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René in Film: A Review

Los Locos


review by Marguerite Krause

I've heard and read a wide variety of reactions to the movie Los Locos, some flattering, some scathing, some indifferent. I chose to ignore the critics, see the film, and judge for myself - and I'm glad I did. It's not a perfect movie; but neither is it as "awful" as some complaints suggested. This review offers a few observations and reactions that may give you some food for thought if you've already seen the movie, or encourage you to see it at least once (or even give it a second viewing). Then again, I may reinforce your decision to stay as far away from it as you can. Read on, and see what you think.

I've recommended Los Locos to many friends, for several reasons. Foremost is the riveting performance by RenÚ Auberjonois - his character is fascinating, portrayed with rich detail, depth, and development. Another reason to see the movie is for its underlying message that all people, whether or not they fit society's definition of "normal," are human souls with rights and dreams, deserving of compassion and respect. Finally, if you appreciate gritty realism, Los Locos has much to offer. Set in the post-Civil War West, the movie doesn't shy away from the harsh demands of its era, locale, or story. One small, but suggestive, example: most of the characters are unwashed, unkempt, and have rotten teeth.

The harshly realistic elements also provide, for certain viewers, some of the strongest reasons to dislike Los Locos. If you object to any of the following, you probably won't enjoy this movie: explicit conversation about bodily functions and sex; full female nudity and partial (back view) male nudity; many scenes of violence, graphic and implied, including gun battles that result in blood, pain, terror, and death; an immoral nun as one of the major villains; and vivid examples of the appalling treatment often inflicted on people with mental illness.

Los Locos was written by Mario Van Peebles, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, and filmed in 1997. It was shown on cable TV in January 1998, and became available as a video rental on May 26, 1998. If you haven't seen it yet but intend to, and want to be surprised as the story unfolds, you may want to skip past the synopsis to the "Further Comments" section farther down the page.

If you haven't seen Los Locos and don't plan to do so, but want to know the details of the story (or if you saw it a while ago and need your memory refreshed), just read on.


Synopsis:

A scout for the U.S. cavalry, Chance (Mario Van Peebles), is tarred, feathered, manacled, and left in the desert to die as punishment for being too drunk to lead an Army contingent to its destination. Chance is discovered by Buck (Paul Lazar), an inmate from an insane asylum housed in a Catholic mission, and is taken into the mission to recuperate.

The Mother Superior who has devoted her life to caring for the unfortunate residents of the mission is dying. She assures Chance that he will be nursed to health and his convict's chains removed: in return, she asks him to guide some of the inmates to a new home in a nearby mission.

After the Mother Superior dies, Sister Drexel takes charge of the mission. She informs Chance that she considers him a criminal and will not remove his chains. The Sister also believes that her charges, los locos ("the crazies"), have been inflicted with their various mental illnesses as punishment for their sins, and she doesn't hesitate to add to the punishment, or enforce discipline, with physical force, meted out by two impatient guards. She informs Chance that he will guide the group safely to its new home, or die.

At their first night's camp, Chance gets acquainted with some of his fellow travelers. Buck, the man who discovered him in the desert, refuses to wear clothes but speaks like a highly educated man; he calls Chance "Icarus" after the Greek legend of a man who glued feathers to his arms in order to fly. Buck offers Chance some "weed" to smoke to help him relax; Chance declines. Baby Brother has the emotions and understanding of a small child; he's fond of small animals. Spackman puts anything and everything into his mouth. To control this habit, he wears a portable pillory: a board is strapped behind his head, and his hands are tied to either end so that he can't pick up things and put them in his mouth. The pillory doesn't work: Spackman gets down on his knees to eat dirt, cacti, animal droppings, or whatever else he can find. Allison works as the Sister's nursing assistant, and at first doesn't speak; Chance gets her to smile, then laugh, and finally talk with him.

Presidente (RenÚ Auberjonois) is a nervous, withdrawn figure who barely interacts with his fellow inmates. He seems focused entirely on his small, brass telescope, and on counting anything and everything he sees. However, Chance engages his attention when he asks the group if any of them have ever been with a woman; most of them look totally blank, but Presidente says, "I don't remember."

When the camp settles down to sleep, Chance is kept awake by Presidente's ceaseless humming of "My Darling Clementine." Trying to shut him up, Chance grabs Presidente's telescope, which only makes things worse; Presidente becomes agitated because, without the telescope, he will "lose count." At first Chance doesn't believe that Presidente could be counting anything in the dark, but he discovers that Presidente was watching the guards at the other campfire play poker - and keeping track of the cards in each hand.

Chance bets the guards that he and Presidente can beat them at cards; the loser of each hand has to smoke some of Buck's weed. Chance and Presidente win; the guards pass out, allowing Chance to steal the key, unlock their shackles, and escape, with Presidente, to the nearby town. There Chance, through Presidente's card skills, gets the revenge he's been seeking by cleaning out an old rival (who had stolen Chance's girlfriend as well as his money). Presidente's reward for his hard work is an evening with a lovely prostitute; in the morning he doesn't want to leave town, because he "danced the dance of life" with the woman seven times, and he feels he should stay. Chance promises they'll come back soon.

With the help of a local cavalry commander, Sister Drexel recaptures Chance and Presidente. She decrees that since Chance took responsibility for Presidente by removing him from her care, he must also accept the responsibility of enforcing discipline by giving Presidente ten lashes with the guards' whip, or receive twenty lashes in his place. Chance refuses. Sister Drexel orders Buck to carry out the sentence. Buck refuses; eventually, so does everyone else, including the guards.

Before this rebellion against Sister Drexel's authority can go any further, the group is approached by several armed men, looking for a young woman: Allison. It turns out that her brother sold her as a sex slave to Batista, a bandit from south of the border. Batista violently mistreated her, and in retaliation she "cut" him (gelded, at least), then went into hiding at the mission. Batista wants her back, to take his revenge. With Allison's help, Chance and the guards win the gun battle that follows; most of the mission inmates are so out of touch with reality that they don't even know how to duck when the gunfire starts, but Presidente is absolutely terrified and hits the dirt, trying to cover his head. At the end of the fight Drexel, both guards, several of los locos, and all of their attackers are dead.

Chance and the survivors bury the dead and divide up their belongings, including clothes, guns, and horses. Chance tells the others to go the mission; all they have to do is follow the road they're on. Chance sets off in the other direction. However, he rides only a few hundred yards before he hears a shot and hurries back; Baby Brother has killed one of the other inmates, who threatened to take away the rabbit that Baby was keeping as a pet. Chance realizes that these people can't take care of themselves, and decides he'd better guide them the rest of the way to the new mission.

When they reach the mission, they discover it has been destroyed by Batista's men in their search for Allison. Chance and his homeless friends move on, looking for help. Unfortunately, all they find is a deserted town; its residents have heard that Batista and his followers are ransacking the countryside in search of Allison, and have gone to hide in the hills.

Chance tries to organize his "forces," but it's an uphill battle. He sets some people as sentries, and asks Presidente to inventory the town's supplies so that they can stock their wagon and, like the townspeople, go lose themselves in the wilderness for a while. Meanwhile, Allison has decided that she wants to have a baby, and that Chance, being the only sane person in their company, is the appropriate father. While Chance is distracted with Allison, a pair of mountain men arrive in the town and convince Presidente to sell them the horses and mules, effectively stranding the group; now they're sitting ducks for Batista's inevitable arrival.

Chance gives a set of handguns to Presidente for safekeeping - he doesn't trust anyone else in the group not to start shooting aimlessly, but Presidente is so terrified of guns (he acts like the holsters that Chance straps around his waist are poisonous snakes) that Chance is confident he won't even touch them. Chance takes the rest of their armory up to the roof of a building, where he hopes the group can hide until Batista and his men pass through the deserted town. Despite Chance's attempts to organize things, when Batista and his men enter town Presidente and Baby Brother are still down on street level. The bandits almost ride through without suspecting anything, but Baby's rabbit is in the street, and Baby runs out to protect it. One of the bandits starts to draw to shoot Baby... and without warning, from behind the wagon where he's been cowering, Presidente outdraws the bandit and guns him down. A gun fight follows, but Batista's men are surrounded, with Presidente on one side and Chance shooting from above, so they temporarily retreat.

Circumstances have returned at least part of Presidente's memory; he admits to Chance that he was once a killer, then collapses in anguish over this self-knowledge. Chance gets him to pull himself together; they're not out of danger yet, and the group needs him.

Chance goads Batista into attacking again during daylight, since if they wait until dark Chance's group doesn't stand a chance. Lots of deadly cat-and-mouse stalking follows; sometimes a bandit shoots one of los locos, and sometimes Chance or Presidente gets in a clean shot at a bandit. As Presidente moves through a barn a figure darts out and he fires - fatally wounding Baby Brother. Presidente is wounded from behind by a bandit, but he spins around in time to gun down the bandit. Chance succeeds in killing Batista's brother.

However, it soon looks like the bandits are going to win; both sides have taken heavy loses, but the bandits started out with more people, so they have the advantage. Batista drags Buck, Spackman, and Presidente, all wounded, their arms bound, into the middle of the street, and dumps them there, along with his spare bandoliers. He also captures Allison, but he isn't satisfied: he wants Chance, too. Shots continue to fly. Presidente calls out to Chance, "Two left!" Chance remembers Presidente's obsession with counting, and guesses - correctly - that Batista has only two bullets left. Once those have been fired, Chance comes toward him. Batista bends down to reload... and discovers that Spackman has eaten all of his extra bullets. Chance kills Batista.

The good guys have won.


Further Comments:

I've already mentioned some of the things that made this movie worth viewing, for me. For instance, I was moved by the way Chance interacted with los locos. Simply put, he treated them just as he would any person he met. He learned to recognize and cope with their limitations, but he never treated them as if they were their limitations. To Chance, his companions were people first, and people with "mental illness" second. The contrast between Chance's behavior, and the indifference, condescension, and cruelty of other supposedly "normal" people in the movie, was striking.

Most outstanding, though, is RenÚ's work as the ever-changing "Presidente." He's astounding! The character is at one time or another funny (the card game with the guards), touching (his desire to stay with the woman with whom he "danced the dance of life"), heart-wrenching (the scene when he remembers he was once a gunslinger left me breathless), and, in the end, selflessly courageous (his shout of "Two left!" in the face of Batista's certain retaliation). Furthermore, he's in almost every scene in the movie!

I've also mentioned some of the aspects of the movie that offend some viewers - the sex, the violence - but its worse failing, for me, was the story's poor structure.

To make this clear, consider an example of a story that works: the Disney animated movie, Beauty and the Beast. An effective story needs several elements: an interesting plot, and heroes with problems who grow and change in order to reach their goals. In Beauty and the Beast, all of the story's elements work perfectly together. The Prince - the first major character - has a problem: he was cruel and selfish, and therefore was turned into a Beast. To lift the curse he must learn to love and be loved before a specified time is up. Making the story even richer, it includes a second major character, Belle, with her own clear problem, growth, and goal, which quickly interweave with the first character's story. Belle's problem is that she doesn't fit in her society and has no interest in abiding by its standards. She would rather read books than make babies with the handsome ignoramus, Gaston. Her goal is clearly stated in song:

"I want adventure in the great wide somewhere
"I want it more than I can tell
"And for once it might be grand, to have someone understand;
"I want so much more than they have planned..."

Beauty and the Beast is an elegantly structured story. Each piece of the plot, each moment of character development and growth, logically follows the one that came before until, at the end, the Prince and Belle have overcome all their problems and achieved all their goals. The audience is left satisfied and happy.

In contrast, when we try to discover a similar neat structure for Los Locos, we're doomed - and ultimately, therefore, dissatisfied.

One way to establish structure is through a clear story. Los Locos does have one: the story about Allison. Allison is sold to Batista. Batista abuses her. Allison escapes temporarily, has adventures, has a second confrontation with Batista and, with the help of her ally Chance, emerges victorious.

The problem with this structure, of course, is that Allison is not the main character of the movie. Also, other than deciding to trust Chance, she shows no significant growth or change as a character.

Another way to define structure is to start with the main character. Chance is introduced as a man with several problems; he's a convict, the Army wants him dead, and he drinks too much. He's had a falling out with his gambler friend, and lost his girlfriend. As the movie progresses he acquires other problems; first he just needs to get away from Sister Drexel's cruelty, and then he accepts responsibility for caring for los locos, which in turn leads him into conflict with Batista, who's trying to capture Allison.

The trouble with this structure is that Chance has too many problems. Furthermore, not all of them are clearly set up at the beginning of the movie, or successfully resolved by the end. I've read that Los Locos is a sequel to a previous Van Peebles movie, The Posse. If so, some of Chance's backstory might have appeared in the first movie. However, unless you're doing a strongly linked series of movies - like the Star Wars trilogy - you can't count on the viewer knowing information from a previous film. In movies linked only by common characters - like the Lethal Weapon films - each story should be able to stand alone. As for the lack of satisfying resolutions, the most striking example for me was the question of where Chance and the survivors - Presidente, Buck, Spackman, and Allison - were going to go next. At the end of the movie the townspeople made it clear that none of them were welcome to stay there; it was also clear that, with the possible exception of Presidente, none of los locos were any more capable of taking care of themselves in "the real world" at the end of the story than they were when they left the mission at the beginning. Although the movie resolved one plot thread - Batista and all his followers were dead, so Allison was safe - another important thread, Chance's acceptance of responsibility for los locos, was left dangling. Also, Chance shows no real growth or development. He doesn't seem to learn anything new in the course of the story - he just reacts to events around him.

To add to this problem, although Chance showed no character development - no emotional or intellectual growth from point A to point B - another character in the movie did: Presidente. Like Allison, Presidente had his own story; unlike Allision, whose story was based on action (hide, be chased, then defeat the bad guy), Presidente's story was based on character growth.

As with the Beast's need to learn love, or Belle's yearning for a more meaningful life, a compelling character-growth story engages the viewer on a deep emotional level. Presidente begins as a gentle, timid amnesiac; opens up and establishes a level of trust with Chance; gains confidence in his ability to "make money" and be useful; and eventually overcomes his terror to reclaim his skills as a gun fighter and thereby help his friends. The trouble with Presidente's story is that we never do learn the beginning of it - or the end. What was he doing living at the mission in the first place? Did something in his life as a gunslinger drive him into that madness? Is he now "cured," his memory intact along with his grief over the deaths he's caused? Or, with the crisis over, will he return to the safe haven of his insanity, and lose himself in the mindless bliss of counting things? We never find out - Presidente's story is incomplete.

There's nothing wrong with a movie that shows growth and development in secondary characters. Strong supporting characters can enrich the main story and deepen our interest in the central character. In Los Locos, however, a secondary character ended up undergoing intriguing evolution, while the main character "went" nowhere. The result for the viewer is a vague sense that the movie is not quite "balanced" - one more level of dissatisfaction, and one more example of how the story is flawed.

There is one way to explain - perhaps even justify - the lack of satisfying narrative structure in Los Locos, which brings us back to another of the movie's weaknesses, or strengths, depending on your viewpoint: its gritty "realism." As much as we enjoy tight, clear structure in a story, we don't often find it in real life. Perhaps Los Locos is best viewed as a "slice of life" movie, with all of the confusion and complexity inherent in that genre. Chance ends up at the mission through sheer luck (good or bad); he escapes from Sister Drexel using Presidente's counting obsession simply because that's the first, best trick that comes to hand; he becomes Batista's enemy because of his purely accidental association with Allison; and when the movie ends we're still somewhere in the middle of the life stories of the characters, just as we were when the movie began. However, for most people, this kind of story isn't dramatically satisfying. We face enough chaos and questions in our daily lives; therefore, we want order and certainty in our recreation. That's why our games have rules and our vacations have itineraries - and why, to be considered "successful," a story usually needs a clear, uncluttered beginning, middle, and end.

Los Locos raises questions, and explores many of them in fascinating, emotionally powerful ways - but it doesn't provide all the answers. An artistic reflection of reality, or flawed writing? The final judgement belongs to you.

Marguerite Krause is a professional editor and a musician, and a frequent contributor to the RenÚ Auberjonois Internet Link Message Board.

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