The Osterman Weekend (1983)

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*. Everything is wrong, and that right from the start. How can we believe we’re watching a surveillance video of the murder of Fassett’s wife when we’re getting a half-dozen different camera angles along with assorted zooms? I mean, I can ignore the romantic music in the background, but otherwise this looks like a worn and skeezy VHS porn tape.
*. I know. There’s no point pulling a movie like this apart for being implausible and unrealistic. Everyone involved knew it was nonsense from the start. Peckinpah hated the novel (and the screenplay) and didn’t want to do “a fifth-rate piece of shit by Ludlum” at all, though apparently he also said that he liked to adapt bad novels (he is not the only director to have felt this way).
*. Alas, though this was not a movie Peckinpah wanted to make he thought it might lead to getting more work. He hadn’t done a movie in five years and felt that this might get him back in the game. As things turned out, it was the last film he made.
*. There’s a sort of protective halo that wraps around a famous director’s last work. Negative criticism feels too much like speaking ill of the dead. Such generosity is well intended, but it’s still just superstition. The Osterman Weekend is a truly terrible, train wreck of a film.
*. What makes it terrible is mostly the ridiculous plot. The cast is actually pretty darn good, with a lot of unconventional moves that work really well. John Hurt as the Machiavellian mastermind pressing the buttons on his solid state control panel. Rutger Hauer as a political pundit pressed into action. Craig T. Nelson as a large and surprisingly lethal comic writer. Dennis Hopper as a pussy-whipped M.D. Meg Foster as a mama huntress with alien eyes. Chris Sarandon as Gordon Gecko.

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*. But the story. You can’t overlook it. A political conspiracy thriller simply can’t afford to be this stupid. As Roger Ebert remarked in his review: “I don’t demand that all movies make sense. I sometimes enjoy movies that make no sense whatsoever, if that’s their intention. But a thriller is supposed to hold together in some sort of logical way, isn’t it?” Well, we may think of North by Northwest as a counter-example, but the point still stands.
*. All of the major set-piece scenes are ridiculous. I can’t think of any decent explanation for the car chase at all, and the piping going through the windshield was built up so far in advance it actually managed to be anticlimactic. Hurt’s improv weather report (because he doesn’t know how to use his equipment!) just makes the whole Tanner Show surveillance theme seem like a joke. Helen Shaver singing “Jesus loves me” just before she gets blown up real good is pure schmaltz. And as for the burning swimming pool . . . I don’t want to get all huffy over plausibility but a single small jerry can of gasoline isn’t going to make a pool burn like a lake of fire for that long.
*. The only reason you keep watching is to get to the twist already. When it comes it’s so jaw-droppingly stupid you daren’t think about it for a second. I can’t think of a less likely way for Fassett to get his revenge on Danforth.
*. When Tanner finds where his family is being held hostage he also finds the family dog, which has been gagged as well. On the DVD commentary Garner Simmons makes a bold claim for this, saying “that’s us”: the reason for showing the gagged dog is to “provide a commentary on who we are.” Wow. I enjoy imaginative readings of movie subtexts as much as the next guy, maybe even more, but this is crazy. The other authors on the commentary track seemed equally mystified, opining that they just thought it was a silly joke.
*. Indeed the whole ending seems to me to be a crazy swerve. Up till then I thought I was watching a movie about the misuse of power and the surveillance state, with maybe something to mutter about voyeurism as well. Then we get to the coda and Tanner delivers some smug lines about how we’re all slaves to the media. Where did that come from? When did this become an essay on free will?
*. I’d like to say I enjoyed this one more, but even though it’s quite an oddity it’s an even bigger mess. The pool, the pool, the pool is on fire!

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