R, 124 min, 1992

Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Michael Tolkin (screenplay), Michael Tolkin (novel The Player)
Stars: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward

Robert Altman’s The Player is mainly two things: a sly Hollywood satire and an inky-black neo-noir thriller. Focusing on a serpentine mid-level studio executive named Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), Altman and screenwriter/novelist Michael Tolkin (The Rapture) weave a fascinating and sometimes wickedly funny vision of the New Hollywood, in which storytelling is all about marketability, and everyone is a little cold around the heart.

Griffin’s code is that of the Predator – “Get them before they get you.” He applies this to all of his interactions with other alleged human beings, from the lowly writers cloying at chances to pitch him ideas they hope will strike gold, to his co-workers at the studio who could rise in the ranks to steal his job, or (as in the case of Peter Gallagher’s Larry Levy) do his job so well that they threaten to make him obsolete, and finally to a key encounter with a jilted writer he suspects of sending threatening postcards.

It is this encounter which propels Tolkin’s narrative forward, resulting in a Hitchcockian web of fear, paranoia and survival instincts on the part of the reptilian Griffin, who manages to be such a soulless, spineless jellyfish that he actually seems to feel guilty after killing the ill-fated writer David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) all the while covering his own tracks for fear of losing his freedom.

Mill is a player, alright. He plays the writers who come begging like dogs for scraps from the grown-ups’ table, letting them fall into the delusion that he cares at all about their ideas; the reality of the modern Hollywood studio system “Now more than ever,” Altman and Tolkin suggest, is that commercial interests outweigh artistic endeavors. He plays his underling and girlfriend Bonnie (Cynthia Stevenson), who holds high hopes of rising through the ranks of the studio system from “D-girl” (D is for Development) to, in the future perhaps, Griffin’s job. He plays June Gudmunsdottir (Greta Scacchi), the icy Icelandic artist who he begins to stalk in fascination before killing Kahane and who he becomes infatuated and, yes, romantically entangled with after Kahane’s murder. He even attempts to play the police detectives (Whoopi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett) who are onto him from virtually the beginning, though they see through his rouse. He plays them all like a fiddle even as his cool, black void of an existence begins to crumble all around him.

As Woody Allen says so memorably in his Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), “Show business is, is dog-eat-dog. It’s worse than dog-eat-dog. It’s dog-doesn’t-return-other-dog’s-phone-calls…” What is interesting, then, is that while Altman seems to view the world of his film as exactly that, he views his film as a “tame satire” and the business he’s satirizing as “so much worse than what I show in this film.”

The metaphor of a soulless, mindless cretin literally getting away with murder would seem to represent what happens in Hollywood every single day: the rich, powerful and (yes) morally corrupt of the Hollywood elite are able to squash the little guy (writers, D-girls, lowly citizens) under their boot-heels because they possess that predatory survival instinct. Oh, they’re fighting for their lives just like their inferiors – they’re just capable of killing in order to survive (something people like David Kahane can only fantasize and threaten doing). This is one of the year’s best films.

Note: Modified slightly from my journal entry written for the Robert Altman class taught by Ed Collier in Spring 2010 at Portland State.

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Filed under 1992

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