Monday, 2 May 2011

VHS Quest #7. Cohen & Tate (Eric Red, 1988)

The highway is a murderous place in Cohen & Tate (1988)

Cohen & Tate is not just your typical buddy movie. It's a brooding, noir-inflected thriller about the evil men commit in their cars, recalling the Red-scripted horror classic The Hitcher (Harmon, 1986) in its nihilistic vision of the open road as a place of sparse and savage violence. The titular characters of this piece (played by Roy Scheider and Adam Baldwin respectively) are cold-blooded contract killers, and they have been assigned to take Travis Knight (Harley Cross) to Houston, where some men want to "talk to him." Who these men are is left chillingly ambiguous; like death waiting on the other side of the drive from hell...

The opening scene is an incredible set-piece. We open to carefully composed shots of a house, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but protected by FBI agents. The landscape is filled with an eerie silence... as the camera observes the surroundings we know that peace won't be maintained for long. Travis plays ball with his dad and then goes back into the house. Slowly the situation starts to deform as the phone lines are revealed to be dead and one of the agents speedily drives away. Red controls the atmosphere perfectly, slowly blending genre and lending the scenario the feel of a horror movie. The continuity is odd in this scene, as we seem to shift from day to night back to day in the period of an hour, as the weather dulls and then brightens through the violence. Rather than being an accident this is actually an admirably brave artistic choice; Red is manipulating the elements in order to create fear. While many filmmakers would treat the weather as a given Red actually employs it as a cinematic device, and moves it to suit the tone of his piece. Some may find that difficult to accept, but it's part of his genuis. A P.O.V. shot moves its way across the field toward the house... the pace slowly accelerates until a frenzy of shocking violence is unleashed on the family inside. It's a bloody assassination; one executed with neither passion nor remorse. Cohen, with a tired expression of repressed barbarity, phones the killing in with a calmness disturbingly out of place in the scene. Without looking back he walks away from the house, leaving behind him a trail of bloodshed. He's seen this scene a thousand times before, and Red takes for granted that we have as well...

What follows is essentially a 70-minute road movie, unfolding over the course of one dark night. The camera is almost entirely contained within the car, even when action is unfolding outside of it. Shots of the exterior - a pitch black road to nowhere illuminated by headlights and a blue-neon city in the distance - are shot from the interior, and we generally rotate between the two men in shot-reverse-shot; the true testament to Red's talent is that such repetitious shot structure never becomes boring, and we're always engaged in the story. One scene sees Cohen & Tate reach a police roadblock. From inside the car the deadly duo disarm two officers, walk them to the end of the line and disable the car radios, guarded by two other officers. There are brief cutaways to the police perspective (a rookie reaching for a hidden revolver) but these exist simply to build tension, and Red keeps us with our protagonists as much as possible. Travis even escapes at one point, but he is picked up by a patrolling officer on duty, and the action once again becomes vehicular. Red seems to be fascinated by the limitations of a car, or perhaps - as his claustrophobic house arrest horror 100 Feet (2008) would prove - just by limitations. Yet the scope of Cohen & Tate feels huge - it's a film constantly in motion, constantly breaking with convention, and revealing shaded details through dialogue and facial ticks.

The bloody denouement is just the icing on a perfectly formulated cake, but sadly one which went straight to video here in Britain. Such is the fate of many a great movie, and Cohen & Tate certainly fits that description. Blackly comic, packed with suspense and beautifully shot (the DoP, Victor J. Kemper, also shot Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, 1975), it's a thriller begging for reappraisal and a decent DVD release. Men can do a lot of evil in their cars... just ask Eric Red.

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