Written by: Oliver Stone (screenplay), Marc Brandell (novel)
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Starring: Michael Caine, Andrea Marcovicci and Annie McEnroe
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ď I'm kind of old-fashioned. I like to make it in bed, okay?"
When the definitive book is written on Oliver Stone, his legacy will be inexorably chained to his ambitious films that serve as snapshots of pivotal figures and moments in history. So many of his films are either directly concerned with towering monoliths like J.F.K., Jim Morrison, Nixon or those smaller individuals caught in the shadows of Vietnam, El Salvador, or even Wall Street. Many of his films thrive on a sense of momentousness that make his characters ciphers for something bigger surrounding them; however, before fully committing himself to this, he actually made two films diametrically opposed to this approach in Seizure and The Hand. Both are intimate films centered around two artistsí psychotic breakdowns, a subject that might have appealed to a director attempting to find his voice and success.
By the time The Hand went into production, Stone had won an Academy Award for Midnight Express, a fact that probably brought a lot of gravitas for what is essentially the stuff of pulp: comic book artist Jon Lansdale (Michael Caine) is the creator of the enormously popular Mandro character and has a stable home life with his wife (Andrea Marcovicci) and daughter (Mara Hobel). Cracks begin to form, however, when Anne grows bored of being shuttered up in Vermont and wants to strike out for New York City, where she can hang out with some New Age yuppies or whatnot. At any rate, Jon and Anne discuss all of this during a car trip but are interrupted when an accident results in the loss of Jonís drawing hand, which sends him on a direct path towards self-destruction. Giving him a hand along the way is hisÖer, severed hand that now has a mind of his own and even follows him across the country when he moves to California to take a teaching gig.
Clearly out the Orlac and Beast With Five Fingers mode, The Hand is just as silly as the fictional comics drawn up by its protagonist, but Stone mostly plays it as a straighter-than-straight schizoid thriller that examines psychological breakdowns more so than the visceral fallout. Stoneís hard-boiled cynicism pumps through the film, as thereís a palatable sense of frustration and even a little bit of contempt in this Shining-lite tale that sees a fairly affable guy slowly lose his shit, both literally and figuratively. Its central concept posits an interesting disconnect between the psychological and the physical, as Jonís impulsive thoughts are carried out independently by his severed appendage. For some reason, the film seemingly attempts to blur the lines and cast doubt by having Jon conveniently blackout whenever his hand strangles the life out of someone, but thereís little doubt that this is reality (the hand even gets its own POV shots!).
Only this isnít really a movie about a guy unconsciously commanding his hand to kill people--itís more of a character study than that, as Stone just sort of hovers around Jonís life--his dead-end, teaching gig, his affair with a student (Annie McEnroe), and his general self-loathing over his inability to continue his work. Caine is tremendous as the frazzled artist, his austere demeanor smoldering into a disheveled, dead-eyed husk. Not bad work considering Caine took the job so he could pay for his garage (a few years later, heíd have bigger goals--an entire beach house served as compensation for the shame of starring in Jaws: The Revenge). One wouldnít really call Caineís performance subtle, especially when he finally throws himself into hysterics, but itís a turn that allows the film to tread water. Stone surrounds him by an ensemble that can hold their own, but, like many Stone films, The Hand is full of characters with a listless ennui towards morality, a bunch of liars and cheats that pretty much deserve everything thatís coming to them (save for the little daughter that even Jon himself doesnít seem to really care about considering he tries to murder his wife).
The Hand is also carefully crafted by Stone, who attempts to elevate the material, going so far as to employ schizo black and white flourishes to reflect Jonís mental state (I guess). A few sequences stand out, such as the climactic scene where Jon finally goes off the deep end--itís like his small scale Jack Torrance moment that finds him maniacally prowling about his own house. This and other sequences (like a radically weird dream where Jon imagines his shower fixtures to be his mechanical hand) prove that Stone was technically adept enough at the time, but he never quite injects the film with much of a pulse; that trademark boisterous intensity that would come to define his later work is largely absent here, as The Hand feels a little auto-piloted. Itís the work of an artist thatís good at his craft but hadn't yet found a way to bring it to life.
Ironically enough, thereís a scene in The Hand where Jon chews out the artist that takes over his comic for turning Mandro into a bit of a drag and not quite getting the character. I think itís fair to say the same is true of Stone and the film heís made here--itís silly material thatís got most of the life sucked out of it. Stone didnít direct again for five years, but itís safe to say he recovered considering the one-two punch of Salvador and Platoon that knocked everyoneís nuts off in 1986. As such, The Hand doesnít even end up feeling like a prelude--it feels like something almost completely removed from the directorís canon save for a few aspects. It remained slightly obscure during the digital age, as it wasnít released onto DVD until 2007 when it showed up as part of Warner Brothersís Twisted Terror collection (which is looking more and more like one of the last great horror grab-bags on DVD). The disc has a fine presentation--the transfer is restored, the soundtrack a healthy-sounding stereo-surround track. Stone even graced the disc with an audio commentary, and itís cool to see he hasnít disowned the film even though itís not one of his best. Obviously, The Hand is a curiosity piece--itís always neat to see where great directors got started, and, as it turns out, Stoneís beginnings were kind of humble. Rent it!
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