With its comic-book-paneled interstitials and sniggering asides about how foul rape victims smell, Wayne Kramer’s Pawn Shop Chronicles proves that as much as people might try to replicate Pulp Fiction, few understand what made Tarantino’s indie triumph such a lasting work of art that filmmakers are still using it as a role model nearly 20 years after its debut.
Kramer’s movie tells three often violent, loosely interlocking tales that all intersect at a pawn shop run by Alton (Vincent D’Onofrio), a good old boy who spends most of the day bantering with a friend (Chi McBride) who hangs out there. The first story stars Paul Walker and Kevin Rankin as a pair of tweaked-out meth heads who plan a doomed robbery of their drug dealer. The second features Matt Dillon as a man looking for his wife, who mysteriously disappeared from his life eight years ago, and the third stars Brendan Fraser as a fifth-rate Elvis impersonator who sells his soul for a shot at the music biz.
As with Kramer’s earlier movie Running Scared, the visuals throughout Pawn Shop Chronicles are absurdly, aggressively over-the-top. When the action is about to turn particularly violent, Kramer opens up his aspect ratio, giving him a wider image in which he can frame the mayhem. His exaggerated visual scheme fits the first story -- with its Cheech and Chong meets Breaking Bad vibe -- quite well. Additionally, screenwriter Adam Minarovich serves up his only Tarantino-worthy riff in this story when the two main characters figure out that they don’t really hate Jews or black people, but are still going to attend meetings with the local white-supremacist group.
However, this section’s inevitably nihilistic climax sets us up for the uber-violence of the middle portion, in which Dillon’s avenging husband performs gruesome acts before making an even more revolting discovery. The cartoonish violence from here on out serves no purpose other than to shock, and while there are those who will enjoy the button-pushing content, Kramer is trying to milk laughs out of images and actions that aren’t remotely funny. The cynicism wears thin because he fails to make us feel anything, good or bad, about the husband’s personal mission; the character is as two-dimensional as everyone else. As for the finale, Fraser isn’t among the screen’s all-time-great Elvis impersonators, though that’s probably the point. At the same time, the story itself is a biblical way to bring home how much contempt Kramer has for his characters.
This is a film that sneers at the idea that human beings are in any way worthwhile, and while such visually baroque misanthropy may tickle those too cool for the room, the whole thing is a giant step down for an artist who once made something as fascinating as The Cooler and then followed it up with Running Scared -- a movie that didn’t back away from graphic acts of inhumanity, but still had a beating moral heart at its center. leave a comment --Perry Seibert