Continuing a limited series of articles exploring the stylistic development of director Gore Verbinski, beginning with Mouse Hunt (1997) and ending with A Cure for Wellness (2016).
This awkward, saccharine poster, which led the Dreamworks advertising campaign for Gore Verbinski’s The Mexican (2001), encapsulates everything that makes the film a chore to sit through for over two hours: the cringe-inducing, toxic “romance” between Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts (we can skip character names for this one since the A-list stars completely overshadow anything the film itself accomplishes), the cutesy groaner of a tagline (“love with the safety off”) that provides a rough approximation of the film’s lack of humor, and a complete obliteration of the characters’ actual surroundings that presages in negative the reality-effacing exoticism Verbinski indulges in throughout, albeit self-consciously. With Pitt and Roberts appearing on-screen together for the first time, it was a sure-fire box office success to follow up Verbinski’s auspicious debut, Mouse Hunt (1997); while this success was enough to keep getting its director work, The Mexican, more importantly, also served as a stylistic step forward in his transition from commercials and music videos to feature films.
If in Mouse Hunt we saw a storyteller already with a sense of his craft and flashes of a unique, though nascent, visual style to match, the best we can take away from the poorly-aged, soggy cheese that is The Mexican is that we see Verbinski coming more into his own as a filmmaker of style, even if the substance leaves much to be desired. The film’s opening credits are unfortunately one of its best moments: choosing to merely hint at the fateful traffic accident that sets the events of the film proper in motion (we hear it take place off-screen as the camera focuses on a traffic light with a brilliantly blue Southern California sky as the backdrop), Verbinski and screenwriter J. H. Wyman set the stage for what critics usually call in marketing pull-quotes a “stylish, off-beat thriller,” but instead went the direction of some sort of road movie that is dialogue-heavy but not snappy, and all about love but not in the least romantic. It’s unfortunate that Verbinski’s visual style doesn’t get a chance to save the film, as it barrels through set piece after set piece with Alan Silvestri’s score doing the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to the film’s conveyance of tone and mood; the few moments when we do see his aesthetic sensibility work its way into the picture are decidedly brief, but they point to further refinement in Verbinski’s expression of his artistic influences.
One such moment comes after we are introduced to Beck (David Krumholtz) in a seedy dive bar in a small Mexican town, the inside of which is tinged with a sickly green light that will come to symbolize death in its many forms in most of Verbinski’s later works, especially the horror films The Ring (2002) and A Cure for Wellness (2016). The heavily silent film-inspired sequence through which Beck relates the story of the gun bearing the titular sobriquet to Brad Pitt is designed and shot with Verbinski’s trademark narrow color palette that we have already glimpsed several times in Mouse Hunt; various shades of brown and gray in costuming and set design create the effect of something akin to an old black-and-white film.
The Mexican, Beck tells us as a film projector whirs to life, was a weapon crafted by a poor gunsmith for a nobleman in the hopes that his son would marry the gunsmith’s daughter. After the gun misfires and kills the first man who handles it, a legend grows that it is cursed for eternity. Pitt’s character, charged with bringing the gun and Beck back to the U. S., soon becomes unwittingly bound to the fate of the mythical firearm; the cursed pistol here provides the first real instance of the thematic element to which Verbinski will return in almost every future film: the influence of fate.
Whether it’s literal curses like the killer videotape in The Ring or the curse on the pirates of the Black Pearl in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film (2003), or more mundane concepts like societal pressure in The Weather Man (2005), characters in Gore Verbinski’s films, Brad Pitt in The Mexican among them, are nearly always shown acting and reacting against forces beyond their control or even understanding. While Nicolas Cage’s inner monologue in The Weather Man becomes increasingly aware of how society has warped him, we are given no such insight into the price the events of The Mexican exact from its protagonist. For most of the film Pitt is helplessly buffeted from one unlucky happenstance to the next by the winds of fate: when Beck is killed by stray gunfire, Pitt barely has time to realize what has happened and report it to his superior in the criminal organization he is forced to serve before his car is stolen with both the dead body and the cursed pistol inside; no sooner does he recover the stolen vehicle and bury the body than a police officer notices Beck’s blood on his car seat and arrests him; and on and on until the credits roll.
While other Verbinski protagonists are similarly dragged along by bigger events of which they have very little understanding, nowhere else but The Mexican is our hero so impotent. He escapes death multiple times through sheer luck, and his triumph in the end (precipitated by Roberts’ actions, not his own) comes to feel as if it were preordained through his mere presence as the protagonist of the story at hand; the multiple tellings of the legend of The Mexican seen throughout the film emphasize this, their inconsistencies highlighting as they do the unreality of all stories told for entertainment and showing a preoccupation with the concept of storytelling itself that marks all of Verbinski’s directorial output. The myth-making explicitly present in his later films like Rango (2011) and The Lone Ranger (2013) and, less self-consciously so, in the three Pirates of the Caribbean films (2003-07) has its seed here as characters face the past to redefine their present and, hopefully, control their future.