Tony Scott’s last three films - Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable - comprise a loose, perhaps unintended trilogy. Scott’s intrepid filmmaking – which reveals the truth of his characters, even as they struggle to understand themselves – is perfect for the task of exploring psychology and emotion in the era of terrorism, disaster and paranoia. Because of his absolute refusal to console his audience, his abrasive, innovative style that initially suggests a lack of focus or maturity ultimately fosters an honest discussion about the trauma of the last decade.
Screens have long since been a staple in Tony Scott’s work, both thematically and aesthetically. Indeed, it is an endlessly versatile motif, mediating and compounding anything else Scott approaches. By filtering the themes of the trilogy – disaster, fear, terrorism, love (both romantic and friendly), social responsibility and patriotism – through the lens of his own livelihood and passion, he converts filmic space into a cavernous eternity. In all three films the most substantial drama and communication occurs by way of screens. In fact, with the exception of Frank (Denzel Washington) and Will (Chris Pine) in Unstoppable, the central relationships of the trilogy unfold between people who don’t meet face to face until well into the film.
Déjà Vu probes the full possibility and profundity of Scott’s method. The story hinges on a machine – a microcosm of Scott’s filmography that looks remarkably like the inside of an editing room – called “Snow White” that bends time in on itself. “Snow White” consists of screens of all sizes, some of which hang freely in the air, superimposing images over the characters – or, past over the present. Scott’s rearrangement of time and place parallels his kinetic, seemingly incoherent style. In this way, he conjoins style and substance just as Déjà Vu’s engineers conjoin past and present.
Denzel Washington’s characters – Doug Carlin in Déjà Vu, Walter Garber in Pelham and Frank Barnes in Unstoppable – are roughly identical, although they follow a trend of dismantling masculinity myths started in the masterful Man on Fire. This is most clear in Pelham, which finds each macho archetype – smart, tough, industrious, honest – disintegrating in the face of catastrophe. As Garber and Ryder (portrayed by John Travolta) negotiate they expose their failures. These failures are rooted in beliefs about manhood that are expressed throughout the majority of Scott’s work. This maturation is reflected in Garber’s confession, which expresses an idea almost entirely absent in Scott’s pre-millennial filmography, that good men can make mistakes. At once, Garber traverses all of Scott’s earlier archetypes, ultimately becoming a man.
While the first two installments are efforts to come to grips with tragedies – Katrina and September 11th – the third offers a solution. The catastrophes of Déjà Vu and Pelham were the results of criminal negligence and sheer malice, but the nightmare of Unstoppable is purely accidental. It is logical then that Unstoppable also represents a retreat from the urban to the rural. Additionally, throughout the course of these three works there is a gradual realization that the desire for answers will probably go unfulfilled. Even in Pelham, when Ryder’s motives are understood, they are so banal and uninspired that they attack the momentum of the narrative. What begins in Déjà Vu with an elaborate technological apparatus meant to break the laws of nature ends with a simple conversation between two average Americans of different races and generations in Unstoppable. Scott insists that the pursuit of truth necessarily evolves into the acceptance of hope. The first two can be best described as post-terrorist, but the third is undeniably pre-Utopian, or Scott’s attempt to find, to borrow the insight of friend and inspiration Kurt Walker, another green world.
In the end Scott sidesteps the somber insistence on redemption of Man on Fire and the pseudo-spiritual histrionics of Domino. Instead, Unstoppable concludes with a faithfulness of the truest kind: one that need not be expressed. Indeed, it is only a conclusion in the narrative sense, instead marking a rebirth for its characters, its audience and its director. Scott’s tragic death prevents us from knowing what form his filmography might have taken next, but the smiling men, relieved masses and refreshed country is as good an ending as one can hope for.
[A special thank you: Kurt Walker, Jack Lehtonen, Vulgar Auteurism, Tony Scott: A Moving Target]