Twenty-Four: Sin, Work Ethic, and Contextual Mediocrity

Hello- I am writing this on March 21, Gary Oldman’s birthday! So. Happy GO Day unto you.

(also, yay about all those well-deserved Mank nominations)

In the realm of contemporary mainstream Hollywood, Daniel Day-Lewis is widely considered the best living actor. Gary Oldman often ranks close behind, and the two are frequently compared as they are both Brits who rose to prominence at the same time. Along with Colin Firth, Tim Roth, and a handful of other rising English thespians of the late 80s, Day-Lewis and Oldman were included in what the media dubbed “the Brit Pack.” Though Day-Lewis and Oldman seemed to quickly pull ahead of the rest, it’s hard to compete with the former’s fantastic performances in a nearly flawless record of leading roles in prestigious films. If you take a look at the actor’s Rotten Tomatoes profile, you may observe that all but two of his movies are considered “fresh” (critically and commercially praised), and even those two “rotten” titles are artsy, serious fare with their share of fans. No such luck for Oldman, whose collection of great performances is arguably as strong (moreso, in my opinion, but you knew that) and yet his critical profile is a smattering of “fresh” amidst a whole load of rotten (and more often than not, he serves in a supporting role, not as a lead).

This is because Oldman likes to work. Sometimes, it’s because he needed to work. Here’s the interesting bit: both Oldman and Day-Lewis grew up within two miles of each other in South-East London, but with a very distinct separation– Daniel came from an aristocratic Kensington family (his father was Poet Laureat), Oldman hails from New Cross (his father was a welder and a drunk) and poverty. “He was definitely from another side of the tracks,” Oldman once said of Day-Lewis, when an interviewer mentioned their geographical connection.

(But they do kiss sometimes)

Ok, but why are we talking about this? Are we throwing shade on Daniel Day for being a posh boy? No, no, DDL deserves the praise for his talent (I’m a huge fan of Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher, AND Mr. Woodcock), and I think it’s undeniable that when he deigns to select a project he works very hard indeed, but that’s just it! People who need to work to survive don’t have the luxury of being selective, can’t wait years between projects, aren’t going to eff off to Italy to noodle around with cobbling. Nor do they consider themselves privileged enough to be maddeningly method in their projects to an absurd degree. As the saying goes, it’s nice work if you can get it. What we talk about when we talk about Daniel Day is class and money privilege, which leads to artistic privilege.

In terms of career, working class Oldman has far more in common with prolific workaholic actor Michael Caine, who has cranked out performances in 130+ movies in his 60 years of acting (which means about 2 movies every year, and the man’s 87), and who has said “First of all, I choose the great roles, and if none of these come, I choose the mediocre ones, and if they don’t come, I choose the ones that pay the rent.” Famously, when Caine was asked why he appeared in career-low Jaws 5, he said: “I have never seen it, by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house it built, and it is terrific.”

Michael just loooves jawing about his house

Oldman’s not poor now. Unless he’s miserable with money (a possibility), surely he has enough stability to be somewhat selective– but it doesn’t seem like he knows that, and I suspect that has to do with a hard-lined work ethic that he must have picked up early on. In an interview in Luxury London, Gary said: “Working is good for you. It gives you a sense of value and it’s important to get out there and do something. I say to my kids, ‘You have to work. And you have to provide for your family.’” And that’s what Oldman and many folks who came up poor do. But sometimes the work doesn’t love you back.

Oldman’s career-low came in 2003, which saw the release of Tip Toes, an indie movie gone horribly awry which we’ll get to some other day when I can force myself to watch it again, and, the stunning, outrageously terrible straight-to-video B-movie Sin. Oldman said he made this atrocious dud because he needed to pay for his messy third divorce and provide for his two children (whom he received sole custody of). When asked about the film a few years later, he said: “Oh God, that’s possibly the worst movie ever made. I even felt sorry for the trees they cut down for the script paper… If you’re a connoisseur of the terrible, you might get a twisted joy out of it.”

I would also posit that if you want an absolute master class in what a great acting looks like in a piece of garbage, you might also get a kick out of Sin, because here Oldman gives 110% and -somehow- turns in one of his best performances in one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Because… work ethic.

Note: This post is part of an ongoing project, the goal of which is to watch and contemplate every movie in which actor Gary Oldman has appeared (there are many, the man likes to work). Posts tend to contain reviews but are not excluded to that sort of framework– much like Gary’s career, I’m wildly unpredictable!

As with all MYWG entries, the following will probably contain spoilers!

  • Sin‘s ranking on the Oldometer: 1/10
  • Gary Oldman character quality: Gary plays the eeeeevil gangster/porn producer Charlie. He’s seedy as hell, and he has a secret axe to grind with the hero. Charlie is the nastiest villain in Oldman’s repertoire, or he would be if he had been written with any care. What Oldman DOES with this ridiculous, gross role, though, is uber impressive, as I shall demonstrate.
  • Does Gary Die in this one? Hahahahahahaha oh boy does he

It’s a sintilating time.

Sin is about tough guy Eddie Burns (Ving Rhames), an ex cop who… for some reason lives in seclusion, haunted by his past, and wears a hat and trenchcoat all the time. His sister Kassie (Kerry Washington– yes, Kerry Washington!) is forced into being a junkie then abducted by porn producer Charlie Strom (Gary). Charlie plays mind games with Kassie for awhile, then arranges for her to be raped on camera by a bunch of creeps (poor Daniel Dae Kim, just pre-Lost is one of them). Kassie winds up in the hospital, and Charlie sends the videotape to Eddie. Eddie swears revenge, naturally!

It’s an unpleasant but not necessarily terrible set-up, and it’s been done before in exploitation movies. At its best, there is a seedy 70’s vibe to Sin, but it’s not self aware enough for that– bewilderingly, it would certainly like to be taken seriously. Perhaps it could have been, on some level, had it actually been a rape revenge movie, with Kerry Washington reviving and burning Charlie Strom and his shady business to the ground, but no! Sin is a revenge tale, but the rape and Washington’s character take a backseat to the weird revenge cop-gangster revenge story the movie is really after.

Because it is likely that you, dear reader, have not even heard of this movie, I feel it is important that I explain it to you, at least somewhat.

When you expected Tarantino but you got undercooked tortellini

So here are some things that happen:

We find out in flashback that Eddie shoved his cop friend out of the way of a falling car engine once when the pair had cornered a bank robber/cop killer in an autoshop. The engine landed on Eddie, so apparently he was injured somehow, but… he seems fine now.

Eddie kills Daniel Dae Kim (or doe he get… LOST hehehehe no JK he definitely gets killed)

Female avant garde filmmaker turned porn director (a semi-interesting character) is witness to some of Kassie’s suffering and Eddie saves her from being murdered, but she refuses to tell Eddie the name of her boss or his company. So Eddie dunks her in a lake a bunch of times. She almost drowns, but she tells Eddie he’s better than those bad guys and they become friends for some reason.

Brian Cox shows up slumming it as the chief of police! At one point he says the only thing he’s interested in clearing is his desk and I thought that was funny.

Brian Cox on set, probaby.

Eddie’s cop friend is blackmailed by Charlie who has evidence that the friend had sex with an underage teen once. We are meant to feel bad for him I guess? Ew. Anyway, Charlie makes the cop call Eddie with information and tells him to be at a gas station out of town late at night. So Eddie does that.

Here Eddie meets Charlie, who is disguised as a mechanic so that he can have a chat with the unsuspecting Eddie– for some reason. It’s a nonsensical scene but the best in the movie, in which Gary-as-Charlie sheds the evil persona for a minute and acts as a regular guy just kicking it with Eddie and talking about regrets. As Eddie looks at the night sky and waxes poetic about how one realizes that one has become “the guy you are, not the guy you want to be” Charlie studies Eddie, undoubtedly thinking about his own bad guy trajectory. It is meant to be the calm before the storm (or strom, perhaps) and it’s absurdly contrived, but Oldman is so active in the quiet that it strangely works. (it is also the only scene that I know of available on youtube)

If you gaze for long offscreen, the offscreen stares into you

Then a messenger arrives and tells Eddie to go to a second location! We all know second locations are bad news, but Eddie goes anyways.

The second location is a church. This is when all hell breaks loose, so to speak. Eddie announces to the building’s interior “I’m here to dance with Charlie Strom!” Then a bunch of henchmen pop up and– again, for some reason– perform a Spartacus tribute: like 10 of them declare “I am Charlie Strom!” “No, I am Charlie Strom!” They brawl– with Eddie that is, not each other– that would be hilarious though– they subdue Eddie, and then the ever-so-dramatic Charlie appears and announces under dramatic lighting that ~HE~ IS CHARLIE STROM.

He then nails Eddie’s hand to the pulpit, plays him the director’s cut of the rape tape, says he’s here for revenge on Eddie, and sets the church on fire.

But will he tell Eddie why? Oh, he’ll tell him. “IN HELL” he says, as he leaves the church like an idiot Bond villain who couldn’t be bothered to make sure his target actually dies. It’s so stupid. So stupid. But does Gary Oldman’s big ole performance make it kind of badass? Yes, and I cannot explain it.

So Eddie drags the pulpit to his fallen gun, SHOOTS HIS ENTIRE HAND OFF (with one bullet, skill), dips his stub in holy water (that’ll fix it), and blasts his way out of the church only to accidentally shoot his cop friend! Oh no! Oh well, bye pedophile.

Strom of the century

Eddie finds Charlie having a cathartic breakdown in his porno lair and attacks him in a plush-floored room with mirror-walls, the place where Kassie was raped. They fight for awhile until Charlie confesses: all those years ago it was Charlie who robbed a bank, killed a cop, and then ran to his brother Marco’s car shop (sidenote: Marco had some kind of intellectual disability and didn’t know what was going on). He hid in the rafters while Eddie and his cop buddy found Marco, took him for Charlie, and beat him up. Charlie dropped the engine on Eddie and escaped.

Oh ho! All this time he has been scheming to get back at Eddie because Marco was arrested for Charlie’s crimes and killed himself in his jail cell.

Yes– Charlie the robber spent years becoming a porn producer, befriended and groomed Kassie, gradually got her hooked on drugs, violated her on camera, blackmailed Eddie’s cop friend, lured Eddie out of hiding (still not sure why he was in hiding?), disguised himself as a mechanic to chat with him about nothing, played a game of Spartacus with him, and set fire to a church all without intending to reveal that his motivation was to punish Eddie for… something that Charlie did? There’s something about self-delusion and guilt in here somewhere, surely.

Oh, nope, because once this all comes out, Eddie is like “yeah I helped your brother hang himself lol”???

SO anyway, surprise, porno director lady has been kickin it behind the mirror all along (how? we don’t know) and she has captured Charlie’s confession on tape! But he throws a knife at her back (yep) and steals the tape. We never see her again, so bye porno lady!

OK IT’S ALMOST OVER NOW–

Charlie flees and Eddie and his stump (remember, he shot his own hand off not an hour ago) goes after him. They commence in the most boring car chase you have ever seen as they leave the city and literally drive all night into the desert. They sure drive all over that desert!

Finally, Charlie crashes… into… into… quicksand. The quicksand eats his car.

The quicksand starts to eat Charlie too. Eddie half-heartedly tries to help him, but nah. Charlie says something about hell again and how only death is certain, and he tosses Eddie the tape and tells him to exonerate his brother.

Eddie… Eddie then tells Charlie… to quote John Donne’s Holy Sonnet X/Death Be Not Proud with him. I am not making this up.

So just to be clear… Gary Oldman is up to his face in quicksand, quoting a John Donne sonnet.

Like Garys through an hourglass, so are the days of our lives. The not-great days, anyway.

When he’s done, Eddie shoots Charlie just before he gets sucked under. So he doesn’t have to die a sandy death.

In the end, the cops DGAF about the tape so Eddie mails it to the DA. Then there’s a shot of some water.

I know, it’s somethin’ else.

But Gary Oldman is remarkable in this movie.

The point of my silly little project here isn’t to just heap praise on Oldman, and it’s not like he hasn’t turned in some slight or disjointed performances, but the level of Sin and Charlie Strom’s ridiculousness is only matched by how hard Oldman works onscreen to make this character happen. He’s dismissed sometimes for “going big” but isn’t Daniel Day-Lewis doing the same thing in Gangs of New York or There Will Be Blood? Big performances by expert actors are a joy to watch. Here Oldman schmoozes, connives, panics, melts down, cries real tears, and explodes. It’s great.

But what’s even more absurd is that he spends the other half of his time injecting nuance- subtlety, even- into his screentime. For example, before Charlie commits himself to violating Kassie he pauses to watch her and glances at the camera he’s about to use to document the rape and actually hesitates, creating a fleeting moment of moral indecision before he crosses the line. When Charlie blackmails the cop dude, he breaks from his threats to listen to the pedo (poorly) defend himself, alternating between smugness and disgust. In the aforementioned scene when a disguised Charlie observes Eddie’s metaphorical-verbal gaze into the abyss, he doesn’t just watch Eddie, he absorbs the hero’s thoughts as if they mattered and even applied to him.

Gary, be not proud. Well, maybe a little bit.

Sin might be fun to B-movie aficionados, but it sure doesn’t deserve a performance this good, and I think the great thing is that Oldman knew that, but he did it anyway, and he wasn’t even trying to be subversive about it. He sells, without irony, death in quicksand whilst quoting John Donne. Have you seen Day-Lewis do THAT? Oldman needed a paycheck, so he “sold out” and made a piece of trash that Daniel Day-Lewis wouldn’t be caught dead looking at, but at no point in this trash does Oldman sell out on his performance, and that is an enviable work ethic.

David Foster Wallace (don’t scoff at me) said this thing that I love: “Mediocrity is contextual.” I think about that all the time, and it came to mind while I watched Oldman-as-Charlie go to his quicksand grave. It’s the worst, but also… kind of the greatest. In terms of privilege, that’s frustrating. Undoubtedly, there are a slew of high caliber performers (and in the real world, hard workers and creatives of all stripes) who will never get a shot at high caliber work, and I don’t mean to downplay that aspect. It’s a bummer. The “tracks” that seperate parts of South-East London, for example, are hard to cross. But I still like the idea that, be it a Bill the Butcher gig or a Charlie Strom situation, there’s opportunity to give our best work, and, in our own context, that matters.

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