Since 2017, Midwest Film Journal has prided itself on delivering thoughtful commentary on current and classic cinema. No one piece has persisted as powerfully as our 2018 review of Den of Thieves, which we called an “unswervingly painful” waste of 140 minutes.
SEO tells us the piece’s popularity is thanks to its reference of one character’s inscrutable “Peckerwood” tattoo. Instinct tells us otherwise: People really love Gerard Butler.
Disfigured catacomb vocalist. Ripped Spartan warrior. Machine gun preacher. Secretly sweet lothario. Donut-housing cop. Dragon-slaying hero. HMS Devonshire crewman. Angry little leprechaun. Stalwart hunter killer. Geostorm-stopping scientist. Vengeful Egyptian god.
That’s but a small sampling of this Scottish export’s quarter-century run — whose body of work will be highlighted biweekly this month in a retrospective series.
We bring you …The Butler Did It.
“There is no terror in the bang, only in anticipation of it.” When Alfred Hitchcock said those words, he was referring to holding viewers in rapt suspense with the threat of a bomb exploding. He could never have anticipated his sage storytelling advice would have applied so aptly to 2010’s horror-comedy The Bounty Hunter, in which audiences wait with nauseous certainty for an investigative reporter played by Jennifer Aniston to consummate her growing affections for Gerard Butler’s psychopathic bail bondsman.
Falling just this short of earning the title Gerry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Bounty Hunter is a disarming study of Stockholm Syndrome and an opportunity for Butler to scale perverse depths as the title character, Milo Boyd.
Our introduction to Milo makes him seem like a decent enough man. Pulling his car to the side of the road, a quick cut to the trunk of the car reveals Aniston trapped inside. She then kicks open the trunk and desperately attempts to escape. Freeze frame and cue title as Milo brutally tackles her to the ground. The contrast between the goofy score that plays (reminiscent of the ‘80s staple “Oh Yeah”) and the violent image underscores The Bounty Hunter’s subversive nature: a horrific tale of sociopathy hidden under the guise of a mainstream romantic comedy.
To call Andy Tennant’s direction workmanlike would be an insult to hardworking filmmakers everywhere. In nearly every element of its visual craft, The Bounty Hunter is oppressively generic yet not without purpose. What makes the film an unheralded masterpiece of the aughts is how that intentionally slapdash direction highlights Sarah Thorp’s grim screenplay. The two clash against one another to create a downright avant-garde skewering of its genre.
The film’s astonishing centerpiece perfectly encapsulates the film’s ethos. The monomaniacal Milo has been hired to track down and bring in his ex-wife, Nicole (Aniston), on an arrest warrant for skipping a court appearance. This sounds like a standard, mildly high-concept premise for what seems a standard exercise. But once Milo takes Nicole into custody, the two embark on a depraved saga into the criminal underworld and we witness just how erratic Milo’s behavior can be. Taking a detour at a casino, he promises Nicole her freedom if he can win an amount equal to her bounty at the roulette table. Even as she struggles to free herself from his iron grip, onlookers simply chuckle and shake their heads good-naturedly despite it being clear she’s the prisoner of a drunken, violent lunatic. The (purposely) poor comedic timing and comically upbeat score playing over the scene paint Milo as a horror-movie villain trapped as the lead in a rote studio picture.
Those questioning the sincerity of this analysis should look no further than the casting of the Scottish madman in the lead. Butler lends a similar menacing physical presence to this role as he did in last year’s magnificent Den of Thieves except this time, he lacks any of the moral ambiguity he may have possessed as “Big Nick.” No, Milo is a greedy, savage cretin. No modern Hollywood star can smirk with quite the same malicious glint in his eye as Butler, at least not while maintaining the roughly sculpted figure of a meatball doused in scotch and left in the sun for a couple days. It’s unfathomable that any director would cast such an actor in this kind of role for any other reason than to make a statement about the ugly extremes of masculinity.
In the final scene, Aniston and Butler sit in adjacent jail cells, the once-innocent investigative reporter dragged down into his sadistic lifestyle. Of course, the film winkingly frames this as a happy ending, viciously satirizing the expected romantic-comedy ending as the camera lingers on their final kiss before the end credits. It’s perhaps the cruelest irony in a film built upon them.
The Butler Did It continues every Monday and Thursday through April. Please check back for future installments.