Did curiosity really kill the cat? This is the central question that guides the premise of the noir film “The Bag Man,” written and directed by David Grovic.
“The Bag Man” is inspired by psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz’s novel “The Cat,” a strange Romanian fairy tale that depicts a princess who is bewitched into a cat until a prince decapitates her, which is the only way to break the spell. Grovic extracts the themes of redemption and unlikely pairs from the novel and interweaves them into his film.
At the beginning of the film, crime boss Dragna (Robert De Niro), while sharing a casual conversation over a fancy dinner with reliable hit man Jack (John Cusack), gives him his clear and easy objective: simply pick up a bag and deliver it to him, but do not ever peek at its contents. Only later does Jack find out that this supposedly small task would be so irritating and deadly, wreaking havoc and collecting dead bodies in a shady, dysfunctional motel. Throughout this perilous trek of retrieving and delivering the bag to Dragna, Jack is forced to deal with a creepy and nosy motel clerk Ned (Crispin Glover), an equally meddlesome prostitute Rivka (Rebecca Da Costa), her scumbag pimp and midget sidekick and some perverted cops. This flurry of bizarre and disgusting characters results in a slightly amusing watch, but is not intriguing enough to maintain much attention. The dead bodies pile up, but the scheme of action stays relatively unexciting and repetitive.
The lack of an original and gripping storyline may be justified in that it is Grovic’s first time directing and co-writing a film. However, I appreciated the creativity involved with the music and lighting — the film took on an interestingly dark Tarantino vibe, and the eerie classical soundtrack helped further establish the overall unnerving atmosphere of the run-down motel, where most of the action took place. The lighting (or lack there of) sometimes became bothersome, since I found myself squinting throughout a whole scene just to see what’s happening.
Although “The Bag Man” lacked freshness and a riveting script, the actors managed to make the lines sound less pointless and cheesy. Experienced actor Robert De Niro played an excellent gangster (for reasons that need no explanation) and John Cusack was convincing as the jaded hit man. At times, the writing was too clever for its own good. Jack and Rivka shared an interesting dynamic, given that Jack’s utter nonchalance and introverted character contrasts with Rivka’s directness and naturally inquisitive, talkative nature. On the other hand, sometimes their verbal exchanges failed to be even slightly amusing or clever.
“Well you know what that did to the cat.”
We’ve definitely all heard that before. Strangely enough, that is not the only time the film makes an allusion to cats. Jack and Rivka share a brief conversation on Jack’s love-hate relationship with cats, and at that point, the audience does not know what to think. The quote on the movie poster also reads, “The cat’s in the bag.”
The most disturbing characteristic of this misogynistic film is its awful portrayal and treatment of women. Rivka plays the femme fatale role, killing bad guys with her high heels still on. In a conversation with Jack, she claims that she’s still trying to find her passion, admitting that prostitution is merely a part-time job. From her abusive pimp to the sadistic and repulsive cops who threaten to “take liberties with the woman,” Rivka undergoes a lot of brutal treatment throughout the whole film that is unnecessary to the plot. Not a single woman in this movie is treated with respect; during a particular scene, Dragna punches his own daughter in the face, and then almost immediately hands her a card with a surgeon’s number.
“You can pick whatever nose you want — your old one, Audrey Hepburn, Beyoncé, Barbara Stresemann … whatever the hell you want.”
“The Bag Man” is characterized as a crime thriller, but it doesn’t showcase the crucial excitement and unpredictable twists associated with this genre. The awkward one-liners disseminated throughout the film prevented me from taking it too seriously.