End of Violence, The (France/Germany/United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Wim Wenders' The End of Violence offers the same type of experience one could expect from sitting through a David Lynch film with a reasonably-coherent narrative (unlike, for example, Lost Highway). Arguably Wenders' most disjointed film to date, The End of Violence is a neo-noir thriller that's really more about social decay and human isolation than it is about government conspiracies, mysterious murders, and missing persons. Unfortunately, it's also too long and too slow, and, by the time the end credits have started rolling, it has lost most of its energy.

Wenders' narrative style is not only a little too languid, but it's often irritating in the erratic manner that it skips back and forth between divergent storylines. The problem is that Wenders has three groups of characters to divide time between, and he often switches from one to another just when things are getting interesting. This is certainly not happening by accident. It's as if Wenders wanted to make the transitions as jarring and frustrating as possible. Ultimately, this results in a motion picture that, despite having intriguing aspects, is never fully satisfying.

The greatest amount of screen time is devoted to the story of big time movie producer Mike Max (Bill Pullman) and his wallflower wife, Paige (Andie MacDowell). Mike is a hard-nosed guy with an eye on the bottom line. He's never without at least one lap-top and two cellular phones. For him, communication is a means of transferring necessary information -- nothing more. There is certainly no emotion involved. His wife has decided to leave him because he never spends any time with her, but she lacks the ambition to actually do it. Then, in one night, everything changes. After Mike is abducted and nearly killed, he takes a long look at his life and doesn't like what he sees. So, with the help of a group of Mexican immigrants, he disappears from sight to start over.

Meanwhile, in a nearby observatory, computer scientist Ray Bering (Gabriel Byrne) spends his nights gazing through telescopes that are pointing down, not up. Ray is involved in developing a top-secret government surveillance project that is supposed to cut down police response time to a crime. However, as the project approaches fruition, Ray becomes concerned that, in the wrong hands, it could be horribly misused. His fears are given form one night when he watches from afar as two men are gunned down.

The third leg of The End of Violence's triangular storyline involves the interaction between stuntwoman-turned-actress Cat (Traci Lind) and Detective "Doc" Brock (Loren Dean). These two are brought together as a result of Mike Max's sudden disappearance. Cat owes her latest screen test to Mike; Doc, a big fan of Mike's movies, is on hand to investigate the case. Together, they explore what they know about Mike's vanishing while developing feelings for each other. Many of their scenes are obviously intended as homages to the great noir thrillers of the '40s and '50s, with both Cat and "Doc" dressed and acting the parts of the stars of that era.

How a viewer approaches The End of Violence may determine what he or she comes away with. Anyone expecting a straightforward thriller is in for a very big disappointment. Wenders and screenwriter Nicholas Klein aren't interested in answering many of the questions posed by the narrative -- in fact, they only hint at possible solutions to several of the biggest issues. And the ending, such as it is, leaves a lot of room for interpretation. On the other hand, if you approach this film as a study of the mutability of human nature, the need for redemption, the growing lack of meaningful human interaction in the electronic era, and the lure of violence, it has the power to involve, if not overwhelm. Ultimately, the noir thriller is just the means that Wenders uses to explore these issues. If only he had managed to inject a little more life into the proceedings...

The acting in The End of Violence seems either strangely muted or outrageously over-the-top. Aside from Traci Lind and Loren Dean, who are pleasantly enjoyable as they imitate past performances rather than create something original, there isn't a single portrayal in this film that attracted my attention. Bill Pullman and Gabriel Byrne are subdued, Andie MacDowell is unimpressive (what is it that directors see in her?), and the hit man duo of Pruitt Taylor Vince and John Diehl look like they have escaped from the set of the latest Coen Brothers' production.

The film's title is richly ironic because this movie is about the proliferation of violence, not its end. Guns are everywhere in the movie, and each change of personality happens as a direct or indirect result of a violent encounter. Mike, who built his fortune making violent action movies, rejects his old life as a result of his close encounter with death. Mike's disappearance stirs Paige out of her perpetual state of apathy. Ray's realization that his project is being perverted into a killing weapon causes him to hatch a plot. And Mike learns to trust Cat only after a bruising confrontation.

Wenders has packed a lot of issues into The End of Violence, and I challenge anyone to call the script "dumb." Sadly, however, unlike the director's best work (The Wings of Desire), it's neither involving nor magical. The End of Violence offers viewers opportunities to ponder a variety of diverse subjects, but its overall entertainment value is less than one might hope for. Great ideas and eye-catching cinematography only add up to a wonderful movie when they're contained in a powerful narrative. And that's the one key ingredient where The End of Violence falls short.

End of Violence, The (France/Germany/United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 1997-09-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1