Cohen and Tate
The career of writer/director Eric Red fascinates for a number of reasons. But mostly because he melds the mystical and vague with utter incompetence.
Red got his big break with his screenplay for The Hitcher, a combination of ridiculous 1980’s action, mysterious psychopath slasher film, open road spareness, and narrative incoherence mistaken for open-endedness, all glued together with (apparently unintentionally, according to the European 2 disc set of the film) some of the ripest examples of homoeroticism ever to grace the mainstream. Red continued with his obsessions with small towns and uncovering Midwestern monsters with his script for Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, which led to his directing debut, Cohen and Tate.
Considering what has happened with Red in the interim, and I’m not talking about his lousy werewolf movie Bad Moon (how does one make a completely boring film with Michael Paré in it?), Cohen and Tate adds another level of unsettling by dealing with car chases and crashes. In 2000, Red crashed into a Los Angeles bar, killing two, before attempting to slit his own throat. He was successfully sued for wrongful death, when it was determined that he did it on purpose. It might have been just a coincidence, but virtually every one of Red’s films has had a car crash or two, or uses cars as a deliberate weapon. Much like with convicted pedophile Victor Salva (Powder, Jeepers Creepers), Red’s actions add a layer of creepy intrigue to films that would normally have nothing interesting in them at all.
Cohen and Tate is nothing more than a smashing together of scenes and genres that don’t really go together. And what Red seems to think is unnerving isn’t what holds the movie together, but the implications and tangents are. The movie opens with a tantalizing and idyllic Days of Heaven-style sequence, a quiet, desolate farmhouse guarded by police with a family under witness protection inside. This sequence is made up of Red’s best moments, especially because of the subsequent attack and kidnap story, since it takes place in broad daylight, suggesting an inherent lack of safety no matter where you look. What’s unfortunate is that Red follows that scene with about an hour of hitman banter and child-in-peril clichés and contrivances.
Roy Scheider plays the hard-of-hearing elder statesman hitman, Cohen, used to working alone for the mob, now burdened by a loose-cannon and idiotic partner, Tate — played by Adam Baldwin like a hammy hayseed, portraying his best idea of what a depressingly stupid redneck would be like to sit in a car with for many hours. (There’s almost no question that Billy Bob Thornton took a piece of Baldwin’s performance for Sling Blade). The two bicker with each other, Baldwin is trigger happy, wanting to kill their bounty, a precocious child who can’t act (he actually puts his fist in his mouth to show fear while screaming), and Scheider, doing things by-the-book, and continuously reminding Baldwin that the entire purpose of their venture was to deliver the kid to their bosses. If they were police and not hitmen, these scenes, which take up most of the film, would fall under the “veteran-on-his-way-out, annoyed-by-his-eager-rookie-partner” banner, so familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a cop movie, or TV show, or been alive for more than a few weeks.
Red probably would have been better making a short film with just the opening and perhaps the last ten minutes, because we certainly learn nothing interesting about the characters in between. The pattern is: (1) Baldwin threatens kid with a gun, (2) Scheider tells him to pipe down, (3) kid tries to get on the good side of Scheider, (4) cops are spotted, (5) kid escapes (in the least believable way), and (6) Baldwin and Scheider find him and put him back in the car. This happens three times, and there’s never any original variation on it. It’s unclear why Scheider and Baldwin don’t just gag the kid and tie him up in the back and then just drive back to their boss. But if they did that, there’d be no movie. The only possible explanation is Red’s attempt at humanizing Scheider by having him be cordial and honest with the kid.
“Are they going to kill me?”
Other than moments such as those, the brief pleasures of Cohen and Tate come from the kid pronouncing the name of one of his captors as “Mr. Cone,” and the refreshing ending (which, like the opening, takes place in daylight) which cuts away just as the obvious and maudlin resolution points would normally set in. The boredom in the middle act will just get your mind wandering, not to the fact that Cohen and Tate had virtually no distribution (the movie gives you plenty of reasons to understand that), but to the bizarre scenes where Baldwin’s profanity is overdubbed with cleaner versions, even though he curses aplenty throughout the film, audible in some of the same scenes where he is dubbed. This isn’t a ratings concession; Cohen and Tate is quite violent, but not so much that it risked an X rating at the time. Regardless, Red’s haphazard writing and directing help the movie in a few spots, his lack of understanding of female characters means he just eliminates them in Cohen and Tate, and any urge that a producer might have to want to rein him in by taking him out of the car crash/chase genre to remove the unintentional allusions to his real life, by perhaps having him adapt a Jane Austen novel, would be thrown out as soon as the moneyman realized that Red doesn’t have anything to offer other than transparently sharing his suicidal proclivities.