David Grovic’s The Bag Man (previously entitled Motel), in theaters Friday, is a low-rent-but-nonetheless-wicked little noir film that just barely stays ahead of turgid. This is a film that clearly took a lot of visual clues from David Lynch, and while its story does have a few distracting asides (I could have done wholly without the extended attempted group rape of the only female in the cast), the central mystery is still intriguing (it’s rare that I can’t guess what’s going to happen at the end), and it concludes nicely and leaves the viewer having experienced a satisfying-enough waltz through some pretty dank material.
John Cusack is once again playing an efficient killing machine who has been hired by the Robert Evans-looking Robert De Niro to pick up a mysterious satchel and deliver it to a rundown motel in the middle of nowhere in Louisiana. The only rule: under no circumstances is anyone to look at what’s inside the bag. I would never reveal what’s in it, but I will say that, unlike in Pulp Fiction, you do eventually get to see what everyone’s going after.
Oh, and there are plenty of people are after the bag. This rundown, out-of-the-way motel just happens to be playing host to an entire rogues gallery of bizarre Lynchian characters. There’s the leggy Israeli prostitute dressed a lot like Wonder Woman (Rebecca De Costa). There’s the angry dwarf bully named Guano (Martin Klebba). There’s the gangsta with the bejeweled eyepatch named Lizard (Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones). There’s the ultra-creepy motel owner (Crispin Glover, clearly evoking Anthony Perkins). And there is a team of corrupt local law officers lead by Dominic Purcell. Each one is variously trying to get their hands on this mysterious suitcase at some point, knowing only that it must be valuable.
The plot does meander, and much of the film smells mildly of padding – for many sections, The Bag Man feels like a short that was expanded to 100 minutes – but Cusack does his best to keep it all together. Here, he’s in manic criminal mode, playing a man who is frustrated that the people around him won’t believe his lies to cover up his illegal actions. Why won’t you just believe that my unseen ex-wife stabbed me in the hand, rather than being shot? The film, although on a shoestring, looks pretty good, presenting us with smoky, dumpy rooms, shockingly red lipstick, and dark fairy tale woods encroaching just nearby. But there is that attempted rape scene that will make just about everyone uncomfortable; I know that evil women and mild misogyny are a regular tropes of film noir going back decades, but do we have to constantly dot the genre with hookers whose main plot function is to be threatened with rape?
Just when you think the melodrama has become too much, and the film will end on a predictable and perfunctory note, Robert De Niro shows up to save the movie. De Niro plays his role flippantly, but seems committed. He is the only character with some form of energy that skews away from manic, and that he is on screen for the film’s final 20 minutes enlivens the proceedings just enough to keep you smirking. Although De Niro’s more recent films have been spotty at best (Grudge Match was sad for everyone) he still has the oomph to pick up an entire movie. It may be odd that he’s giving his all in such a low-profile release, but that only proves he’s a professional.
I’ve seen a lot of low-budget crime movies in my day, and while The Bag Man does not necessarily transcend the genre, it at least has just enough artistic ambition to be interesting.