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Hipster Holy Grail: Route 9 (1998)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

I often hear people refer to certain television shows and movies as the artistic equivalent of junk food.  Normally that comparison falls flat because junk food, despite being primarily comprised of sugar, fat, and salt, typically does have at least some nutritional value.  (Calories still count when you're starving.)  So I submit that Route 9 is the type of movie that should be considered "junk food": it's silly, irrational, mostly superficial, and kind of bland, but it goes down easy and is actually still food a competent movie.

This is a good one to watch when you're recovering on a Sunday morning or when you need a movie on while you do your taxes.  (Believe it or not, that's meant to be a compliment.)

My Rating: 3.5 / 5

The Part Where I Summarize the Plot

Booth Parker (Kyle MacLachlan) and Earl Whitney (Wade Williams) are two deputies working in a small town Sheriff's Department.  They have small-scale demons to battle: Booth is a failed inventor who dreams of a more glamorous life and Earl has a collection of tiny, but oppressive debts.  But outside of these mundane problems, life is generally simple and boring.

This changes one day when they come across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong.  Seven dead bodies lay in a barn along with a pile of drugs and a suitcase filled with cash.  Booth prepares to call in their discovery when Earl has a better idea: why not take the money and pretend like it was never there?

Booth has misgivings, but he eventually agrees on the grounds that they will play it safe and cover their tracks thoroughly.  They hide the money and torch all other evidence, then call their headquarters for backup.  Unfortunately, that's where things go wrong: one of the bodies isn't as dead as they thought.

Earl snaps and smothers the survivor (Silas Weir Mitchell in an early role) with his jacket, thus setting off a chain of disastrous events that will threaten to send them both to jail.  After initially getting away with the cover-up, Booth and Earl discover - to their horror - that the survivor was actually an undercover cop.  An FBI Agent (Roma Maffia) comes to town to investigate his death.

They are briefly helped out by Jesse (Miguel Sandoval), the town's medical examiner, who helps to cover up implicating evidence for a cut of the money.  But the crime gradually mushrooms to affect almost everyone else in town, including Booth's girlfriend, Sally (Amy Locane) and her husband, Sheriff Hogan (Peter Coyote).

As things spiral out of control, Booth and Earl's friendship - and trust - are tested.  And they might actually get away with their crimes, too, if they can stop being such damn idiots.

The Part Where I Complain / Love the Nonsense

Because Route 9 is a junk food movie, it's chock full of scenes and moments that straddle the border between silly and outright stupid.  I actually kind of enjoyed these bits most of all, but there are some elements that are just plain awful.  Naturally, it makes sense to talk about both at the same time and give a mixed message about whether or not I actually liked the movie.

First there's the music.  The score is not bad - it's just not appropriate.  When the movie needs something subtle and chilling, the music is laid-back and folksy.  There's a lowkey charm to it, like you're watching the misadventures of two buddies on a desert ranch who take turns playing harmless pranks on each other.  To put it another way, the movie needed the score from Winter's Bone and ended up getting the score from Tremors.  The end effect is that scenes always seem to be a little bit campier than I think they're supposed to be.

There's also a few scenes where the editing and pacing are at odds with the tone of the scene.  Moments that should be a little more contemplative are rushed, and moments that already hit the right level of tension are dragged out until they no longer seem to matter.

One of the best examples is a scene that starts out incredibly tense and then becomes downright comical: the scene at the morgue.  The setup is that the undercover cop had a tape recorder on him that recorded everything Booth and Earl said.  Jesse has just finished his medical examination and asked everybody, including the FBI Agent and Sheriff Hogan, to come to the morgue for a debrief.  As everybody rushes to the scene, Booth and Earl sweat it out as to how they should react once the tape reveals their plot.

They are stunned by terror and panic when the scene begins.  It's actually pretty well done at first - realistically, Booth and Earl are scared shitless and really have no idea how to handle it.  Then the FBI agent asks Jesse for the tape...

...and he proceeds to bumble around like an idiot, having forgotten where he put the tape.  I could maybe see the director thinking that this would draw out the tension and sustain that note of terror for as long as possible - but instead it plays out like an episode of Dr. Dork: The Worst Coroner in Town.  "Dr. Dork, did you misplace evidence again?" "Oops!  My bad!"  [Applause]

The acting is mostly pretty good.  The movie is filled to the brim with character actors who all put in a decent day's work and turn in workmanlike performances: solid albeit predictable.  But these performances are dotted with brief moments of histrionics that seem to come out of nowhere.  A perfect example: Earl and Booth go to Jesse's house, planning to torture him.  The scene opens with some subdued banter, and then immediately ratchets up to 11 as Earl twirls his villain 'stache while Jesse does his best impression of Timothy Carey's execution scene in Paths of Glory.  Then, once the deed is done, Earl and Booth both go back to acting like they can't decide if they want pizza or tacos for dinner.

It's like the cast was taking medication to control their ADHD, but every third day of filming they all skipped a dose and the editor put together the most incongruous combinations of the results.  See also the scene where Booth is sitting down and watching Sally put on lingerie and flashed a big, childish grin as if he's about to eat a giant piece of cake.  See also the scene where Booth struggles with Hogan and Sally is caught in the crossfire, which leads to the most deadpan reading of the line, "Oh, no," that I've ever heard.

While we're talking about Sally, I want to take a brief aside to mention a specific character thread that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.  Sally is the resident Girlfriend character and as such should be a moral compass for Booth.

You know the drill, right?  The main character wants to get a bunch of money to help Girlfriend, so he goes to Girlfriend and talks about how he'll do anything for her.  But then Girlfriend says, "It's okay... I don't care about the money.  I care about you!"  There's supposed to be some dramatic irony and tragedy because the main character hasn't learned his lesson.  A lot of times, the movie ends with him deciding to surrender the money because he realizes that Girlfriend is worth more than money.  And they go off into the sunset together.  Or, if you go with Option B, the movie ends with the main character ironically setting up Girlfriend to die because he's so blinded by his pursuit of money.  But in either case, the Girlfriend has to have that speech, right?  "Just forget about the money and come home to me!"

Well, you'd think that would be the case in Route 9 since so much of the rest of it is by the book.  But here's where the movie decides to throw a weird little curveball.  Sally actually does care about money.  A little bit.  Not like a million dollars or anything crazy.  Just a few hundred grand, you know?  Maybe enough to, say, buy a house somewhere nice and hire a bodyguard to protect her from her abusive husband.

The upshot, of course, is that Sally isn't a moral compass at all.  Any conflict Booth has about his actions comes solely from his own conscience.  In fact, when Booth actually does reveal the truth about his scheme to Sally, her reaction is a tepid, "Well.  That's not great, but at least you have some money.  So... you wanna skip town, or what?"

This is actually a perfect time to segue into one of the movie's more bizarre aspects, which is its take on morality.

The Part Where I Contemplate Human Morality

One of the movie's greatest flaws (or strengths, depending on how you plan to watch it) is the complete lack of nuance to any character's motivation or sense of ethics.  It's not that the characters are one-dimensional, necessarily; it's more that the movie seems to define character depth as "they spend at least ten seconds looking off to the distance and wondering if they're doing the right thing."

When I first started watching it, I thought Earl's initial decision to kill the undercover cop (which takes all of fifteen seconds to make) was too impulsive.  My exact note was: Earl goes from misguided optimism to cold-blooded murderer really quickly; would prefer more setup for him to be amoral.

And then the movie continued.  Wow.

This is a movie where people decide to commit crimes on a whim with only the faintest hint of a reward.  Jesse, Hogan, Booth... everybody reacts so damn quickly.  Things escalate at a sprint.  The plot goes from a crime of convenience to a conspiracy in the span of twenty minutes and at no point does anybody actually seem to put any legitimate thought into what they're doing.

I shouldn't complain too much.  It's always fun to see things get out of hand.  (Some would argue that's the whole point of a movie. You know, tension and conflict and all that.)  I think maybe the reason I have a hard time believing that the characters exist on such a thin razor's edge of good/evil is because of the paltry sum of money they're killing over.

The drug dealers brought $1.5 million to the table.  Even allowing for the fact that they're talking about Clinton dollars, that's still not much - just about $2.2 million in today's money.  In a best case scenario, with the money being divided evenly between only Booth and Earl, that's only a million apiece.  When you consider that the money comes with the additional hook of having to completely change your life, quit your job, move out of town, and sever ties with anybody who could link you to your crime, it's not really that much.

Now, a million would still be worth it if there was a better conflict set up in the background.  Let's say Earl was on the hook for a $400,000 gambling debt, or Booth owes a bunch of money in back taxes due to problems with his accountant or something like that.  You don't even need to be too elaborate or grandiose.  There's a whole subplot about how Booth is a failed inventor - why not have a twenty second conversation where he says something like, "I have this one amazing invention, but it'll cost $50,000 in start-up money to get it going.  Sigh...."

I can buy that people will commit to something horrible and underhanded if they're already at a low point, but nobody really seems all that low.  The problems we see are kind of mundane and easily fixed with just a little more spirit.  Earl owes some money, but his debts are on a peanut scale: $500 here and $200 there.  The simple fix is to bring your lunch to work for a few months while you pay that off.  Booth actually has a more serious and noble goal: he wants to take Sally away from her abusive husband and move to somewhere better.  But you know what?  People move all the goddamn time!  There's also this magical new thing called "divorce" that would fix that problem right up.

So what the movie ends up presenting us is not a group of stressed-out, downtrodden characters struggling to make it and then being given an unexpected opportunity, but rather a bunch of sociopaths who are just waiting for an excuse to capitalize.

Which is totally fine, actually.  I'm fascinated by grim movies filled with terrible people.  I'd just like to believe they're real before I can take it seriously.

Where You Can Watch

You can watch Route 9 on Netflix Streaming right now.