Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Cinema File #242: "Fruitvale Station" Review

There is a movie that I have not seen and will never see called Hatchi, starring Richard Gere and what I assume to be a fairly lovable dog. I can’t explain the reason why I refuse to see this movie without major spoilers, but suffice it to say, if you’ve ever seen the classic Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark,” from what I understand the movie is basically that, stretched to feature length, without all the goofy sci-fi and jokes. Every once in a while a movie comes along that promises to be so gut-wrenchingly sad that just the prospect of sitting through it is a challenge, regardless of whatever merit it might otherwise have as a film. Such is the case with Fruitvale Station, the harrowing true story of Oscar Grant’s final day before being brutally murdered in the titular subway terminal on New Year’s Day, 2009. The film begins with real life cell phone camera footage of the incident and ends with an extended dramatization of the crime that is every bit as visceral and charged with importance as it should be. If only the rest of the film could have lived up to such a powerful ending.

Outside of his own family and social circle, no one had any reason to know who Oscar Grant was before the injustice of his death made him relevant to the discussion of race and violence in America. It would be easy to diminish the man's life to just the one thing people know about him, as morbid as that is considering that one thing is how he died, but Fruitvale Station tries to go deeper than that and explore the life he led as opposed to just how it ended. Before we get to the climactic scene in the train station, the majority of the movie is a day in the life of Grant filled with all the casual routine that would mark anyone's day before an unexpected tragedy. The point, I suppose, is to put a human face on the name you might have just read in the paper a few years ago and quickly forgotten, and to force the audience to see the world and walk around in it as he did so that when that fateful moment finally comes, you feel it as painfully and as horribly as he does. Its a laudable approach and effective for what its trying to do, but I can't help but wonder if this particular angle amounts to a story that needed to be told, or even really a story at all.

Its certainly not the story of Oscar Grant's life, or really even the story of his last day on Earth. I can't even really call it a character study. It can be more accurately described as a reel of sequential vignettes that all just so happen to center around the same person. There is no plot as such, no character arcs; just a series of mostly random and typical things that happen to a guy before one extremely horrible thing. There are movies that are so listless or just so all over the place that I constantly ask "what's the point?" Fruitvale Station is the other side of this coin. I understood the point easily enough the first time, and didn't need it reiterated over and over and over again, especially at the expense of anything else. The main message that I got from the movie is that Oscar Grant lived a life worth living and celebrating, that didn't deserve to be snuffed out so callously. It's an obvious notion I naturally agree with and one that should not have to be said, least of all 500 times in succession. But its still not a story, no matter how profound the human drama his final moments are thus imbued with. Slapping together random moments of life stuff happening might work for Terrance Malick but...wait, no, it doesn't even work for Terrance Malick.

I know it sounds strange to say that the final scene in the train station feels like it comes out of nowhere, because obviously it does. That's the point. Life doesn't work like a movie. Pivotal events need not be foreshadowed in dialogue or fit within a consistent narrative, or have any larger thematic significance. But the thing is, I'm not watching real life play out in front of my eyes - I'm watching a movie! Just because your movie is based on a true story doesn't mean the rules of storytelling no longer apply. I thought the trick was finding a true story that also works as a movie, or when all else fails, shaping it to fit that structure. If you want stark reality, make a documentary. If all they were going to do for the first two thirds was show the main character killing time before the time he's killed, they should have just started at the end and either extended it into a Compliance-esque descent into mental anguish, or took the time to establish the cop who pulled the trigger as a character who can do more than scowl, and from there maybe explore the social and political ramifications of what happened.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case and the wave of dickish defenses of cold blooded murderer George Zimmerman, it would seem that Fruitvale Station has even more relevance today than it would have had it been made and released closer to Oscar Grant's actual death. Except that it never really tries to say anything about the larger issues that both Martin and Grant's deaths should encourage more discussion about. Arguably the biggest injustice of the Grant case, that the officer who shot him only served two years in prison after mounting the laughable defense that he mistook his gun for his taser, is relegated to a text crawl before the credits. In the movie's defense, it doesn't try and fail to be more like the movie I wanted, it just wants to be something else entirely. It actually accomplishes what it sets out to do very well, making you feel what this person went through about as viscerally as any movie possibly could. But it does this at the expense of any greater point than remembering that something terrible happened in a train station, and especially considering how fervently the film wants Grant's death to mean something, this wasn't enough. At least not for me.

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