Saturday, 28 January 2017

Movie Review: The Last Detail (1973)

A slice-of-life drama about fleeting friendships and the oppressive responsibilities of military life in a civilian context, The Last Detail is an unforgettable low-key road trip.

At the U.S. Naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, Signalman Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Gunner's Mate Richard "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young) are given a new assignment: escort 18 year old prisoner Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) by train and bus to Portsmouth Naval Prison. Meadows has been convicted of attempting to steal $40 from a charity jar, and sentenced to a ridiculous seven years because he targeted the favourite charity of the naval base commander's wife.

Badass and Mule hatch a plan to make the most of the trip to break the dull monotony of life on the base. They plot to deliver Meadows to Portsmouth as quickly as possible and then spend a week living it up. But Badass starts to feel sorry for the goofy, oversized kleptomaniac Meadows, and decides to give the kid a good time to make up for what he will lose while serving his sentence. Badass and Mule prolong their stay in New York and then Boston, and introduce Meadows to alcohol and women, while helping him build up his assertiveness.

Directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne, The Last Detail is an understated piece of quintessential 1970s film making. The story of a prison escort detail triggering a road trip cannot be any simpler. The layered theme of psychological confinement holding back all three men emerges slowly, and finally takes over the film with unusual potency.

Stylistically Ashby bathes the film in harsh tones, browns, yellows and whites dominating many of the scenes to represent the unmistakably bleak outlook for all three me. From nondescript cheap motel rooms to characterless diners, the film crawls along an uninspired America surviving through one day just to get to the next similarly joyless day.

And traversing this terrain is one man in handcuffs and two men just as confined in their careers. Meadows cannot help his kleptomania and will be paying the price behind bars for a long time. Badass and Mule are prisoners of their own making. Lifers in the Navy, now stuck inside a military machine but on land and away from any war, their prospects are more grim than anything Meadows faces: at least he gets variety in locale and a release to look forward to. They get nothing except more of the same.

The road trip is a brief escape for all three men, Meadows getting his first introduction to drinking, chanting with hippies, whoring and generally being purposelessly loose. Badass and Mule enjoy the freedom of breaking some rules away from the eyes of authority and doing good by being bad. The three men form a bond of friendship anchored by sailing outside the lines.

Jack Nicholson dominates the film as the anti-authoritarian man reluctantly resigned to a life under the thumb of authority, but seeking every opportunity to bend the rules. Otis Young allows Mule to be a counterbalance, a sailor more invested in the daily regulations of his career but gradually allowing his resistance to crumble. Randy Quaid delivers one of his finest career performances as the clueless Meadows, a man-sized boy with his fate already in the hands of others. Carol Kane, Nancy Allen and Gilda Radner appear in small early career supporting roles.

The Last Detail momentarily challenges all the small details in the inconsequential lives of three men, but the vast emptiness of soul confinement is an overpowering, if quiet, force.

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