Sunday, May 5, 2019

Mikey and Nicky Dives Headfirst Into A Grim Tone With Exceptional Results

We begin Mikey and Nicky in media res. Something has gone horribly wrong. Nicky (John Cassavetes) is alone in a hotel room profusely sweating after learning a hit has been put out for him. There's only one person he can turn to: his life-long friend Mikey (Peter Falk). Considering they've been pals since childhood, Nicky gives Mikey a ring and asks him to come to the hotel room and help him out of this jam. It isn't long before Mikey arrives and tries to talk Nicky down from his hysterical state. The two proceed to create a plan for Nicky to leave town, but before he can do that, Nicky insists the two friends spend the rest of the night in New York City doing whatever comes into his head.

Unbeknownst to Nicky, he's not only being trailed by assassin Kinney (Ned Beatty), but Mikey is working directly with Kinney to kill Nicky and collect the bounty on his head. The one person Nicky thought he could turn to is also the one trying to kill him and Nicky doesn't even know it. What a grim set-up for a story, one whose somber nature is apparently a heavy tonal departure for typical films by writer/director Elaine May. That's interesting to hear considering how the tone of Mikey & Nicky is handled with such assuredness that you'd assume it was being helmed by a filmmaker who had had extensive experience with similarly bleak films. Like when Jordan Peele knocked horror filmmaking out of the park right off the bat with Get Out after doing exclusively comedy beforehand, May takes to somber storytelling like a duck to water.

Much of this bleak tone comes from the dynamic of the two lead characters, which immediately conveys that Mikey and Nicky's dynamic is a contentious one. Nicky is an erratic live-wire who changes his plans for the future on a whim while Mikey talks to his friend like he's a cop trying to talk to someone from jumping off a building. A currently warm friendship is not something one gleans from their initial interactions but Cassavetes and Falk share a rapport that does also convey that these two characters share an extensive history together. That unspoken history underlying their interactions make the present-day tragic dynamic they share all the more tragic, the echoes of their past reverberate through their every dialogue exchange.

May's script uses this fascinating dynamic to create impressively unbearable tension throughout the feature film. Alfred Hitchcock once said that a prime way to generate suspense in a film was to have the viewer know that a table has a bomb underneath it while keeping the characters in the dark on it and Mikey and Nicky takes a cue from that set-up by creating tension through how Mikey and Nicky never know what the other is going to do next. In the case of Nicky, his unpredictability comes from his aforementioned erratic behavior while the unpredictability for Mikey comes from how he's keeping his former best friend in the dark on how he's planning to kill him. In Mikey and Nicky, neither of the two lead characters know what the other is capable of, and it makes for a film as impeccably suspenseful as waiting for a bomb under a table to go off.

As riveting as the suspenseful tone are the assorted real-world sets that the lead characters inhabit. Mikey and Nicky, like so many films filmed in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, doesn't shy away from filming its story in the middle of the most grubby parts of the city. Mikey and Nicky make their way through run-down buses or walking down worn sidewalks that, like the two lead characters, subtly suggest that they've been through hell and back. The trio of cinematographer make good use of the nighttime setting of the story to employ naturally dark surroundings in memorable pieces of imagery that contribute nicely to the darker tone of the story. These members of the crew also film a pivotal scuffle between Mikey and Nicky in a brutally realistic manner that makes every punch they trade really sting.

This filming style helps sell how far gone this friendship is and the same can be said for the performances of Cassavetes and Falk, both of whom bring welcome depth to their turns. For Cassavetes, this means bringing some haunting tragedy to a character whose being fueled solely by a drive to live. Cassavetes makes this survival instinct driven character appropriately someone who puts the viewer on edge whenever he's on-screen but scenes like the one where he visits his mother's grave see Cassavetes unearthing a believable level of remorse in this guy. In the hand of Cassavetes, Nicky becomes a man with a singular goal of survival but also poignantly shows flashes of the more complex he used to be.

Falk makes for a great soft-spoken balance to the frantic Nicky while the manner in which he subtly captures the characters constantly fluctuating sense of decisiveness over selling out his former friends is absolutely beautiful. Falk and Cassavetes deliver outstanding lead performances under the masterful direction of Elaine May whose work as both a writer and director here in Mikey and Nicky works as well as it does because of how thoroughly it embraces a well-realized dark tone. Only the presence of upbeat then-modern day tunes like Love Train serve as a departure from the pervasively grim aesthetic of the proceedings and their presence is clearly an intentional anachronistic choice meant to highlight the otherwise somber nature of the proceedings. Plus, is it ever bad for a movie to needle drop a song as good as Love Train?

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