Arriving for the first time on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films is Wim Wenders’ 1997 existentialist take on the definition of violence and its depictions with The End of Violence. A film that was re-cut after its poor reception after playing at the Cannes Film Festival in competition, its underwhelming limited theatrical release did little to spark much interest in the title, though Wenders would receive an Indie Spirit Award nod as Best Director. Feeling very much like the type of philosophically overbaked yarns that we’ve come to see frequent the later period of Atom Egoyan, Wenders’ Hollywood metaphor exploring voyeuristic societal issues at large is trapped by its fascinations with its own ideas. On paper, it sounds intriguing, as we’re dealing with the provocative hypothesis that, at a base level, asserts the mere act of ‘looking’ or ‘seeing’ something will eventually render the necessity of violence to be obsolete. Therefore, even the most realistic of reenactments will eventually be mere archaic artifacts from a world once spinning out of control. At least, that’s one aspect of what Wenders is saying with a plot of tangentially related ideas that never coalesce into a successful narrative.
Hollywood producer Mike Max (Bill Pullman) is in the middle of making a movie, a film that focuses on, among other things, how we define violence. While his long suffering wife Paige (Andie MacDowell) prefers to call her husband over the phone even when they’re both at home to announce that she’s leaving him, Mike has to put her on hold to deal with an actress, Cat (Traci Lind), who has been injured while performing her own stunts during filming. Soon after, he is abducted by a pair of kidnappers (Pruitt Taylor Vince, John Diehl), but Mike manages to escape and both criminals are killed. Shaken to the core, Mike disappears from the life he knows and is taken in by a group of immigrants working as gardeners, which leaves Paige and the film crew (including a weirdo director played by Udo Kier) unsure of what to do next. The cops investigating the crime scene (Marshall Bell, Frederic Forrest, Loren Dean) are as familiar with Mike’s work as his abductors, it seems. Meanwhile, Ray Bering (Gabriel Byrne), a scientist operating out of the Griffith Park Observatory monitors the goings on of the city amidst a wall of scratchy monitors displaying footage from Los Angeles cameras. He sees the incident where Mike Max was taken, but footage is missing, meaning someone above must be watching him. At the same time he must take care of his ailing father (Sam Fuller).
Looking back over Wenders’ filmography, his narrative features from the decade (and several from the naughts) often feel like grand, ambitious ideas that weren’t quite fully formulated, making it seem as if the director is overreaching. The End of Violence is the last narrative feature of a decade that started off with the rocky production of Until the End of the World (1991), which was followed by a sequel to one of his most successful films, the less well received Faraway, So Close (1993).
The passage of time since Violence’s premiere has not been very kind, though French DoP Pascal Rabaud catches a variety of moody, ambient cityscapes of Los Angeles, meant to reflect the magnitude of a city under observation. But there’s never really any tension or sweaty paranoia built up here, with Gabriel Byrne’s Griffith Observatory bound scientist representing a slippery slope of surveillance issues, playing like some heavenly metaphor, as if he was the prophet Tiresias allowed a glimpse through Zeus’ telescope. His strained relationship with his maid and her daughter and how this connects to Pullman’s escape into the void of the invisible ethnic pool of Los Angele’s undocumented immigrant population seems to speak to entirely different (and more interesting issues). If only Wenders’ script featured some tightening of its themes perhaps this would have seemed workable. As it stands, most of this is incredibly laughable. Pullman’s assistant (played by Rosalind Chao) informs him early on that the FBI has emailed him a rather large file. Later, he tries to retrieve it, and there it is in his inbox, titled Top Secret FBI File.
Retaining its 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the title manages to look quite vibrant still, considering its content feels like any number of high art direct-to-video titles from the era. Los Angeles is portrayed as a beautiful, empty sprawl (nothing new there) and despite the rather stilted use of the Griffith Park Observatory, its look, at least, is impressive. As is customary with these bare bones transfers, no extra features are included.
The film’s highlight, if you’re forced to choose one, would perhaps be the angle featuring Pullman, a director known for his clinical, procedural reincarnations of cinematic violence whose confrontation with the very fears he’s tiredly been producing for the screen causing him to reject the hollow existence he’s created for himself. But like the other characters, he’s never quite more than an amusing depiction of everything wrong in a profit based industry. As his wife, Andie MacDowell looks flawlessly gorgeous, but has little to do but seem impetuously irritated with her husband and embarking on an unlikely affair with K. Todd Freeman’s character. In fact, you almost miss Wenders’ subtle moments in the film thanks to all the heavy handed exposition that most of the dialogue is concerned with. The affair between MacDowell and Freeman is the second relationship in the film that develops between white and black characters divided by class lines.
Earlier in the film Nicole Ari Parker’s spoken word soliloquy is seen to guilt Traci Lind (who gives a very unpleasantly wooden performance) into an unpredictable friendship, the same performance gathering wherein MacDowell is compelled to tip her ongoing flirtation with Freeman into a reality. But how this exactly fits into the larger picture or why it’s included at all could be anyone’s guess. The inclusion of Sam Fuller recalls a much better, earlier work about the process of filmmaking from Wenders, The State of Things (1982), read as an experiment in Wenders perhaps exorcizing demons from the incredibly difficult shoot of Hammett (1982). That earlier title felt like it had something to say—so does The End of Violence, but it’s so fascinated with its own concepts that it ends up being merely that.