Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead

(Gary Fleder, USA, 1995)


Young American directors, it seems, no longer turn their eager aspirations to the classic film genres, like gangster movies, musicals or romances. They all seem obsessed with a single, new-fangled genre: the American independent film. And this genre is strictly predicated on whatever happens to be the latest batch of box-office or critical success stories.

What does the model American independent film of the mid '90s need? It must exaggerate the manners of daggy characters in a depressed milieu, as in Fargo (1996). It must boast a sizable complement of sadistic violence mixed with game humour and accompanied by a few nutty pop classics: the Tarantino touch. It must jazz up the narrative with dream sequences and quizzical narrators, like The Usual Suspects (1995) or Living in Oblivion (1995). And it must feature Steve Buscemi.

Gary Fleder's Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead is a by-the-numbers exercise, stranded in some queasy limbo between true independence and market-driven calculation. Down to the smallest casting decision (such as Christopher Walken, mad and sinister in a wheelchair) the film desperately tries to exude a cosily familiar hipness. (At least, eight years later, it inspired a catchy tune by John Cale.)

Jimmy (Andy Garcia) is a man lured from his day job back into temporary criminality. A master plan goes wrong – of course – for Jimmy and his tawdry team, and soon they are all being hunted down like dogs by a superhuman hit-man (Buscemi). Our melancholic, doomed hero would skip town if only he had not fallen in love with Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar) – echoes here of an infinitely superior movie, Michael Mann's Heat (1995).

Watching Things to Do in Denver is not an altogether unpleasurable experience. Many lines, scenes, moments and gestures possess style and assurance. But it is an empty film, all effect and no resonance. And it sure takes a long time to die in Denver, judging by the excruciatingly protracted narrative crawl employed by Fleder and writer Scott Rosenberg.

MORE Fleder: Don't Say a Word, Kiss the Girls

© Adrian Martin August 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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