Los Angeles — geographical seat of Hollywood, colossus of popular culture — makes an easy metaphor for everything rotten in America. Point a camera at the movie producer sitting near the pool at his glittering home, running his empire by remote control using the highest-tech electronic hookups Japan can provide. Show him oblivious to the sound of the enduring ocean down below, the sight of a squadron of poor Mexican gardeners blowing leaves all around him, and the needs of his neglected wife, who can get her husband’s attention to say she’s leaving him only by phoning from the bedroom to the garden. There. You’ve got an all-in-one, instant allusion to class warfare, spiritual emptiness, corporate greed, communications breakdown, mass appetites, immigration trends, and millennial dis-ease.
But it’s a cheap allusion. In The End of Violence (MGM), German director Wim Wenders — who previously reported from the USA in Paris, Texas, which won the 1984 Palme d’Or in Cannes — sees the country as a terrain of paranoia and danger, manipulation and decadence. And the only way to save one’s soul is to drop out, renounce, and heed the kindness of compassionate Mexican gardeners.
The bombast and simplemindedness of the premise crush the intricacy of the densely plotted script (by TV writer Nicholas Klein), which springs from the intersection of two arenas of violence: that of Mike Max (Bill Pullman), a movie mogul who makes tons of money from his very popular, violent thrillers, and Ray Bering (Gabriel Byrne), a surveillance expert at work on a secret government project to track crime with a network of hidden cameras. Mike surveys his world via computers from his aerie on the cliffs of Malibu; Ray checks his cameras from his perch in L.A.’s Griffith Park observatory. Mike loses the affection of his ornamental wife (Andie MacDowell, low-energy in fancy lingerie); Ray keeps the affection of his invalid father (director Sam Fuller, in homage). Mike, who himself becomes the victim of violent crime, escapes and hides with the help of his immigrant gardeners; Ray’s loneliness is assuaged by the mute soulfulness of his immigrant housekeeper, who has survived torture in El Salvador only to empty a brooding man’s wastepaper basket.
And so on, and so on, and so on. (I’ve left out a number of so-ons, including a gangsta rapper who renounces violence in his lyrics, and a stuntwoman who renounces faking violent acts.) Pullman and Byrne, in appealing performances, do all they can to evoke the humanity, however tamped down, in their characters’ American Man souls. But they can do only so much among such sterile stereotypes. Cinematographer Pascal Rabaud provides some beautiful images of Los Angeles. In the end, though, Wenders’ cold, high-toned lecture — Repent! repent! and treat your people of color well! — is, as they say in America, a no-brainer. C+