It’ll probably be a long time before I can comment on how Red Dead Redemption, the pioneering Western from Rockstar, ends, but I can say that it starts brilliantly. In the opening scene, your protagonist, John Marston, rides a train to the town of Armadillo, giving you not only a glimpse of the beautiful, untamed frontier country where the game takes place, but also a glimpse into the issues that loom large in this rapidly changing America of 1910. Two old biddies behind Marston bicker about the intersection of money and politics, while in front of him, a young lady expresses some bold new ideas about the nature of good and evil, only to be gently but firmly set straight by the traditional preacher who accompanies her. Indeed, Red Dead Redemption seems to be largely about the collision of the old and new, of shifting ideas about religion and politics, but also of the products of industry—cars and telephones both make early appearances--starting to dramatically change the way people live their lives. In the superb Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar demonstrated an earnest desire to explore the cultural forces that shape this country, and Red Dead Redemption seems poised to follow in that game’s footsteps.
Of course, every great Western needs a great protagonist at its center, and Marston seems to be made from the same mold as some of the genre’s greatest. An early scene provides him with the motivation for revenge that drives him in at least the earliest part of the story, but reveals little about him, leaving him with that hint of a shady past and that aura of mystery that can be so alluring in a man on horseback. He’s not so reticent, though, that we can’t connect with him. On the contrary, he treats kind people with the warmth becoming of a gentleman, and has an invitingly self-deprecating sense of humor. Of course, to a large extent, who John Marston is is up to you. My John Marston, like the person controlling him, seems to be something of a ne’er-do-well, and has spent more time in the Armadillo saloon playing poker than exploring the frontier, doing good deeds for troubled strangers. Clearly, this country was built by harder-working people than me.
But now that I’m sitting here at work on a lunch break, I’m positively desperate to get back to the world of Red Dead Redemption, to see what’s waiting for me out in that wild landscape. It’s clear, even at this very early stage, that this game is something special, a product of rare ambition and quality, and, if it delivers on the promise of its earliest moments, of rare meaning, too.
Lately, I've seen three films that I've found deeply absorbing, all dealing with the consequences of corruption in systems of justice. Seeing them in close proximity to each other has had a profound effect on me, and they've grown into a kind of trilogy inside me, the thematic relationships between them increasing their power in my subconscious. I can't find the words to do them justice by half, but I need to try to process them.
Memories of Murder, 2003, directed by Bong-joon Ho
I'd not heard of this film until I saw it listed among Cinema Scope's best films of the past decade. Bong Joon-ho had also directed the great creature feature The Host, and I love a good crime film. I had to see it. I was not quite prepared for just how good it was.
Memories of Murder is a police procedural inspired by the investigation of South Korea's first known serial killer. In the provincial area where the murders are taking place, police procedure often involves trying to coerce confessions out of suspects who may or may not be guilty. A cop from Seoul, Detective Seo Tae-Yoon (Kim Sang-Kyeong) shows up to help with the investigation and his determination to get it right and to not just wrap things up by squeezing a confession out of an innocent man leads to a lot of tension between him and the local cop at the forefront of the investigation (Song Kang-ho, at least as valuable here as in The Host). Also making things difficult is the lack of forensic technology available in South Korea at the time, requiring DNA evidence to be shipped off to the U.S. for processing. In this corrupt and deeply lacking environment, the standards of Detective Seo may prove unsustainable.
Song Kang-ho's character initially seems like a sad and unredeemable excuse for a police officer. But there are situations in life that can change us. There's a final scene and a final image here that belong to Kang-ho, and that, for me, make up one of the most perfect and unforgettable conclusions to a film that I can recall seeing. It's a powerful evocation of how moments long gone can continue to haunt us forever, of how, as it's phrased in the film Magnolia, "We may be through with the past but the past ain't through with us."
The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos), 2009, directed by Juan José Campanella
A very different film with a lot of very similar themes, this Argentinian movie won the Oscar for best foreign film. Some have criticized it for being too conventional, but I admit, I love its conventionality. It is a film in the classic tradition, deliberately paced, expertly directed, confident and beautiful.
Jumping between the mid-1970s and the late-1990s, this is a story of a retired legal official (Ricardo Darin, whose eyes speak volumes) now writing a novel that's inspired by a murder case that continues to obsess him, some 20-plus years later. His efforts, and his long-burning feelings for his former superior, lead him to seek her out, and we are privileged to sit in on their intimate conversations.
The film works both as an absorbing love story and as a compelling crime thriller, and like Memories of Murder, it's also a criticism of corrupt systems of justice. It finds humor in unexpected moments and is gorgeously photographed, cutting loose from its mannered confines for one exhilarating scene at a packed soccer stadium, strung together as one long take, a shot made no less ingenious by the certain use of computer effects.
Some films with hefty political messages to convey can't balance their agendas with the human factor. This one absolutely does. I really feel I came to know the two central characters who, in the looks they share, say "I love you" again and again even when decorum prevents them from saying it aloud.
The Thin Blue Line, 1998, directed by Errol Morris
And lastly, a non-fiction film that explores a miscarriage of justice in the United States. This documentary is about the murder of a police officer in 1976 and how an overzealous district attorney, obsessed with maintaining his conviction/death penalty rate, had an innocent man put on death row for the crime. It's been described as the first film that actually solves a real-life murder mystery. It's also credited as the film that popularized the use of dramatic reenactments, but what I love about Morris' recreations is that they're impressionistic and dreamlike, much more haunting than the typical straightforward crime reenactments you often see on television. They confuse the actual event more than clarify it, which is only appropriate, as we hear wildly differing eyewitness accounts and interpretations of the moments just prior to the murder. While the facts of the case are compelling in and of themselves, Morris turns them here into something deeply cinematic.
When systems of justice fail the people they are meant to serve, when they persecute the innocent and let the guilty go free, everyone suffers.