Friday February 25, 2000
When Jason Freeland was a USC film student, he heard James Ellroy on National Public Radio speaking about his hard-boiled L.A. novels and how Hollywood didn't understand his work. Freeland was intrigued, started reading Ellroy and became determined to try to film his first novel, "Brown's Requiem."
That was eight years ago, but Freeland's persistence paid off, and the result is an uncommonly satisfying private-eye mystery that is at once classic in form and deeply personal in feeling.
Written 20 years ago while Ellroy was still working as a golf caddy and trying to get sober, "Brown's Requiem" has fewer major characters than "L.A. Confidential" and none of its period Hollywood glamour. Although complex and not without humor, the novel is unpretentious, and Freeland, in his feature writing and directing debut, has stayed resolutely true to Ellroy in spirit.
The story takes place in the present yet betrays no sense that it has been updated. Whereas "L.A. Confidential" lent itself to the stylization that director Curtis Hanson so effectively brought to it, "Brown's Requiem" benefits from Freeland's understated approach.
Freeland is to be applauded for avoiding the easy cliches of trendy neo-noir: shadowy lighting for its own sake, a cynicism that strikes a callow note, etc. Remarkably for a genre film, "Brown's Requiem" actually seems to draw more from real life than from other movies.
No small part of Freeland's success lies in his on-the-money casting, starting with Michael Rooker as Fritz Brown, a former LAPD cop who "drank away" his career and is making a real effort to stay sober as a repo man and private eye. Ever since Rooker made an indelible impression in the title role of "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," he more often than not has played supporting roles, often as the bad guy, but "Brown's Requiem" gives him the chance to play a sympathetic, attractive lead.
Rooker, who has a striking gravelly voice, is good looking yet not conventionally movie-star handsome. His strong, open face has a lived-in, seen-it-all look and he has a quality of quiet masculinity that allows him to be entirely believable when it comes time for Brown to get tough. At the same time Rooker, who also signed on as one of the film's associate producers, is adept at evoking Brown's isolation and vulnerability.
One day a seedy caddy who calls himself Fat Dog (William Sasso) hires Brown to shadow his 17-year-old sister, Jane (Selma Blair) with the object of ultimately separating her from a Beverly Hills tycoon (Harold Gould) with whom she has been living in a lavish estate.
The tycoon is a decidedly shady type, quite apart from living with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, and Brown is understandably galvanized when, early on, he discovers that the tycoon is in an underworld partnership with the head of LAPD internal affairs (the late Brion James), a ruthless, corrupt cop who was the very man who kicked Brown off the force. Brown savors the possibility of revenge.
In time-honored fashion, Brown plunges himself into what proves to be a wide-ranging web of underworld activity and deceit involving a gallery of lowlife types, the occasional innocent and various unexpected connections. What gives the familiar private-eye odyssey its edge are Brown's character and personality. Brown may have Philip Marlowe's intelligence, code of honor and determination, but his sobriety is a moment-to-moment matter. Plus there is the real possibility that his entire quest may be an exercise in futility, a self-destructive one at that.
Freeland's low-key yet taut approach pays off in allowing the film to build power unobtrusively, with solid storytelling and an array of spot-on performances by a raft of first-rate actors that includes Kevin Corrigan, Brad Dourif, Valerie Perrine and Barry Newman. Seo Mutarevic's camera work gracefully captures life in everyday L.A. without pointless frills, and Cynthia Millar's score strikes an elegiac note, appropriate to the film's downbeat, though not depressing, tone. It has a welcome formality atypical for genre pictures. Best of all, "Brown's Requiem" has a mature resonance unusual for a first film.
Brown's Requiem, 2000. Unrated. An Avalanche Releasing presentation in association with J&T Productions and Savvy Lad Inc. Writer-director Jason Freeland. Based on the novel by James Ellroy. Producers Tim Youd, David Scott Rubin. Executive producers John McDonnell III, Marc Ezralow. Cinematographer Seo Mutarevic. Editor Toby Yates. Music Cynthia Millar. Costumes Mimi Melgeard. Production designer Marc Rizzo. Art director Michael V. Islas. Set decorator Nicholas Ralbovsky. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Michael Rooker as Fritz Burns. Selma Blair as Jane. Valerie Perrine as Marguerita Hansen. Harold Gould as Solly K. William Sasso as Fat Dog.