Most movies don't begin by asking the viewer to define a word, but Wim Wenders' intensely bizarre The End of Violence does. From the moment the voice-over at the opening credits declares that we should define violence "since we're making a movie about it," it becomes clear that this film is stubbornly going to refuse to submit itself to any familiar genre.
The concept of violence in this film has nothing in common with typical movie violence. Wenders is thinking on a larger, more philosophical scale, which is exactly what he wants the audience to do. Violence, as far as this film is concerned, represents all of the perversions in modern life, everything that pushes us farther from an ideal and harmonious existence. In his convoluted screenplay Wenders takes aim at human greed and the scary implications of having too much technology.
The plot that somehow has to encompass all of these abstract ideas is scattered and somewhat artificial. Although the story is occasionally gripping, Wenders pressures his unbelievable tale to communicate some very weighty ideas, many of which it just can't support.
Wenders, a German director, filmed The End of Violence on American soil with American actors. (Perhaps he suggesting that there's more "violence" here than in Europe? Let's hope not.) The movie is set in Hollywood, but away from all recognizable landmarks. Movie producer Mike Max (Bill Pullman) and his wife, Paige (Andie MacDowell), live in a house that seems to be located on the edge of the world. The water in their swimming pool laps over its edge and into the Pacific Ocean. Mike spends his mornings teleconferencing with his secretary and barking into a cellular phone while lounging in a deck chair. On the same day that his wife calls from the living room to announce that she's leaving him, he receives a mysterious 400-page e-mail that sets his life spiraling out of control.
The e-mail is from a former NASA computer scientist (Gabriel Byrne) who has been assigned to a top-secret government project. In an old, abandoned observatory, he is in charge of thousands of cameras that have been set up to monitor everyday people--a system that would ultimately lead to "the end of violence." Only the scientist doesn't want to play Big Brother, so he leaks the information via e-mail.
These are actually the film's most believable plot elements. Try not to think about the bland detective who spouts quantum physics and the cleaning lady who plays a key role in the government's plan. The movie doesn't operate in the real world; everything is slightly askew.
But suspension of disbelief is not the story's main problem. Some unbelievable scenes, especially those featuring Byrne staring wide-eyed at one of his many TV monitors and zooming into a crime scene, are very eerie and effective. Ethereal music highlights the film's disturbing implications.
The screenplay's fundamental fault is its lack of cohesiveness. The movie fluctuates between drama, mystery and unclassifiable postmodern meditation on the evils of our society. Some dark comedy is occasionally juggled in as well. All this prohibits any real character development, and the frequently ambiguous, double-edged dialogue doesn't help form personalities.
The actors struggle to remedy this problem, but the movie is so idea-driven that there's not much that they can do to make their characters stand out as individuals. MacDowell has the worst of it, since her character is supposed to undergo a major transformation. She looks like she's trying to make sense of her part as the movie progresses, without much success.
The movie's ending is sudden and inexplicably hollow: instead of focusing on any of the various types of violence portrayed, the film switches into epic mode and portrays Mike Max as a changed man who is grateful that he's been robbed of his job, his life and his identity. Several key questions are left unanswered.
The End of Violence promises much but in the end delivers little. With its bizarre twists and turns and provocative ideas, it is entertaining and involving but also extremely frustrating. Sometimes it's thrilling to watch the movie cross unconventional boundaries, and it often seems on the brink of saying something important--before retreating into a morass of confused ideas. The End of Violence has the potential to become a modern classic, but its failure to buckle down and thoroughly explore any of the issues it raises ultimately leaves the viewer exhausted and perplexed.
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