Raising the Stakes: Taking a Lesson From 'The Matador'

Thank God for DVDs. I didn’t catch The Matador when it was released in theaters over a year ago. Then again, back then I probably wouldn’t have recognized the terrific lesson the film offers fiction writers. A lesson, that is, in developing seedy characters that readers find themselves loving despite more refined inclinations. In this movie we not only identify with a truly vulgar hit man – we find ourselves rooting for the kill.

Lest ye doubt, allow me to enumerate the many fine qualities with which this character arrives on stage. He’s rude. He’s crude. And yes, he is lewd.

Let me say right up front that if you’re likely to be offended by soulless standup sex – even if it is performed by Pierce Brosnan – you might want to give this film a miss. You’ll lose out on something special if you do, however. Because we begin to know this guy just as soon as we see his mechanical, off-hand, misogynist attempts to de-stress following each kill (he might as well be f___ing a mannequin). The camera work’s not pornographic, nor remotely titillating. This part’s not filmed to shock so much as to help us get this character.

Writer/Director Richard Shepherd takes advantage of our expectations for the stereotypical assassin. In fact he counts on our expectations in order to build emotional tension. He draws us in because the guy’s so not like we are (right?) and we’re repelled at the same time we’re curious. We’re not certain what this guy’s gonna do, and we’re more than a little worried about it. In fact we’re downright uncomfortable. (I particularly enjoy watching this kind of film – in some ways like Pulp Fiction though not nearly as bloody – with my spouse. When I’m disturbed, I know he’s about ready to get up and leave the room.)

Shepherd draws an exaggerated character, but he does so with a light touch. This makes him interesting without turning him into a caricature. And then the director starts to play against the stereotype. We learn that our truly offensive assassin’s lonely. He’s kind of anxious to please a guy that he meets in a bar, a polar-opposite niceguy played by Greg Kinnear. Still repelled by our assassin, we don’t know what to make of him. But his poor social skills are so over the top that we’re fascinated, so we stick around to see what he’ll do when the director forces these unlikely buddies to interact.

Here’s where we get well and truly hooked. We’re not watching a transformation – our hit man doesn’t lose his undesirable traits – so much as we’re starting to make excuses for the guy. He so wants to make up for his bad behavior that we’re relieved when Kinnear gives him a second chance. He tosses off whoppers so effortlessly we’re willing to believe him. He’s so inept in all matters besides f___ing and killing that we’re disarmed right along with Kinnear.

Since I don’t want to give away the ending, I’ll need to be careful here...no more fun details! Shepherd layers on the vulnerabilities through both action and back story. Finally, we get the twist, the masterful flaw that’s so unexpected – one that so beautifully plays against the stereotype – that we’re totally identified. And it’s startling. Because we find ourselves in our assassin’s shoes at a most unsavory moment.

Nothing dull about this movie. And yet it’s not at all your typical action film. I’m totally impressed, because it achieves what I hope to – someday - in my own stories... characterization so riveting that the plot’s at once surprising and inevitable.


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