Monday, January 10, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You On: At the Movies #4 - The Last Detail – (dir. Hal Ashby, 1973)

Sometime in the early 1970’s, Jack Nicholson went from being a competent character actor, specializing in edgy, creepy misfits, to being the most respected American actor of several decades. I’ve always pegged this change as falling between Five Easy Pieces and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The Last Detail is right in the middle of this period (1973) and it marks one of Nicholson’s most deceptively complex roles. In it, he plays a hardened Navy lifer named “Badass” Buddusky who, along with another M.P. (military police), “Mule” Mulhall (the fine actor Otis Young) must transport a young criminal (Randy Quaid) to a military prison on the other side of the country. Within the first few minutes we learn that Quaid is a guileless schnook who is being made an example of to satisfy a general’s wife. Badass and Mule begin their journey in typical military fashion, but quickly realize their job, or detail, is not just another case of following orders.
Nicholson immediately distinguishes himself in this role. He goes from explosive asshole to sensitive realist as he starts to grasp the enormity of the injustice being heaped on this poor sap he is transporting. Randy Quaid as Seaman First Class Meadows is heartbreakingly convincing. He is a troubled, stupid kid who has gotten bad breaks his whole life. He isn’t “everyman,” he is “everyscapegoat” representing all sensitive kids who ever got destroyed by the rule-spouting machine that is the military.
The beauty of The Last Detail comes in the subtle changes in Nicholson’s character, as he has to confront issues of duty, justice and ultimately his own humanity. The more time he spends with Meadows, the more he realizes the questionable morality of his actions. Pity starts to turn to empathy when the men stop in Meadows’ home- town. The three look into the home Meadows grew up in, and as they survey the squalid, sad reality of it, the scales of rank and circumstance start to fall from their eyes and the two guards see themselves in Meadows. From here, the attempts to show Meadows a good time before he goes up the river become increasingly frantic, and ultimately sadder and sadder. Nicholson insists they take him to a prostitute, and the encounter (with a young, dark-eyed Carol Kane) is painfully realistic. They encounter a group of Buddhists and end up at a party that is so tremendously uncomfortable and inappropriate that the viewer is crawling out of his skin to get out of there.
Ultimately the two guards are faced with the sad reality that this poor kid is going away to have his life ruined forever. They know he will be eaten alive at the tough Marine prison. The saddest scene comes near the end of the film as Meadows is unceremoniously taken away by Marine guards and he and Badass and Mule do not exchange a word or even so much as a look. It is a devastatingly inhumane experience. Mule and Badass leave the prison under a cloudy sky and the cruelty and futility of this “detail” is written all over their faces.
The Last Detail was originally billed as a comedy, which is hard for me to understand. Nicholson displays some classic, salty ribaldry and uses the f-word a record number of times, but there is ultimately nothing funny about this movie. It is a small, carefully drawn tale that explores the kind of slow changes in understanding that have to occur to make a difference in one’s basic humanity. One doesn’t believe that Nicholson is going to change his name to “Sweetass” Buddusky after this experience, but we feel sure that it has changed him in some fundamental way. Director Hal Ashby uses a deft hand in showing us the changes in Buddusky’s character, and it is the touching subtlety of this slow shift that makes The Last Detail such a compelling movie.
-Paul Epstein

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