In my experience, if a story and its characters are good enough, I can forgive many aspects of a film that seem lacking. I can forgive the forgettable music scores and relentlessly bland visuals of most contemporary films so long as I’m invested in what the characters are trying to do. For this reason, I’ve held the position for many years now that a film’s cinematography, choreography, mise en scène, color scheme, lighting, score, attention to detail, use of the camera for visual storytelling, and even (to some extent) acting are not sufficient reasons to consider a film great – it is the content that matters. As an intellectual who looks at cinema as a communication medium, this makes sense – great presentation of a bad idea is still a bad idea – so I usually have had no problem appreciating the impressive aspects of a visually pleasing film (see Carousel) or even a film with excellent performances (see American Hustle) while still hating the movie. However, as I have long feared it would, Dick Tracy has challenged this perspective: the main character, the plot, and seemingly the directing (at least in some respects) are all sub-par at best, but with its stylistic excellence, I cannot help but love this movie with all my heart.
In my attempts to find a way to justify my arguments with my feelings as I’ve thought about what to write for this review, one thought that keeps recurring is how similar this film seems to The Dark Crystal. Here we have a creative producer who has taken on the task of directing a passion project of his with a visual style that no one has ever seen before, even going so far as to play the lead himself to ensure that everything is done right, and yet something is still very wrong here. Dick Tracy is just not a likable character, Madonna doesn’t work all that well for the particular kind of sexy that’s required of her, and somehow the very simple plot seems too complex to follow. Even stylistically there are problems, especially because of the pacing. It’s incredibly jarring to see the big scene in which Tracy goes and catches a bunch of bad guys, knocking people out all the while, as a very slow jazz song plays over it. Weirdly though, the fact that it is terrible almost makes it better – I think this belongs in the category of “génial–nanar blends” These are films that are sometimes so bad that they’re good, and other times so good that they’re great (and occasionally they’re all of these at once).
I think this is a fair case because of just how many strong elements this film has. I cannot emphasize enough that most of the cast is excellent. The cameos kept surprising me, although they sometimes seemed awkward – consider Colm Meaney (Miles O’Brien of the Star Trek franchise) as one example, who appears in the background as a police officer in one scene and is easy to miss if the viewer isn’t paying attention. Dick van Dyke is as delightful as always, Al Pacino is perfect for his part, and Dustin Hoffman had me in hysterics with his unique performance. For the most part, however, what makes the characters work so well is the way they look. The make-up and costumes are very much deserving of the awards they’ve won, and the kinds of faces that appear in this movie simply aren’t in any other films at all – this look distinctly belongs to Tracy’s world. While I could easily put together an image gallery that showcases the make-up, I’ve decided not to do that because I don’t want to give that away for any readers who may not have seen the film. I do, however, want to show off some of the shots that are cool simply because of the lighting, colors, sets, backgrounds, and camerawork, just to back up my case that this is the best-looking film ever made. For a taste of what this film’s visual style has to offer – and I’ve only pulled from a particular section in the middle so the rest of the movie’s visuals aren’t spoiled – enjoy the following gallery:
By this point, it should be fairly easy to see why I love this movie, but I want to make it clear that I still don’t think I’m straying too far away from the theoretical principles to which I have claimed to be subscribed. To me, an interesting story involves following a character who’s in a fascinating situation, and usually what makes the situation interesting is how the character clashes with his/her context. Here, the situation of being in this kind of warped world with such strange characters is so interesting that virtually any character, no matter how uninteresting, can make this film captivating, as long as he/she is reasonably consistent as a character. I can’t stand films that try to present an imaginative world in an objective and emotionally distant way, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but a film with an immersive and captivating world (see Dark City) invites the viewer to explore it and get wrapped up in it, which makes full use of cinema in its purest form: transportive simulation. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the appeal that comes from a different story that the film reflects, which is the story of its own construction. This film offers a way to watch a director struggle to create the kind of world that his film needs, and the mix of powerful successes and unbelievable failures gives the film a very cinematic sort of drama. This tension in the film is just enough of a story of its own for the needs I expressed in the first paragraph of this essay to be appeased, making for a very enjoyable movie experience.
Also, I truly do consider this to be, in terms of visuals only, the greatest film ever made, and I would appreciate it if any readers challenged that by offering an example of a film that looks even better. This is not a request, but a dare. Please accept it.