Bag Man, The (United States, 2014)

March 04, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Bag Man, The Poster

The title may make it sound like a horror film but The Bag Man is actually a neo-noir thriller. The movie is relentlessly dark with the majority of it transpiring in and around a seedy motel at night. Despite the participation of a couple of well-known actors, John Cusack and Robert De Niro, The Bag Man is decidedly non-mainstream. The film has a nihilistic tone and its gallows humor may turn off more viewers than it seduces. Not since Killer Joe has a film exerted this mix of attraction and repulsion.

John Cusack, who normally plays likeable guys, has been cast against type as the title character, Jack, a killer given a courier job by crime boss Dragna (Robert De Niro). Dragna’s mandate is straightforward: pick up the bag, take it to “a motel in the middle of nowhere” and wait in room #13 for the pickup. Under no circumstances should the bag be opened and no one is to look inside. This instruction would seem to set the bag up as a MacGuffin but that’s not the case. The Bag Man eventually reveals what’s inside and it becomes germane to the film’s resolution.

What Jack doesn’t expect is that, after exiting his meeting with Dragna, he will wander into a David Lynch movie. The Bag Man’s Lynchian influence is so strong that it’s almost surprising not to find the Blue Velvet director’s name somewhere in the credits. Lynch is known for three qualities: dark settings, quirky characters, and a general sense of weirdness. All three characteristics are present in abundance throughout The Bag Man. When Jack arrives at the motel, he is greeted by a wheelchair bound Crispin Glover at the desk. On the way to his room, he passes a variety of unsavory characters, including a “weapons-proficient stripper” with blue hair, a tough looking guy with an eye patch, and a dwarf. If there’s any more obvious call-out to Lynch, it’s the dwarf, although he isn’t speaking backwards.

Violence abounds. Some of it is generic - people being shot and punched, for example. But there are also some uncomfortable moments. Dragna, in a fit of pique, beats up a woman, breaking her nose (then helpfully offering the name of an excellent plastic surgeon). There’s also a sequence in a police station where the intimation of what could occur causes the stomach to clench. Maybe it’s nice-guy Cusack’s presence that makes it so unsettling.

Not that this is Cusack’s first venture into dark territory, but most of us still think of him as the earnest kid from Say Anything or any number of loveable leads he has portrayed over the years. Here, Cusack is good at being ruthless and desperate, Jack’s two defining characteristics. For DeNiro, this represents a return to the kind of amoral roles that defined his early career. Lately, De Niro has been appearing primarily in comedies. His turn as Dragna reminds us how menacing he can be. Cusack’s leading lady is Brazilian actress Rebecca Da Costa. Crispin Glover (strange as always) and Dominic Purcell have supporting parts.

The Bag Man is all about style and atmosphere. These qualities inform the characters and the plot. With so much of the activity taking place in cramped motel rooms, it’s claustrophobic. The darkness seeps into everything. The narrative is unpredictable; we’re never sure exactly where things are going or how they will turn out. Even at its most conventional, The Bag Man never quite looks or feels like an average thriller. In fact, the climax is a little disappointing precisely because it is straightforward and generic. It’s not hard to see The Bag Man developing a cult following; it has that kind of sensibility. Those who love the warped, twisted worlds crafted by David Lynch and others like him will find much to appreciate in The Bag Man.

Bag Man, The (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2014-02-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1