The Player (1992) dir. Robert Altman
Starring: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Vincent D’Onofrio, Fred Ward, Peter Gallagher, Cynthia Stevenson
By Alan Bacchus
The Player was a turning point in the career of Robert Altman, a dramatic shift from relative obscurity in the '80s to a renaissance of great pictures in the '90s and '00s comparable to the late career work of Clint Eastwood. It’s no slag on him though, as the cinema of Robert Altman had no real place in the decade of shitdom that was the '80s.
But Altman was never out of work. In fact, under the radar he produced a number of acclaimed and intriguing works, including Tanner ’88, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Secret Honor. But in 1992 it was the old Altman back in the form of his greatest picture, Nashville, made 17 years prior. In The Player he made a multi-layered, multi-character, complex story featuring comedy and tragedy in the vein of modern Hollywood movie-making.
One of the consistencies of Hollywood over the years has been its ability to self-analyze, critique and satirize itself. From Hollywood Cavalcade to A Star is Born to Sunset Boulevard and to The Bad and the Beautiful, Hollywood could always take its own pulse more accurately than anyone else. The Player is as sharp, biting and scathing as all of the above films - mixing some sharply tuned noirish tension with a wicked sense of deadpan comedy.
Tim Robbins plays a studio executive, Griffin Mill, who’s one step away from the chopping block to be replaced by his rival, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher). He’s also being threatened by a disgruntled writer in a series of nasty postcards. When he discovers whom he thinks is the writer, he confronts him then accidentally kills him in a heated argument. While covering up the murder he finds himself in the company of the widow, June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi), with whom he slowly engages in a relationship, which then becomes a heated affair. But with the cops creeping up on him Griffin also has to negotiate his way out of the predicament with his job, evade the cops and reconcile a former relationship with his story editor.
The celebrating opening clears off most of the complicated backstory in one remarkable unedited shot, a shot which also references Orson Welles’ grandiose opening in Touch of Evil. It’s one of a series of clever details and Hollywood references that are layered all over this film. Anyone even remotely familiar with how development works will chuckle at the script pitches that continually get thrown at Griffin, even at his worst moments.
Tim Robbins’ scattered and aloof performance as Griffin is arguably the best of his career. And the roll call of quality cameos and bit players is still astounding. Vincent D’Onofrio’s violent confrontation with Griffin in the parking lot is incredibly tense – some of the best work he’s ever done. Watch out for Whoopi Goldberg’s hilarious performance as the very direct, though affable, police detective. And even her partner, Lyle Lovett, who curiously skulks around the scenes, is a scene stealer. Great character actors such as Brion James, Fred Ward and Dean Stockwell provide unsung and unflashy supporting performances, not to mention Greta Scacchi’s very steamy bit as the alluring yet approachable June Gudmundsdottir. And who could forget Richard E. Grant’s fantastic pitch for 'Habeous Corpus', which would tie the film back on itself so cleverly at the end – an ironic twist, which has been reused and copied by numerous other films.
Altman’s distinct filmmaking style is front and centre, displaying an auteur sensibility that links up marvellously with all his other work. His ability to navigate multiple storylines and characters, especially in the same space and same room, is a thing to behold in this picture. His now legendary techniques of overlapping sound contribute to a truly stereoscopic soundscape of dialogue, music and ambient noise.
It’s one of the treasures of the '90s, and it gets better and better over the years.
The Player is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.