Well folks, the winter season is in the air, the cold weather has frozen my mother's hair. So, without further ado (and so I can get back to watching the first box set of Beast King Go Lion my friend Matt got me for Christmas), here is Movie Monday #2, of the 2003 independent thriller 29 Palms.
“What’s your name, anyway?”
Rachael Leigh Cook as The Waitress, 29 Palms
I’ve never been a huge fan of independent films. I don’t know what the reason is, but I think it has something to do with most of them being about absolutely nothing worthwhile and not coming close to entertaining me in any way, shape or form. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by 29 Palms, a 2003 “indie” I picked up during my Black Friday shopping bonanza when I was visiting family in Uniontown, PA. This film has some serious star power behind it for being an independently produced flick, such as Chris O’Donnell, Jeremy Davies, and Rachael Leigh Cook. I also laughed my butt off at this very quirky neo-noir from 2003, so let’s jump right in.
This story is told in a non-linear style, so it gets a little confusing at first. None of the characters have any names, but are addressed by their stereotypes--The Waitress, The Drifter, The Judge, The Chief, The Hitman--you get the idea. The movie opens with The Drifter (a very soft-spoken Jeremy Davies) discovering that The Judge (a very pissed-off Michael Lerner) has voted against expansion of an Indian casino on a nearby reservation, due to being bribed with more money from Las Vegas builders.
The Drifter, always out to defend the little man, attempts to reason with The Judge, who instead assumes that The Drifter is an undercover FBI agent investigating his operations. The Judge meets with The Chief, a hilariously stereotyped Indian who accepts The Judge’s explanation that The Drifter is undercover FBI, and orders his men to go kill him (which prompts the line, “They’re white people--everything we do amazes them.”). When The Drifter arrives home, he sees that The Chief’s men have killed his girlfriend instead, and after a quick foot chase, he ends up in the desert, wandering.
Enter The Hitman (Chris O’Donnell). He’s paid $200,000 in a black bag to finish the job The Chief’s men screwed up, and when he goes into the men’s bathroom to count it, a perverted Security Guard (Jon Polito) who’s currently masturbating to the women’s bathroom spies the bag of money and decides to steal it. By some miracle of God, this numbskull makes off with the bag of money, but because The Hitman shot him in their struggle, he passes out at the wheel and drives into a fence.
Thus begins the dark ferris wheel of comedy, crime, and greed that drives 29 Palms. In the second act of the film, it seems like everyone gets their hands on the black bag at one point or another (expect for Keith David, who plays a very convincing small-town sheriff), a lot is shown rather than said (a technique that is hard to master in fiction writing), and somehow, everyone gets what’s coming to them at the end.
The style of this movie is really something to be commended. The script, while not calling for any specific names for any of the characters, also didn’t call for any specific time period. There are modern weapons and modern words and phrases, but there are older cars and buildings, along with older clothes and older technology (I don’t think I spotted a single computer in the whole movie). Plus, my favorite 70’s car, the AMC Pacer, makes an appearance in this film as the car The Waitress (Rachael Leigh Cook) uses to run over The Cop (Michael Rapaport) before she kills The Drifter.
This is one independent film where the casting couldn’t have been better. Jeremy Davies has the perfect look and temperament for The Drifter, a man who has lost everything that he loves and suddenly finds it again. Rachael Leigh Cook is equally perfect as The Waitress, the girl who hooks up with The Drifter originally to get his money, but instead ends up with his heart. Jon Polito is an absolute riot as The Security Guard with too much time on his hands (sorry, couldn’t resist) and represents the sometimes-comedic consequences of our actions.
Chris O’Donnell has grown up considerably since his Batman & Robin days, as has his acting chops. I think casting him against type as The Hitman in this film showed an extra dimension to his talent that hadn’t been seen before. Make sure you watch past the credits to the end of the movie--there’s a conspiratorial wink at the audience that is pure Chris O’Donnell. Michael Rapaport is slightly miscast as a duplicitous cop who roughhouses everyone and has no respect for the law that he is supposed to uphold. This was the one role in the film that I just didn’t understand. I suppose this stems from the fact that I’ve never found him to be very funny and never liked his brand of humor, so this is probably just a personal quibble (he did, however, get in a very funny line to Jon Polito that went, “Go ahead! Shoot him, limpdick! I won’t shoot you!”).
The music is something to be talked about as well. Stemming from blues rock to adult alternative, music supervisor Karyn Rachtman has assembled a stunning soundtrack that ends with one of the best songs to end a dusty, sand-strewn neo-noir like this one: “These Are The Days” by World Party. I had never heard this song before, but it suited the film so well that I found myself re-watching the end credits just so I could hear the tune over and over again. The musical score composed by Mario Grigorov was also noteworthy, filled with electric guitars and trippy jazz saxophones.
I had very few complaints about 29 Palms. It was an extremely well-written, well-acted, and well-directed independent neo-noir that checks its pretentiousness at the door and does what indie film does best: shows life as it really is, not how Hollywood portrays it. If that’s what you’re hungry for, then 29 Palms should fill that tummy nicely.