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Death of a Salesman...
on 20 August 2005
Thomas Hobbes once wrote that our lives are "nasty, brutish and short." Such a pessimistic reading of the human condition is fully borne out by Director Niels Mueller's film.
By the time the film reaches its bloody climax, you'll be hard pressed to purse your lips to whistle "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." This is a relentless look at hope destroyed by delusion and the fallacy of the American Dream.
Penn plays Sam Bicke, a man who does not sit easy in his own skin. A salesman who does not like telling lies, when his boss suggests that Richard M Nixon is the "worlds greatest Salesman" because he won the Presidency twice on the false premises of pulling out of Vietnam, Bicke is quick to begin transferring his personal issues onto the President. Slowly, this builds to the films' terrible denouement.
As we are introduced to Bicke, we shortly learn that his marriage is all but over. His new job as a salesman in an office furniture store gives him a new surge of optimism. Filled with this new hope he tentatively attempts reconciliation with his estranged wife (Naomi Watts). He's also inspired to push hard at his idea for his own business, believing this will really be the key to his personal salvation. Caught up in his enthusiasm is his best friend (played by Don Cheadle), in turns bemused, exasperated and concerned by his friends sullen rages at 'the system.'
But then, one failure sparks another. Bicke's failure to reach his wife leads to divorce, and the resulting embittered angry state leads to an outburst that gets him fired. Increasingly desperate, he pins all his hopes and self worth on his business proposition, leading him to a catastrophic gamble in 'borrowing' a large amount of stock from his brother's business that he hopes to pay back before anyone notices. But of course it doesn't turn out that way. His business proposition turned down, Bicke hits bottom and then tries to claw further down.
There are scenes of unbearable pathos in this film: Bicke's fumbled attempts at reconciliation with his wife, proudly displaying his new 'salesman' business card as if it will make everything alright; Bicke pitching hard for his 'mobile tyre shop' business; Bicke attempting to sell a member of the Black Panthers his idea for 'the Zebras' ("..black and white... you'll double your membership..."). Penn's playing of the character is excellent, a gripping portrayal of a man drowning on dry land. Excellent support is provided by Naomi Watts, admirably conveying compassion fatigue for her beleaguered ex, and Cheadle as his friend, supportive but irritated by Bicke's tendency to project his issues onto the wider political landscape.
Mueller's attempt to describe the often-fraught relationship between individual and state, whilst wrestling with very complex psychological and emotional issues, is brave and admirable. That the film becomes hard work, and not an experience you're likely to repeat, lies with the lack of any compassion for the audience. There's no catharsis, no redeeming final notes to send us away feeling that there may be candles in the darkness. There's defeat, delusion, a tragic fall and ultimately...a violent defeat and delusion. Similar attempts to show characters ripped apart by the American Dream have given some redemption, some glimpse of something that may ultimately transform the destructive patterns embedded in our collective psyche. In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman achieves, finally, self-awareness. It kills him, true, but at least it's there, as is the love of his family. In Mueller's film, any saving elements are too fleetingly glimpsed to register. The result saddens and numbs, and feels incomplete.
However, this remains a relevant, brave and intelligent film. See it if you're feeling thick-skinned.