A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 436 – Duel

Duel – May 10th, 2011

Oh, how I wish we had not watched this tonight. I really wish we hadn’t. I had a vague suspicion that this was a bad choice for an evening movie to be watched not long before going to bed but Andy assured me that it would be fine. I remembered reading about the movie and how it’s a thriller that manages to make a truck into a horrifying villain, so, you know, I was nervous. But Andy said no, it wasn’t scary. It was cheesy. And when I asked “Will I have driving nightmares?” he said no, I wouldn’t. Alas, I think he might have been wrong, but only time will tell.

Part of the fundamental problem here is that I process tension much differently than Andy does. It’s very easy for me to get stuck pondering a problem, trying to find a solution or a way out of it and when I deal with a stressful situation I turn it over and over in my head in much the same way. So when I’m presented with a tense situation in whatever I’m reading or watching I find it difficult not to do the same thing. It will worm its way into my head and permeate my subconscious. I’ve found it happens even with seemingly innocuous things that I had assumed were minor annoyances. Later on they turn out to be things I will never stop prodding at. So, I’m rather susceptible to thrillers. It’s why I tend not to watch them.

The plot of this movie is almost painfully simple. Meek and non-confrontational David Mann has to drive somewhere for work. He gets in his car and gets on the highway and soon encounters a huge tractor trailer. It’s in front of him and it’s belching out clouds of black exhaust and it’s rusty and huge and has the word ‘flammable’ printed in a number of places on its back and sides. So after a few attempts, he passes it and goes on his merry way. Until the truck shows up again and passes him. And thus begins an hour and a half of the two vehicles duking it out on the road. Mann gets more and more frantic as the truck gets more and more aggressive. He stops in various side-of-the-road places and tries to get help. The truck idles outside a bar he stops at and waits for him. It turns back to show up when he stops to help a broken down school bus. And through the first third or so of the movie it’s just kind of menacing and vaguely threatening. It speeds up, passes him, won’t let him pass, swerves, follows him. It’s only as the movie goes on that it gets outright dangerous.

I admit, I was doing mostly fine with this movie until a particular scene. Mann stops at a railroad crossing while a freight train passes by, and of course the truck shows up behind him. But this time it doesn’t just menace. It starts actively pushing him towards the speeding train going past. It’s a horrible sort of situation, with no good exit. It’s the sort of trapped helplessness that digs at me and that was when I realized that I had been right from the start. This was indeed a thriller and I should not have put it in before bedtime. There are a couple of other moments, like when the truck speeds in out of nowhere and chases Mann while he’s on foot, smashing through cases full of snakes at a roadside attraction and gas station. Hideous not just because of a man on foot being pursued by a bizarrely agile tractor trailer, but because oh, the snakes! And if a movie can make me feel horrible about snakes dying then well, there’s something going on. There’s another scene where an elderly couple almost gets smashed when Mann tries to enlist their help and a couple of others where it’s quite clear just how malicious the driver of the truck is. It starts out with the truck actually playing nice when around anyone other than Mann, but that soon devolves into outright aggression towards anyone unlucky enough to encounter Mann while the truck is in pursuit. And there’s no real reasoning to it. It’s just because the man driving the truck was an asshole who felt like doing it (no, really, that’s what Spielberg gave the driver as his motivation). And normally I roll my eyes at the villainy for villainy’s sake, but for something like this? It works.

Part of what makes it work is that the villain isn’t really human. You never see the truck’s driver. You see his arm once or twice, but his face is never shown. He’s incidental to the movie’s portrayal of the villain because the villain is the truck. It’s huge and beat up and not taken care of and it’s utterly inhuman. It’s almost as if this truck has no purpose other than to show up and terrorize random drivers. It’s not there to deliver anything or carry anything. It’s there to scare you and eventually kill you. It’s the serial killer with a mask on and it is implacable.

So yes, the tension worked for me. Too well in places. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie didn’t work nearly so well. Perhaps it’s that we were watching the longer theatrical cut of the movie and not the made for television version, but the pacing is kind of off at times. There are long stretches of road where nothing happens and all we get is Mann’s internal dialogue, at best. Or a lot of shots of him looking in his mirrors for the truck. It’s a whole lot of boring road and driving punctuated by a few tense scenes or action scenes. I really felt like the tension lessened a lot the more Mann drove, which was a pity. And part of that is the whole concept of the movie. It’s got a single lead character: Mann. No one else even comes remotely close, so he has to carry the whole movie. To give him some personality we get two things: His horrible internal dialogue that I wanted to turn off and a phone call to his wife.

The phone call to Mann’s wife serves a sole purpose: To demonstrate that Mann is the sort of guy who won’t even confront someone for groping his wife. That’s it right there. This is a guy who avoids confrontation at all costs. So it’s that much more of a build up until he snaps at the end. And I didn’t enjoy knowing that about him, but I appreciated why it was there. On the other hand, the internal dialogue is just annoying. It’s meant to show his rapidly unraveling thought process and to keep the movie from being utterly voiceless for vast swaths of time. What it ended up doing for me was making me tune out.

Overall, I can see why this movie has the reputation it has as a strange but fascinating thriller that manages to turn an inanimate object into a horrifying villain and spin out what is essentially a chase scene for an hour and a half. I got the tension and the thriller aspects and I might well have nightmares about trains and trucks. But I also got bored by it much of the time. It wasn’t balanced well enough for my taste. And the ending felt somewhat anticlimactic, to be honest. It’s a good example of an unfired Chekhov’s gun. Because if you’re going to have a huge and menacing truck with ‘FLAMMABLE’ written all over it, I expect an explosion. Perhaps Spielberg should have gotten a young Michael Bay to help him with that.

May 10, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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