Time for another installment of Overlooked Awesomeness, in which we examine a piece of pop culture that seems (to me, at least) to have been severely overlooked and/or underrated by fans. Today’s topic: Dolan’s Cadillac,an excellent movie based on a Stephen King short story of the same name, which is in turn based on an Edgar Allan Poe short called The Cask of Amontillado. It also starts Christian Slater. That info should be enough to make you want to seek out this overlooked gem on its own, but if you’re looking for more info (and more than a few–rather big–spoilers), read on!
If you know either the King or Poe story, then you already know the basic plot:a guy gets revenge on another other guy by (again, heavy spoilers here…) essentially burying him alive. Both are entertaining stories about very nasty bits of business, with Poe’s story easily taking the edge of the ‘horrible’ factor since the reveng-er really has little reason for the murder he commits (beyond a wounded ego and being homicidal insane). Robinson (Wes Bentley, who you probably remember from American Beauty), at least, has ample reason to want his mark dead–Dolan (played to absolute perfection by Christian Slater) is a mobster who had Robinson’s wife killed after she unwittingly witnessed a multiple-homicide that Dolan and his men committed in the Las Vegas desert. We can certainly forgive Robinson his single-minded dedication to revenge (and even his clearly-eroding grip on sanity) under those circumstances.
So as you can see, the story is simple, but simple in the best sense (after all, who doesn’t love a revenge story?) One of the best things about this adaptation is the way the cinematography echos this minimalism. Everything has a washed-out, almost dreamy quality that fit both the setting and the protagonist’s (I kind of hesitate to call him a hero) tenuous mental state. The “real” reason for the minimalism is no doubt the small budget this movie was made on, just like the “real” reason for the washed-out look is that most of this (at least the outdoor desert scenes) was filmed in Canada, in a big, bright, grassy field. It had to be filtered very heavily to get the right desert-y feel. They do such a good job you won’t notice unless you’re looking for that, though; I didn’t realize it myself until I watched the ‘making of’ featurette and saw all the actors surrounded by grass! All of this works in the movie’s favor, though, and provides an excellent example of how to turn potential stumbling blocks into huge positives. All of these factors end up adding tremendously to the dark, off-kilter and existential atmosphere. In fact, I’ll even go out on a limb and say its one of the best “atmosphere” movies I’ve ever seen. Its very Hitchcockian in that way, a fact I’m sure both King and Poe would approve of.
Now…the actors. There are really only two characters in this movie. We see other people of course, and certainly other characters provide motivations and drift in and out of the narrative. But none of them matter as much as Robinson and Dolan. They are the Yin and Yang of the movie, so to speak–nearly perfectly balanced opposite sides of a coin. Robinson the everyman, caring and hardworking guy struggling to survive despite having nothing left to live for. And Dolan, the almost complete opposite: a rich mobster (no Don Corleone, but he clearly has plenty of clout, and more than enough cash to keep himself comfortable), carefree, concerned only with pleasure and the business that keeps the money that supports his lifestyle flowing.
Robinson, as we said, is played by Wes Bentley, who you probably remember from American Beauty. He’s a good actor, there’s no doubt about that, but he’s also a…well, a rather one-note actor. He speech patterns and delivery don’t really change, regardless of the character or role he’s playing. This is not necessarily a bad thing–when the right one-note actor meets the right character and/or script, magic can happen (think William Shattner in the original Star Trek.) This, I’m afraid, is not one of those times though. Bentley does a good job, don’t get me wrong, and there are MOMENTS of brilliance. But overall…it just doesn’t quite fall together. He’s simply TOO intense as an actor to pull off an “everyman” part like this. Something seems a little bit off about him even in the opening scenes before his wife is killed. Its not enough to derail things by any stretch of the imagination, but it does undermine the story a bit. I mean, the whole POINT is that this generic, harmless, white-collar man gets pushed so far past the brink of sanity that he engines a ridiculous revenge and murder plot (and it IS ridiculous; think through all the steps in the light of day after the effects of the movie have worn off, and you’ll appreciate the full Wile E. Coyote nature of its complexity) that he would otherwise never have occasion to even think about, let alone actually execute. When the character starts the movie with that slightly unbalanced gleam in his eye, the transformation doesn’t work quite as well, and has less impact. Still, let me reinforce that for all of my bitching, Bentley does do a very solid (if occasionally slightly over the top) job, and always keeps the focus of the movie where it belongs without dominating or distracting the proceedings.
That, then, leaves Dolan, the antagonist and catalyst for the whole plot of the movie. The filmmakers scored big when they landed Christian Slater for this part; I never would have thought of him for it if I had been in charge of casting (I’d probably have gone with a heavy Al Pachino/Anthony Hopkins type), but now that I’ve seen him I honestly cannot imagine anyone else in the part, and his will be the face I see as Dolan every time I read the story from here on. There’s no greater complement I can give than that. I wish I could be a bit more specific, but really, he’s so RIGHT in the part that there are really not specifics to cite–he just embodies the character. Every moment he’s onscreen is a pleasure to watch.
There IS one thing they did with the movie that bugged me. Its pretty minor, but in a movie this good, the little details that are off are highlighted more than they would otherwise be. See, the King story is told from the first person perspective (Robinson’s, that is.) So you never get to see Dolan, outside of Robinson’s few observations of him, and the few things he learns. And frankly, you don’t NEED to know about Dolan; he just remains this slightly shadowy character on the periphery of the story (until the end of course), and that works perfectly fine. …For a book. In a movie, you need more for him to do (especially when Christian Slater’s playing the part.) So, to their credit, the writers give us several very good scenes in his limo, his warehouse, and so forth. We discover that his business is human trafficking–he pays to have illegal aliens brought across the border, then sells them as prostitutes and laborers. This is a suitably evil way for Dolan to make his living, and it fits the character well. No complaints there.
The problem comes in towards the end of the movie, when Dolan is taking what turns out to be his final ride. Throughout the movie, Dolan has been complaining to his second-in-command that he needs to be able to bring more people across the border per trip, so each trip is more profitable. This doesn’t seem possible, because the trucks are already loaded well PAST capacity with people. While taking his last drive, Dolan has a teleconference with his lieutenant, who says he has solved the problem. Dolan asks how, and the lieutenant moves the camera to show that they’ve started smuggling in young children (to work as prostitutes, remember.) He explains that kids are little, so they can fit more of them in a truck, so each run will net more profit. Dolan (to his credit, I suppose) seems quite surprised and disgusted by this, and says they’ll talk later.
This…was just unnecessary. On so many levels. In the first place, bringing up child slavery in this movie is just a bad idea, period. People (at least most people, I hope) have at least some kind of gut-level, visceral reaction to that sort of thing, and for me personally, it yanked me right out of a story that I had, up to that point, been completely engrossed in. This movie is not The Killing Fields, people. We are not here for a message about social justice (not that that was the intent, but you see my point here.) Running a prostitution ring makes you a scummy Las Vegas gangster; running a CHILD prostitution ring is a whole other level of evil that was not required for this story. I don’t get what the point was–that Dolan is bad? Well we already knew that! He killed Robinson’s wife! THAT’S why we hate him. This is a very personal story, and trying to make Dolan “worse” (presumably to make him less sympathetic so we can ‘root’ for Robinson, so to speak, as he commits a quite heinous act) just doesn’t work. And then to top off the weirdness, Dolan reacts BADLY to the idea of using kids in his ring. So is the message here that…Dolan is…not…quite so bad after all? Are they trying to use this to make him a SYMPATHETIC villain? I don’t get it. This story is the poster child for K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Its about two guys; one kills the other’s wife, so the other guy kills him. Fin. End. Done. Granted, especially in a movie you need to flesh out the details about exactly how and why this goes down, but this just strikes a very, very wrong note. Now again: I’m harping on what amounts to twenty seconds here. But this movie is wound so tight, and is so perfectly tuned, that this one unnecessary distraction just stood out to me.
…I’m at 2000 words now so its probably about time to wrap up here, wouldn’t you say? I would. This is an excellent, excellent film, based on a wonderful story. It’s short, its powerful, and it doesn’t waste a second of screen time. If you’re a fan of Stephen King in particular, then you should RUN, do not walk, to find this movie. Its one of the best and most faithful adaptations of his work I’ve seen–up there with Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. I should note its also well worth reading the source material here, too; sitting down to jam through two short stories (King’s short one of the same name, and Poe’s Cask of Amontillado I particularly recommend the Poe, if only so you’ll understand the significance of Dolan’s final line.) Wonderful–and chilling!–stuff.