Those contemporary mythic figures — hit men — receive the sort of artistic treatment they scarcely de-erve in “Jerry and Tom.” Very well acted and beautifully directed by actor Saul Rubinek in his helming debut, this reductio ad absurdum of a shopworn mini-genre is too rarefied and conceptual in nature to go far with the general public, but a good reception in limited release will give it the rep it needs to enjoy a decent afterlife. Miramax bought this Lions Gate Film (formerly CFP) production at the Sundance fest.
As soon as thesps Joe Mantegna and William H. Macy turn up and the rhythms of scripter Rick Cleveland’s smartly tailored thug talk establish themselves, it’s clear that Mamet country is very nearby. In fact, the screenplay grew out of a one-act play, “Tom and Jerry,” which Cleveland wrote in 1994, and work’s theatrical roots are readily apparent in the closed, dialogue-heavy nature of most of the scenes and in the actorly performances of the uniformly strong cast.
Yet it is Rubinek’s direction that arrests the greatest attention here. Covering the action in long, elegant takes graced by lenser Paul Sarossy’s slow camera moves and discreet staging, Rubinek’s visual approach adds a dimension to the material that could never be present onstage. Rarely has a film had such imaginative and seamless scene transitions as does this one, and a more effective presentation of this talented but rather hollow and questionable piece is difficult to imagine.
The film is composed of numerous protracted scenes that unfold like playlets in themselves. Long opening sequence, much of which is conveyed in a single take, sees Tom (Mantegna), a veteran hit man, and Jerry (Sam Rockwell), his young apprentice, waiting in a deserted Chicago bar for a phone call giving them the greenlight to execute Stanley (Peter Riegert), a bound and hooded man sitting in a chair before them.
Piece’s humorously sinister tone is established when, to kill the time, Stanley offers to tell some jokes, which he proceeds to do over the objections of the jumpy Jerry, who would just like to get it all over with. Stage-setter, which concludes after the phone call comes but before any action is taken, also nicely delineates the characters and establishes some key differences between the two generations of killers in their attitudes toward their professions and life.
More background is shortly filled in. By day, the men work at a third-rate used-car dealership presided over by Billy (Maury Chaykin) and Vic (Charles Durning), two old goodfellas who now have a little trouble pulling their portly frames out of their chairs. One of the mottoes they live by, when it comes to making a hit, is that “it’s nothing personal,” and this is certainly true the next time out, when Tom is required to rub out an old friend, Karl (Macy).
Tom advises that it’s not wise to get too chatty with your intended victims, which becomes an issue on the men’s next hit. In the film’s most riveting sequence, the boys sit down in a movie theater near a rangy cowboy (Ted Danson) while a routine-looking action film unspools before a virtually nonexistent audience.
The cowboy, well suspecting that he’s about to meet his maker, launches into an extraordinary monologue about how the heroine we see going through her paces on the screen was actually his late fiancee, the love of his life, how their getting mixed up with the wrong guys led to her death, and how he just doesn’t care what happens to him anymore. Beautifully judged in its writing, acting and the way in which bits of the action film are integrated into the sequence, this is no doubt the best thing Danson has done on the bigscreen by far.
Most of the film’s scenes carry a sense of foreboding due to what we know is probably coming at the end of them, and further feeling is generated by the victims’ nearly always becoming sympathetic figures before they’re rubbed out. The killings themselves, while heard, are discreetly kept offscreen for the most part, making clear that Rubinek is not playing the usual game of having his cake and eating it too when it comes to portraying violence.
Staged at a deliberate, almost trancelike pace, pic slows down through the middle stretch, which indulges in brief flashbacks to fill in some info about Tom and Vic; latter is rumored to have been Marilyn Monroe’s lover and to have been on the grassy knoll back in November ’63, and to have made it look like Elvis died so that he could spirit him away to a new, anonymous life as a gas jockey. Repetitive nature of the scenes also becomes a bit wearying after awhile, although one interlude while the guys are waiting to score a hit in a Chinese restaurant provides Tom with the opportunity to regale Jerry with details of Ronald Reagan’s final film performance — as a hit man in “The Killers.”
Yarn’s circular structure brings it back around to conclude at the bar of the opening scene, where Stanley gets to finish telling his final joke before the climactic action plays itself out in highly ironic fashion. No matter how smart the handling has been, however, one is left with the feeling that one has seen these characters, and become familiar with their codes and attitudes, too many times before for the film to leave a fresh impression. This may be one of the better films of its type, but it also comes, it can be hoped, at the tail end of a tired cycle.
Mantegna gets the plum role here and handles it superbly, relishing his many stories of his years on the job but also conveying an increasing world-weariness. Rockwell’s unpredictable vitality provides a good foil, and the outstanding vets in supporting roles are all aces.
The transitions between some of the scenes are truly breathtaking, unlike anything in memory; at the end of a sequence in the car lot in summer for instance, a crane shot will lift up to reveal the setting of the subsequent scene, on a snowbound winter street; or a car will drive directly from one setting to another without the slightest hint of an optical or special effect. It’s a beautiful theatrical device, and one that adds considerably to the haunted, dreamlike mood of the entire piece.