A Portrait of a Gun as a Character
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Jerry (Brad Pitt), a bumbling ne’er-do-well working odd low-level jobs to pay off a debt to a gangster, lands one last gig (to reclaim and safely transport a near legendary gun back to the big boss), a final assignment which, upon completion, will set him free. But he must balance work and the travel involved with the constant haranguing from his girlfriend Sam (Julia Roberts), who is being shadowed by a mysterious bear of a man named Winston (James Gandolfini) with a rather efficient gun of his own.
The Mexican, directed by Gore Verbinski in 2001, was borne from the anticipation of the collaboration between Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and the hype-machine kicked into even higher gear thanks to the presence of Gandolfini, who at the time was in the midst of The Sopranos’ tidal wave. Yet, this was conceived as an indie piece about a gun and the quest to retrieve it and intriguingly enough, the real star of The Mexican, as it had always been intended, was the gun, which was so much more than a conventional McGuffin to propel the plot forward.
We know the standard cliché about guns in movies: if one is introduced early in the story, it must be fired at some later point, but The Mexican shoots holes in this rather simple notion by providing a detailed backstory for the gun, complete with romanticized flashbacks. Born in a small village under the loving hand of a true craftsman, the Mexican is a single-shot weapon, likely the last of its dying age. Multiple rapid-fire weapons are fast approaching on the horizon, and that means the mass production of these weapons of mass destruction. And the endgame here is the birth of a nation, a world overrun with more anonymous contemporary guns that spray and kill with such ease.
So, there is something almost willful about The Mexican, and it is this element that draws the engaged parties into the quest to seize the weapon. It is a stormbringer, to borrow from Michael Moorcock’s epic fantasy saga about a wandering albino king and his sentient sword, which feeds on the blood of those it kills and passes power to its wielder. Swords have a rich history too – think Excalibur – many for how they were forged, that singular method with bonds to the forger whose sweat and tears and sometimes very blood gets mingled into the process. These kinds of weapons become the offspring of their creators.
But movies, especially today, don’t want to look back. History is dead. Its bloody carcass was blown to bits by indiscriminate high-caliber automatic fire. Think about the brief awe-inspiring history of violence onscreen. The gunfights at various corrals. The cocking of the big dirty guns of the 1970s (go ahead, punk). The Terminations of The Arnold. Bullet-time effects.
All of which created the way of the gun as a philosophy (much more meaningful than writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s would-be ode to replay of the last days of a downbeat Butch and Sundance duo) – to live by the gun is to die by the gun – but The Mexican has a more romantic approach. Once upon a time, and not just in the West, we had a love affair with our guns. It could be argued that we still do, but it feels much less personal. The Mexican reminded us that gun love could consume the heart, even as it took the very breath of life away.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com