Josh, in an overt attempt to establish some “street cred” before foisting something like My Little Pony: The Movie on us for his second feature, went all obscure and arty and Jack Nicholson-y on us with Michelangelo Antonioni‘s classic The Passenger.
Antonioni originally titled the film “Professione: Reporter”, which is not only a bad title for the movie but perhaps also a misleading one for the initial Italian release, considering that the movie is in English (and a bit of Spanish and French here and there…)
Perhaps I ought to start by explaining why “Professione: Reporter” is a lousy title for the film.
You see, Jack Nicholson (as David Locke) begins the film as a reporter. (So why the problem with the title? Read on, skeptic!) He’s in a very dry, sandy, and remote region of Chad, which is apparently experiencing a rather overblown civil war. Locke is out in search of some rebels to interview, but he just can’t seem to find any. They’re supposed to be out there somewhere, but the search is pretty futile. You’d think that in the midst of a shooting war you could find some fighting, or at least know where to look, but there’s a lot of desert out there and Google didn’t exist yet, so perhaps Locke isn’t completely to blame.
Locke’s quest finally ends when he hopelessly high-centers his Land Rover in the sand and hoofs it back to his hovel of a hotel, only to find that an English “businessman” acquaintance he has made, David Robertson, has died in an adjacent room, apparently of natural causes. As Locke slowly comes to realize, Robertson’s “business” was gun-running, which makes some sense considering that The Middle Of Nowhere, Chad isn’t exactly a hopping sales destination. At the same time, given Locke’s complete failure in actually finding a war, one does have to wonder exactly who Robertson was hoping to sell guns to.
But I get ahead of myself. Locke’s not quite keyed in on all this yet. One wonders whether had he known exactly what he was getting himself into, if he would have gone ahead and stolen the dead man’s identity. Because that’s what he does. The two men look almost strikingly similar, so Locke swaps out their passport photos (back when an exacto knife and a little glue was all you needed to forge an official document), drags Robertson back to his own room, and reports at the front desk that Locke has died, pretending to be Robertson. All Locke is now left with is a little black book with appointments in it and a Get Out Of Loveless Marriage Free card. (Often people who have the former really want the latter, so this really is a fortunate scenario.)
Locke, trying to pick up Robertson’s life for less than obvious reasons, retrieves some documents stashed in an airport locker in Munich and is shortly thereafter approached by two shady characters who were staking the locker out and waiting for Robertson. He hands over the documents, which turn out to be armament specs, and the two shady boys hand over a large cash downpayment and leave.
This is where Locke goes totally wrong. Rather than simply take the money and disappear, Locke resolves to continue attempting to meet the appointments in the little black book, which is a bizarre decision because it’s not like Locke can actually deliver any guns. What he hopes to accomplish is completely opaque, but one would think that stealing money from dangerous people who are in the habit of buying large quantities of illicit guns is probably not the best move when you’re a complete schmuck.
Anyway, this is why titling the movie “Professione: Reporter” is a bit lame – Locke abandons said profession basically at the get-go of the film.
Meanwhile, upon hearing of his death Locke’s philandering wife begins to get a little buyer’s remorse on her current boy toy and begins to devote her time to finding David Robertson, because he was the last person to have seen Locke alive. Using rental car records (product placement brought to you by Avis) she tracks down “Robertson” to Barcelona and a BBC producer who was working on one of Locke’s documentaries heads out there to try and speak to him.
In Barcelona, Locke finds that nobody seems to be keeping Robertson’s appointments, and in one scene he gets Dadaed by an old man in a park.
Locke: “My name is Robertson. I’ve been waiting for someone who hasn’t arrived.” Old man, pointing at children with a cane: “Niños. I’ve seen so many of them grow up. Other people look at the children and they all imagine a new world. But me, when I watch them, I just see the same old tragedy begin all over again.”
Yeah, thanks old man. Anyway, Locke gets wind of the Robertson chase and has to think fast. So he accosts a girl at a Gaudí building and asks her to get his stuff from his hotel, since it’s being watched. Naturally, his Nicholsonian charm wins her over and she not only accomplishes the task, but joins him on his treks as his passenger (now, we’ve got a title!) and as his lover. It was the ’70s, so I guess that’s just the way the world worked then.
In what follows, Locke gets angstier and angstier about nobody ever keeping his appointments and begins to waver on his commitment to keep trying, but The Girl (who is given no further name) thinks selling guns to rebels is so idealistic and liberated that she can’t let him give up until he’s at least dead. Locke’s wife, having finally received his effects and having opened his passport to find Robertson’s picture, figures the whole thing out and knowing Robertson’s role (she’s quite the detective) sets off in a desperate attempt to save Locke from himself. And so sets up one of the great sequences in film, the penultimate shot of The Passenger:
The shot actually starts at about the one minute mark here. It’s a long forward pan that leaves Nicholson lying on the bed, and zooming in on the window follows the wandering of The Girl, the arrival of the two shady guys from Munich (I’m convinced they were the same guys, though both Kevin and Josh insist they were different!), and provides auditory evidence for the entering of the room and a gunshot muffled by a car engine before zooming straight through the bars of the window and outside, witnessing the arrival of the police and Locke’s wife and now from outside the bars returns to witness the discovery of Locke’s dead body on the bed. Genius. Best of all, when the police inspector asks Locke’s wife: “This is David Robinson, do you recognize him?” she looks over her husband and replies, “I never knew him.” What else could she say? The game is up, and whether David Locke died of a heart attack in a dusty hotel in remotest Chad or of a gunshot in a somewhat cleaner hotel in Osuna Spain really doesn’t matter. She and the passenger are the only ones who know any better. Why complicate things?
So my ultimate verdict is, it’s a long, tedious film littered with unrealistic decisions by all characters involved, and threatens to be written off as dreck until at the very end one amazing camera shot and one cathartic ending completely salvage what led up to them. In other words, the exact opposite of a Neal Stephenson novel.