Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Broken Horses is about two brothers, Buddy (Chris Marquette) and Jakey (Anton Yelchin), and it opens with a note that this story is set 15 years ago. You could go back further – not just to Chopra’s Parinda, of which this is a loose remake, but to 1950s Hollywood, when these brothers might have been played by Burt Lancaster and James Dean, except they wouldn’t have said “fuck” all that much and there wouldn’t have been much blood. There’s a pleasingly old-fashioned quality to the filmmaking. It’s the kind of style that exists, now, not in Hollywood anymore but in Indian masala cinema – note, for instance, the echoes (the bits with the matchsticks; shootings where the victims’ faces are hidden by pieces of paper). You think the reason Western critics are ripping this movie a new one is that they’re not getting it, that they’re too distanced from the kind of cinema where the death of a child is recalled by the dirge-like playing of a nursery rhyme on the soundtrack.
But after a solid prologue, which establishes Buddy’s protectiveness towards the younger Jakey, the film rapidly goes south. There’s nothing terribly wrong about it except the fact – the not insignificant fact – that it’s a melodrama but Chopra doesn’t want to make it look melodramatic. He makes the mistake many modern-day filmmakers do. He tries to “class up” the material. Parinda had comedy, romance, drama – the works. It was, more than anything else, alive. In contrast, a funereal pall hangs over Broken Horses. There isn’t much in the romance between Jakey and Vittoria (Maria Valverde), though I liked the touch that she was Italian – not Victoria, but Vittoria. Heck, even the relationship between the brothers is hardly delineated. One minute, Jakey is swearing he wants nothing to do with Buddy or the life he’s left behind. The next, he’s decided he has to be with Buddy, and therefore wants nothing to do with Vittoria. It’s not a good sign when you stop caring, very early in the film, about who lives, who dies.
And when you don’t care about the characters, the set pieces, however painstakingly mounted, are just empty shells. There’s a beautifully staged scene in which Jakey ends up killing a man in the projection booth of a movie theatre. It’s the kind of textured, atmospheric scene that tells you you’re in the presence of a genuine filmmaker – though one who isn’t as good a writer. The man who’s killed is Jakey’s friend, and this is the tipping point for Jakey. It’s when we know how far he’s come from simply wanting to play violin for the New York Philharmonic. But he could be killing a stranger. The story is mythic, but the characters are pure cardboard. Buddy, especially, is very hard to take after a point. He’s what the films used to call “slow,” and Marquette’s mannered performance may make you wish it was him in that projection booth.
When making films here, Chopra infuses his frames with some lovely surrealism, but out there, he seems afraid to indulge in these fancies. There are a couple of half-hearted stabs at otherworldliness, mostly with a white stallion whose name might have as well been Metaphor. But Chopra is holding back. Vincent D’Onofrio doesn’t make that mistake. He plays Julius Hench, the villain, and he gives a lip-smacking performance treating the scenery as appetiser, entrée and dessert. He looks like late-career Orson Welles and he looms over the brothers – though with these two lightweights, it doesn’t take much looming. Even if we don’t believe a minute of this movie, D’Onofrio gives the impression he believes in his character, that he’s in that movie with Burt Lancaster and James Dean. He seems to have understood what Chopra was after better than Chopra himself.
- Parinda = see here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.