Stephen Sondheim, one of whose songs is called “Sorry-Grateful,” says that ambivalence is “my favorite thing to write about, because it’s the way I feel, and I think the way most people feel.” That may be the way people feel on the East Side of Manhattan, but I suspect the average movie-goer would be rather more likely to agree with John Wayne, who once said, “Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t like ambiguity. I don’t trust ambiguity.” Yet the Duke’s greatest role—Ethan Edwards, the revenge-crazed, Indian-hating monomaniac in John Ford’s The Searchers—was a study in moral ambiguity, whether he knew it or not (Ford certainly did). Neither does the fact that The Searchers ends happily serve to trivialize the rest of the movie. As any philosopher worth his salt can tell you, knowing what’s right is not quite the same thing as knowing what to do about it.
On the other hand, The Searchers is a great work of art, which automatically makes it an exception to the iron rule of palatability that normally governs Hollywood screenwriting. Most commercial films are made on the assumption that audiences want to see moral struggle—but not too much of it. Much more often than not, we know as soon as the credits roll exactly what we’re supposed to think the star ought to do (Kiss the girl! Give back the money!), and we spend the next hour and a half waiting for him to finally get around to doing it. When he does, we go home happy; if he doesn’t, we go home feeling cheated and tell all our friends to pick a different movie next weekend.
I like happy endings, too, but I don’t always want them as easy as that. Given the inescapable fact that we all live under the twin aspects of modernity and eternity, I have a special liking for films that convey something of the complexity of modern life without losing sight of the polestar of truth. In particular, I like films about gravely flawed human beings who, faced with a set of similarly imperfect alternatives, suddenly find their moral imaginations regenerated by grace, make the best possible choice available to them, and accept the consequences, good or bad. David O. Russell’s Three Kings is that sort of film, but it was initially advertised as a rock-’em-sock-’em wartime comedy that happened to be set not in 1942 but 1991. Rarely has an ad campaign so completely misrepresented a movie, though Three Kings is funny—sometimes.
George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube (a rapper turned actor), and Spike Jonze (the phenomenally gifted director of Being John Malkovich, who also knows what to do on the other side of the viewfinder) are four thoroughly sneaky soldiers. At the end of Operation Desert Storm, they find themselves in possession (don’t ask how!) of a map directing them to a storehouse where Saddam Hussein has stashed some of the gold bullion he looted from Kuwait. They attempt to heist it, promptly stumble into a skirmish between Saddam’s troops and a group of Saddam hating Iraqis who are being rounded up for extermination, and are forced to choose between getting away with the gold and helping the good guys flee across the border into Iran.
All this is put on screen with dazzling dash and verve, plus an expressionistic approach to the portrayal of violence that makes the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan look like a GI training film. But what lifts Three Kings above mere virtuosity is Russell’s willingness to acknowledge the presence of a great deal of moral ambiguity en route to his happy ending, without slipping into nihilism or moral equivalence. One briefly fears the latter midway through the long scene in which Saddam’s soldiers torture Wahlberg (who is—believe it or not—quite a good actor), forcing him to admit that American bombers killed innocent Iraqis. But Russell isn’t a blame-America-first lefty: His quarrel with Operation Desert Storm, amazingly enough, is that George Bush backed down at the last minute, settling for a cease-fire instead of toppling Saddam. “Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam,” says Clooney (who is also a very good actor, though this will hardly surprise those who saw him in Out of Sight). “They thought they’d have our support,” he said. “They didn’t. Now they’re being slaughtered.” I wasn’t expecting to encounter a just-war debate in the midst of a big-budget Hollywood movie, but Three Kings is no ordinary movie. Neither is Guinevere, in which Audrey Wells, author of the screenplay for The Truth About Cats and Dogs, makes her highly impressive directing debut (she also wrote the script). Sarah Polley, the mock-tough waif of Go, plays Harper, the daughter of an upper-middle-class San Francisco family for whom worldly success is the value of values. Shy and vulnerable, she is ripe for the plucking by Connie (Stephen Rea), an alcoholic photographer who, though more than twice her age, persuades her to move in with him as his model-assistant-protégé-muse-lover. In due course, Harper learns that she has had at least three equally youthful predecessors, all of whom she eventually meets. But though the discovery horrifies her, she chooses to stay with Connie, and in the end, he breaks up with her, just as he (presumably) broke up with the girls who came before her.
As was the case with The Truth About Cats and Dogs, it appears at first blush that we are being offered a sugar-coated lecture on feminism. But Wells doesn’t let anyone off that easily. Yes, Harper’s family is shallow and materialistic—but it is her mother (Jean Smart) who sees through Connie and skewers him with the truth. “What do you have against women your own age?” she asks him bluntly. “I know exactly what she has that I haven’t got. Awe.” And yes, Connie is taking advantage of the inexperienced young women he seduces—but he offers them something in exchange for their bodies. We learn at film’s end that his ex-protégés are all making their way in the world as artists; Harper not only becomes a professional photographer but turns out to be better than Connie. (One of the film’s smartest touches is that Connie, for all his pretensions, is actually a third-rate blowhard.)
Though Wells paints Connie in shades of shabby gray, there is a more clear-cut way to interpret his actions: He preys on immature girls. But Harper, we are told, is 21—young for her age, to be sure, but still perfectly marriageable by custom and under law. Moreover, Connie’s taste in women has an impeccable pedigree. Part of his modus operandi is to show his “victims” a nude photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe taken by Alfred Stieglitz when she was Harper’s age and Stieglitz was Connie’s. When O’Keeffe and Stieglitz set up housekeeping together, their illicit relationship was sanctified by the pagan gods of high culture; how, then, is it any different when Connie sweet-talks the unsuspecting Harper into his bed? And would we feel any differently if Connie were, say, a professor of English and Harper one of his students?
The properly orthodox answer, of course, is that in a society where men have power over women, there can be no such thing as love. Wells clearly means for us to take this feminist precept seriously, just as she sought in The Truth About Cats and Dogs to show that it is wrong for a man to take a woman’s beauty into consideration when deciding whether to fall in love with her. But since she is an artist, not an ideologue, she never succumbs to the temptation to turn people into symbols, choosing instead to remain alive to the proliferating complexity of human motivation. “He was the worst man I ever met—or maybe the best,” Harper says of Connie at the beginning of Guinevere. It is a tribute to Audrey Wells’s subtle artistry that at film’s end, we know he is neither.