Grosse Pointe Blank: Revisited – 5 Things I Didn’t Notice the First Time Around
September 8, 2016 \ Movies \ 0 Comments
Grosse Pointe Blank revisited. In this series I re-watch a movie I haven’t seen in a long time to look at it with new eyes, and (hopefully) more experience. This time I revisit Grosse Pointe Blank.
Grosse Pointe Blank is about a professional assassin Martin (John Cusack) who decides to go to back to his home town and attend his ten-year high school reunion. This is stressful for Martin. Not just because he doesn’t know what he’ll tell people he does for a living, but because he left town suddenly and with a lot of unresolved issues, including his ex-girlfriend Debi (Minnie Driver) whom he stood up on prom night. While Martin is good at his job, he seems unhappy. He visits a therapist (Alan Arkin) he half-jokingly threatens into keeping him as a client. His therapist advises him to go to the reunion: “Go see some old friends, have some punch. Don’t kill anybody for a few days. See what it feels like.” So Martin must confront his unresolved demons and Debi so he can figure out how to be happy while trying to survive his competition (in the form of fellow assassin played by Dan Aykroyd).
I haven’t re-watched the whole movie since I initially saw it back in the 90’s, so here I go again. Here are five things I didn’t notice the first time around in Grosse Pointe Blank. (Also, heads up: Spoilers.)
This is something I would never have noticed when I was younger, but there are a number of thoughtful and effective scene transitions in the movie.
Much like the movie, some of them are playful, like the sequence where Martin discovers the house he grew up in has been replaced by a convenience store. While outside, staring at the convenience store in disbelief, the Guns and Roses cover of “Live and Let Die” plays loudly in the background. As soon as Martin enters the store the song changes into a softer, instrumental version of the song, similar to what you might hear in an elevator (or a convenience store).
Then there are transitions that play with our story expectations. Like the scene at the reunion where Martin and Debi are having a frank, flirty conversation about life in the rafters of the gymnasium, and Debi asks Martin if he wants to dance. Martin says yes, and as they leave we cut to the dance floor. In the forefront of the frame is a woman dancing in a wedding dress though we can’t see her face. As the camera pans up we see that it is not Debi, but the recently married couple that we saw enter the reunion earlier.
These transitions are not only effective in manipulating our expectations, they are clever in how they express the subtext of the story.
2. A Note About Friendship
To be totally forthcoming, there’s an aspect to the friendship between Martin and Paul (Jeremy Piven) that as I’ve been talking about for years. What struck me this time around that I never noticed before was how quickly and effectively they must establish their friendship.
They only have a handful of scenes together and in that brief time, we must accept that they had a firm friendship ten years ago that has somehow carried over. There’s an effective scene that does this where Martin and Paul have been driving around getting re-acquainted and Paul finally explodes. “TEN YEARS, MAN!? TEN! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN FOR TEN YEARS!?” Martin tries to explain as plainly as he can, but when Paul doesn’t accept it Martin starts yelling back and the two laugh about it — that’s how friends act, and it’s an effective scene.
That scene has to be effective because later on Paul will find Martin in the hallways at the reunion with the dead body of an assassin Martin has killed in self-defense. Paul doesn’t know that Martin is an assassin, Paul doesn’t know if Martin has killed in self-defense, and Paul is so unsure of what happened here that he’s not even entirely certain the man is dead. And yet, almost without hesitating, Paul helps Martin dispose of the body. It takes a very particular friend who would do that and make themselves complicit in a murder. And the scene’s believability would fail if the previous scenes with Martin and Paul didn’t work. But they do.
There is an impressive amount of effort spent into Martin’s characterization. Martin is an angst-filled assassin who can’t quite figure out what’s wrong with his life; it never occurs to him that it might be the fact that he kills people for a living. But as audience members, we are inundated with scenes and moments that make it painfully (and comedically) clear what is wrong in Martin’s life.
The first time we see Martin we see him kill another assassin, which saves a man’s life temporarily. While Martin is packing up to leave he sees the man he saved killed by another assassin. Martin justifies it by telling himself he was only hired to kill the first assassin and he isn’t responsible for the second one. But as audience members, it’s hard not to see his job as a fruitless endeavour.
Then we meet someone Martin knows professionally, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd), who is a fellow assassin. They greet each other with one hand and keep the other close to their firearm. They circle each other like predators; we get the impression this may be the closest thing to a friend Martin has these days.
There’s also a lot of little things we see that tell us more about Martin and his life. Almost everything he has that grounds him to his non-assassin identity he loses: His childhood home and his Mother (who has some kind of Alzheimer’s and doesn’t recognize him sometimes) early on in the movie. And he walked away from everything else when he left town ten years ago.
Everything we are shown about Martin seems broken in some way, which invests us on his journey to fix it.
4. The Baby Scene
While Martin is at his reunion he comes across an old friend who has brought their one-year-old (approximately) son with her. She is Martin’s insight into what marriage and family is like. She tells him, “it’s not like what you hear, you don’t lose all your freedom, it just keeps getting better and better.” Then she tells Martin to hold onto her son for a moment and this exchange between Martin and the baby occurs. The scene is shot the same way you might shoot a love scene, but it is instead between Martin and a baby. In that moment we are being told entirely through Cusack’s performance and the camera’s exchange between the two that Martin is accepting the idea of marriage and children — even liking the prospect.
It’s a remarkable and unique scene that is basically the climax of Martin’s change of identity.
5. Defy Expectation
Much in the way that Grosse Pointe Blank is a playful movie, many of the sequences in the film play around with our expectations.
The clearest example is when at the reunion Martin encounters a bully from his past, Bob (Michael Cudlitz). Bob seems intent on instigating Martin to fight him, which we know to be a terrible idea because Martin is a professionally trained assassin. Instead of fighting, however, Martin asks Bob what his real problem is and it’s that Bob wants someone to listen to him. Bob takes out a poem he’s written and reads it to Martin. This flips our expectation of their encounter and delights us.
Similarly, in all romantic comedies (which doesn’t quite fit this film, but the relationship archetype does) there is a point in the relationship where someone in the relationship learns a truth that was being withheld and the couple splits temporarily. Then, the couple is reunited for an apology. However, Grosse Pointe Blank flips the cliched apology scene slightly and has it occur during the climax of the film, as Martin protects Debi’s Father from assassins while explaining his truth and apologizing.
Even the opening sequence with Martin manipulates our expectations. We may know from the trailer or the description of the movie that Martin is an assassin. So when we see him looking out a window at a man with bodyguards with a rifle at his side, we assume Martin is going to kill the guarded man. Instead, we see Martin kill another assassin that was going to kill the guarded man. All the while, Jimmy Cliff’s “I Can See Clearly Now” plays.
All these expectation reversals are in the spirit of the story: unlike most assassins, Martin is likable, has a budding conscience, and we’re about to watch him go on a journey that captures that duality. And we’re going to have fun doing it.