 31, 2009

Film Friday: The Final Cut (2004)

We all know the evils inherent in letting an all-seeing, all-powerful Big Brother spy on every moment of our lives. But could we achieve similar evils without government involvement? Do we have more to fear from each other, than we do from mystery cabals? That’s the question that underlies The Final Cut, a fascinating film starting Robin Williams and James Caviezel. George Orwell meet the camera phone.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot
The Final Cut, written and directed by Omar Naim, is a complex movie that takes place in the near future, at a time when many people have recording devices implanted in their brains when they are born. These devices, called Zoe Implants, record everything that happens during the person’s life. When the person dies, the implant can be removed and the footage taken a “cutter.” A cutter uses a device called a Guillotine, to edit the film down to a few minute tribute, called a rememory.

As the story opens, we learn that Alan Hakman (Robin Williams),a skillful cutter whose services are highly prized by rich, immoral patrons because of his willingness to overlook their indiscretions when he cuts the rememories, is haunted by a memory from his past. When he was a child, he watched a friend fall to his death after Williams apparently goaded him into doing something unsafe. Terrified, Williams ran from the abandoned warehouse, never to return. These memories become a recurring theme, as we slowly learn the truth throughout the movie.

Returning to the present, we see Williams’ work on display. He has cut a rememory and receives much praise from the friends and family gathered. But the deceased was not a nice man. As Williams wanders around the reception meeting people, we, the audience, are shown images that Williams removed that relate to the people he meets, such as the woman with whom the deceased had an affair. This gives us our first clue that Williams’ character is not as pure as one might suspect.

As Williams leaves the reception, he encounters a group of protestors. These people protest the very concept of allowing such devices to be implanted. They argue the mere fact that such devices could be inside anyone means we have lost our freedom to be ourselves, as we must always be cautious of being recorded. They further argue that rememories rob people of their memories because the video images can alter long held beliefs which formed our very personalities -- a common theme in sci-fi, the idea that we are the sum of our experiences.

Another charge is made against Williams specifically, by the lead protestor, James Caviezel, who claims Williams is complicit in covering up the evil deeds of rich clients.

Williams soon is called upon to cut another rememory. This rememory will be for an executive (Bannister) of the company that produces the Zoe devices. No sooner does Williams get this contract, than Caviezel tries to buy the Bannister footage from Williams. Caviezel knows the executive was corrupt in some manner (though he does not know precisely how), and he hopes to use the footage to discredit the company and have the Zoe devices banned. Williams refuses and begins to cut the footage.

It is around this time we learn, though we are never told directly, that the executive molested his own daughter. Williams seems appalled but he doesn't stop because he believe everyone deserves a good rememory, no matter what they’ve done. As he cuts, he spots a man in one of the frames at a party attended by the executive. Williams believes this man to be the childhood friend he left for dead in the warehouse years ago. As Williams attempts to find this man, Caviezel plots to obtain the Bannister footage, leading to a series of confrontations with quite a few surprises.
The Review
Before we discuss this film, let me warn you that while this film should fascinate you, and it definitely will keep you thinking for days after you’ve seen it, you will not enjoy it. It’s not to meant to be enjoyed. Like 1984, this film is meant to disquiet you. Let me also warn you there is a trick to watching this film. If you accept the normal Hollywood standards of good and evil, and you try to see Williams as the good guy because that’s what you’ve been taught, you will misunderstand this film. It is only when you let Hollywood’s lessons go and you see Williams as the villain he really is that this movie achieves its full potential.
Why You Might Think Williams Is The Good Guy?
There are three bad reasons you will want to think of Robin Williams as a good guy in this film (aside from any good will you may already have for him). The first, is that Hollywood teaches us that when a person has a trauma in their past, their present is haunted by that trauma and their actions are excused. We are taught, that if only they could resolve that trauma, “the real person” -- a miraculously wonderful human, will spring forth. Williams has such a trauma from his youth. It haunts him. Indeed, much of the film is about him trying to resolve this issue. Thus, according to Hollywood formula, Williams stands ready to be born-again as an new and perfect man.

Secondly, Hollywood tells us that where there is a bad guy, there must be a good guy -- false logic which Roman Polanski manipulates so beautifully in The Ninth Gate. And the villain here is clearly James Caviezel. We know this because he’s a zealot and all zealots are evil. He is obsessed with this one issue; it consumes him. His group even protests at funerals. What more proof do you need? How about an admission that he killed someone to help his cause and a plot that involves him killing again. And since he’s clearly evil and he focuses his anger on Williams, Hollywood teaches us, Williams must be good.

And if that is not enough, the movie itself misleads a bit, by advancing two strawmen arguments against Williams and then beating them up. Do you remember the charge that Williams distorts history by cutting out all of the evil deeds of his clients? The movie points out that this is really no different than what is done in eulogies today. And that’s true. We don’t use funerals to present “fair” pictures of the dead. We don’t dig up and expose all their secrets. So what makes Williams evil for doing to the Zoe footage what we ourselves do with our speeches, our photographs and our video cameras? And what about the argument that it’s wrong for Williams to knowing the secrets of people who have not shared them with him (e.g. the woman who had the affair with the deceased man)? Is that not an unheard of invasion of privacy? Actually, no, it’s not. Lawyers, doctors and priests know these things today. Indeed, when you share a secret with someone, you have no guarantee that they won’t share it with others.

Thus, we see the allegations of evil made against Williams as false, i.e. he is wrongly accused. Ergo, Hollywood law declares him innocent and, therefore, good. But this too is false logic, especially as neither allegation is what make Williams evil. He is evil because he abuses his power.
Why Does It Matter How You See Williams?
But why is it so important to recognize that Williams is a villain? Because the story barely works if you keep trying to shoehorn this odious man into the cookie cutter form of a good guy. If you don't understand that Williams is a villain, you will be unable to grasp the purpose and meaning of the film.

Indeed, many critics just saw this film as a thriller about a man, pursued by others, who hope to obtain video he possesses which might bring down an evil company. And they found this movie to be unfulfilling. Indeed, they complain bitterly about their disappointment in the film. They wonder why the conspiracy isn’t a bigger part of the movie, why the subplot about the molested girl doesn’t turn into chase scenes with men in black suits hunting down Williams and the girl as they head to the sole good agent in the government who can bust the case open and save the day. They wonder why Caviezel doesn’t suddenly reveal that he works for some mystery cabal intent on taking over the world. And they complain that Mira Sorvino is miscast as William’s love interest because she doesn't seem like the kind of woman (too hot, too young, too different) who would be interested this sad little man. . . even if he is the hero.

But if you realize that Williams is a villain, then the movie becomes inspired. Williams portrays a man who thinks he is a decent man, who seems meek and kind on the surface, but who abuses his power without a second thought. For example, in a scene dismissed as an "awkward" romantic moment by the critics, Williams treats Sorvino to a video he has created of recorded dreams -- a sort of greatest hits from people he’s cut. But is this really romantic? If a photo developer kept your best family prints and shared them with his dates, is that romantic or creepy? Is it not an abuse of trust to do this?

And speaking of abuse of trust, here's why Sorvino doesn’t fit with Williams: the only reason she dates him is that he manipulates her. Her former soul mate, a man she loved deeply, died. . . and Williams cut his rememory. In a scene that is truly enlightening of Williams’ character, Sorvino discovers that Williams used the Zoe footage from her dead boyfriend to learn about her deepest feelings and desires, and used that knowledge to present himself as her perfect man. Suddenly, we see abuse of power in a truly vile, invasive form. And while the critics complain that there is no attempt reconciliation (thus making Sorvino irrelevant), smarter viewer understand how truly devastating this revelation was to Sorvino, what an utter betrayal this was, and what it says about Williams that he would do this. They also understand how damning it is that he simply moves on without her.

But there is something much worse. Consider again the comparison to the eulogy. The movie makes the point that a rememory is nothing more than a eulogy, and there is some logic in this. But Williams goes beyond merely turning a blind eye about the dead. When he meets the molested daughter of the executive, the little girl reaches out to him for help. Yet, he initially turns a blind eye to this supposedly on principle.

But after he discovers the footage of his supposedly-dead childhood friend in the Bannister footage, he becomes obsessed with finding out more about this man. When Bannister’s wife refuses to help and orders him to ignore everything except for the few parts of Bannister’s life that are needed to make the rememory, Williams ignores her demand and invades the family’s privacy to satisfy his own curiosity. But even worse, he now exploits the little girl’s plea for help to give himself a chance to use the girl to get information about the man. Thus, he slowly builds up her trust just so he can get the information he needs. And when he has what he needs, and the mother orders him to leave and to never mention again what he has learned about the family (after the Bannister footage is accidentally destroyed), he does so without a second thought -- entirely abandoning the little girl.

To punctuate this point, we see the girl’s reaction as she knows she has been abandoned by Williams to the uncaring (and likely complicit) mother. Interestingly, we also see, momentarily, footage from the Zoe device implanted in this girl. The implications of this are very disturbing, though they are not openly touched upon. Consider that we cannot see this footage until she has died. It is possible this glimpse is just for our benefit, as a sort of -- “someone will know one day” type moment. But at the end of the film, there is a strong implication that everything we’ve seen in the movie was being witnessed by a cutter, whose identity you will learn near the end of the film. Knowing that Bannister’s footage was lost to them, could our seeing this footage mean that the little girl was murdered so the zealots could obtain this footage? There is no direct evidence to support this, but there is a suggestion to that effect at the end of the film. I can say no more, but this is something to consider when the film ends.

In any event, this level or evil and selfishness by Williams is truly staggering, and should inform our view of Williams’ performance (which is much stronger than the disappointing One Hour Photo (2002)) -- unless you insist on trying to make Williams into the hero.
So What Does This Film Tell Us?
Ultimately, this film tells us that it doesn’t take government to create the kind of dangers we were warned about by civil libertarians. It tells us that we must tread cautiously with new technology that gives people significant power over the lives of others. It tells us that we must develop a code of ethics for all to follow, and that some inventions, even those that don’t seem significant, are perhaps, a genie we should not be let loose from the bottle.
Finally, Compare Williams To Depp
Finally, as an interesting aside, compare the portrayal of Dean Corso by Johnny Depp with the portrayal in The Ninth Gate of Alan Hakman by Robin Williams. In many ways, at their cores, the characters are identical. They are both nihilistic, self-centered, remorseless, shameless, evil beings, and both are mistaken by the audience for good guys. Yet, the two characters are played very different -- and yet both are believable. Depp plays Corso as confident to a fault. He is disorganized and ruffled, but he takes what he wants without hesitation. He is aggressive. But Williams plays Hakman as passive-aggressive. He must trick others out of what he wants. He is cowardly, fastidious and sniveling.

One wonders, how these movies would have changed if the characters had changed places? I doubt the devil would have been interested in Hakman, and I can’t see Corso caring about having killed a childhood friend. Thus, while they are identical at their cores, they are entirely different people who can’t be exchanged for one another -- unlike any two villains from your typical mainstream Hollywood film. It is an interesting comparison that shows once again, that evil can come in many forms. . . unless you’re in a mainstream Hollywood film.


ScottDS said...

I have never seen this film but it looks like I'll have to check it out. You'll have to explain later why you found One Hour Photo disappointing. I haven't seen it in years but I remember appreciating it though it doesn't have a lot of replay value for me (despite the great camerawork and art direction).

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Like I say, it's not the most enjoyable film, but it is an interesting film. It's well shot and acted, with a good concept, and it's worth watching.

My main problem with One Hour Photo was that it fell flat of what it set out to achieve. They set to make a truly creepy movie by exploit the good will people have for Robin Williams (who had only recently begun taking dramatic roles). The made it clear from the beginning that you were about to see something you couldn't believe from Robin Williams. But once they established that as their intent, they seemed to chicken out about going too far. It's like being told, this is the hottest hot sauce in the world and then finding out it's barely mild.

Writer X said...

I got creeped out just by reading your review! I've not seen the film, but I do (vaguely) remember One Hour Photo. I love a film with layers. I'm not a huge Robin Williams fan but I am impressed when a comedian can pull off a dramatic role. Even so, I'll look for this DVD at the store. Thanks, Andrew.

ArmChairGeneral said...

I will be looking for it when it comes to dvd! I own and really enjoy Ninth Gate and the Devils Advocate. In the Devils Advocate Keano Reeves character plays the 'good guy' but not really... even at the end of the movie he makes a mistake and is still left unredeemed although IMDB viewers argue this with me all the time.. liberals...

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Rent. . . don't buy. I think this is a good movie, but like I said, it's not super enjoyable. It's a movie I like to think about more than I like to watch it.

I too am impressed when a commedian can pull off a dramatic role, and I think Williams definitely does that here. You never once recall his Mork or the Genie characters while you're watching the film. Indeed, you buy him totally as Hakman. And he definitely delivers excellent intensity.

I like Williams, but his prior dramatic movies have always struck me as somehow just not quite right. I think he's done a poor job of choosing scripts and he has always seemed a little too one-dimensional to me. But this time, he really does pull it off.

AndrewPrice said...

ArmChairGeneral, check out my review of Ninth Gate, I think you'll like it.

And as always folks, if you see the film, let me know what you think.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: Great analysis. I already found Robin Williams strangely creepy, and the movie only confirmed it. I originally watched the movie on cable because I liked Jim Caviezel. I think you may have touched on what the public missed. The movie was deeper and less obvious than it appeared on the surface. That said, it was a good movie, not a great one.

DCAlleyKat said...

Andrew to -> Writer X, Rent. . . don't buy. I think this is a good movie, but like I said, it's not super enjoyable.

I agree Andrew. Put me in mind of "The Killing Fields" from my point of view well worth the watch, but not a movie I wish to see again.

That said, Andrew...I am totally loving your "Film Friday" column! I fell in love with movies as a child. I was quite ill, spent much time home from school. Luckily we had three channels that played old movies. I became smitten...Fred Astaire absolutely mezmorized me, he was like watching human liquid in motion. Bette Davis and Ava Gardner captivated me, you name it Musicals, Comedy, Drama, Suspense, Westerns, and I fell.

My first "adult" friend was a theatre owner and fellow movie lover. Many nights after closing found us hunched together in theatre two, watching some film together. He just died last December and I so miss him!!

Tennessee Jed said...

An extremely thorough review of an extremely intense film. For the record, I consider Robin Williams one of our best and most underrated actors. This guy can do comedy, incredible menace and everything in between. I don't know how many readers have seen Patch Adams, but it is a very enjoyable Williams movie, albeit quite different in tone and style from "Final Cut."

AndrewPrice said...

DCAlleyKat, thanks! I'm glad you're enjoying the series. I'm enjoying putting the articles together. I'm a big fan of films as well, and I like thinking about what makes them tick.

AndrewPrice said...


I do like Robin Williams and I see his talent, but I've had problems liking his dramatic films. That said, I don't think that's his fault so much as it is bad scripts or bad direction.

The Final Cut was an intense movie and I think that really was because of the intensity Williams brought more than anything else. He does an excellent job.

Lawhawk, Reading the comments at IMDB, I think that's right, that the public was looking for something other than what the film was showing them -- as I said in the review.

DCAlleyKat said...

Andrew: I do like Robin Williams and I see his talent, but I've had problems liking his dramatic films.

The problem I've had with his dramatic roles is being left knowing he was capable of much much more. I've gotten into his role, but left the theatre wanting what he could have done with it.

AndrewPrice said...

DCAlleyKat, I feel the same way, but I'm never sure if it was Williams or the film itself. I think that Williams is probably a really great actor, but I think he's been held back by poor films. But I'm not sure. I'd like to see him do something broader in the drama arena so that I had more to compare it to.

PikeBishop said...

Just found this. How about a Commentarama take on another Robin Williams complex film, "One Hour Photo?"

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