Sunday, February 17, 2008
Please understand that in real life, murderers are very difficult to find attractive. But in fantasy, when tragedy is extricated from the equation, it's amazing how sexy killers can be. This past week I watched two very different films that made this point quite clearly.
"Mr. Brooks," with Kevin Costner in the title role, is the story of a schizophrenic serial killer addicted to murder and making an effort to beat his addiction. He doesn't fare too well at that, but in spite of myself I found the guy really attractive. It's not that his gruesome habit turned me on, but the fact that he exercised it with such cool cunning. Earl Brooks has ice water in his veins and is painstakingly clever about his little hobby. You can't help but admire his precision, as well as his complete objectivity, as he plots and executes the crimes.
In order to better showcase Earl's "good qualities," the story involves his acquring a novice accomplice equally turned on by the idea of killing, but otherwise a completely different sort of guy. Mr. Smith (Dane Cook) is careless, hotheaded, cowardly, vicious, and without remorse. Earl wouldn't have anything to do with this lout except for the fact that Mr. Smith observed one of Earl's killings and is blackmailing him so he can get in on the murderous fun.
Juxtaposed with the repugnant Mr. Smith, Earl comes across as truly admirable. I asked myself why I reacted this way to a man who gets off on killing strangers. My best answer was that Earl executes his fetish in a manner that, were it any other hobby, would demonstrate that he possesses many exemplary masculine traits.
Above all, Earl is successful at what he does--he is an expert, an artist. He is intelligent, clever, resourceful, determined, and even brave. Up until the actual moment of the crime, when the rush hits, he acts with that kind of manly coolness that never fails to impress. Meanwhile, for all his desire to emulate his mentor, Mr. Smith is half the man Earl Brooks is. He is cowardly, mean, and petty. His lust for murder is unchecked by any kind of intelligence, patience, or caution.
It also helps that Earl does care as passionately about his wife and daughter as he does about killing, and that his more disturbing personality traits have been relegated to his imaginary alter ego (William Hurt). And he really does want to stop murdering people. Funny thing is, he does it so well, half the time you find yourself not rooting as much for his recovery as for his success at crime. And certainly were he to express his talents in some more productive way, he would be a model of masculine appeal.
Even sexier than Mr. Brooks, there is the outlaw Ben Wade, played by Russell Crowe in "3:10 to Yuma." Ben is a dastardly outlaw of the Old West, who has unrepentantly dedicated his entire life to robbery and the requisite killing that enables it. Nevertheless, he is more or less the hero of the film and certainly a completely sympathetic figure. One could attribute this to the charm of the character or the sex appeal of Russell Crowe, but I think there's more to it than that.
In an early scene, Ben hooks up with a barmaid. At this point in the film I really didn't know him well enough to be tickled by this. I mean, it was all well and good that he had a way with words and a gentlemanly allure, but the guy had already been responsible for a whole lot of killing by this point. I had to defer on my judgment for a bit.
Ben began to win me over when he dealt surprisingly fairly with Dan Evans (Christian Bale), the down-and-out rancher whose cattle accidentally got involved in a stagecoach robbery. Ben was certainly under no obligation to reimburse Dan for his dead cattle or his time dealing with them, and yet he handed over the money like the most respectable of businessmen. And as the story progressed, more and more of Ben's good qualities came to the fore, traits almost unreconciliable with his total lack of respect for life and property.
Again, the script used the device of surrounding Ben with weaker men who made him look good by contrast. Greedy businessmen, cowardly lawmen, unfair institutions, liars and cheats of all kinds are at every hand. And then there is Dan, who although sympathetic by virtue of his love for his family and determination to do the right thing, has led a life of failure. His ineffectiveness at providing for his family and earning their faith and admiration is constantly contrasted with Ben's success and ability to command others' devotion. Moral issues aside, Ben is strong and Dan is weak, and your random barmaid will see this a mile off and be attracted to Ben as the better mate.
And it's interesting how hard it was for me, as a female hard-wired to lust after men who are accomplished and successful, to begrudge the fact that Ben's field of expertise was thievery and murder. Likewise, any guy watching this movie is going to admire and envy Ben more than Dan. (The moral side of things is addressed in the film, by the way, but I won't spoil it for you by telling any more of the story concerning the two men's character development.)
The point is, when you're talking fantasy, the fact that a man's forte is killing is not necessarily a strike against him. Murder--especially getting away with it as Mr. Brooks and Ben Wade do--is a tough gig, akin to any great challenge like mountain climbing or building a billion dollar company. Guys who pull it off with aplomb and grace are going to inspire a woman's admiration in spite of ethics.
We just can't help it, any more than guys will be attracted to hot women even if they are emptyheaded and useless. Come to think of it, I guess having the hots for Ben Wade is no more shameful than lusting after, say, Pamela Anderson....