Billy Collins said that “Death is why poets get up in the morning.” And hitmen. And screenwriters. Or at least the screenwriters of Grosse Pointe Blank, who tell a hitstory that’s so morbid and giddy and cynical and sentimental, it’s like John Hughes, Charles Bukowski and David Mamet patched a script together by mailing it back and forth between them.
It’s the weekend of the “I’ve-peaked-and-I’m-kidding-myself party” (officially, the Grosse Pointe High School Class of ’86 Reunion) and everyone’s in town for it, even Martin Blank (John Cusack). Actually, Martin’s in town to kill someone, but the reunion is close, so he might as well mix business and pleasure. Mixing it up is the adorable DJ of the local radio station, Debi (Minnie Driver), who would have been Martin’s Prom date in 1986, but he never showed. For 10 years.
A lot can happen in 10 years. Or a little. And every day is a little death in Grosse Pointe. It’s appropriate that Martin arrives in a black suit, black shirt and black tie. “My God, it’s you,” a former teacher exclaims. “You’ve been Detroit’s most famous disappearing act since white flight.” The former jock star snorts cocaine and tries to start a fight with him. The former cheerleader teeters like a parrot on its perch, repeating pleasantries. Debi is living in her old bedroom at her dad’s house. “Where are all the good men dead?” she asks her listeners on the air. “In the heart, or in the head?”
Most of the film’s characters lay dying in between, on a lump in their throat, trying to determine what makes sense or feels right. Even the two NSA operatives assigned to “get tough on terror” by targeting Martin aren’t very clear. “Why don’t we just do his job so we can do our job and get the fuck out of here?” One complains. “What do you mean ‘do his job’?” The other retorts. “I’m not a cold-blooded killer…you want to kill the good guy, but not be bad guy? It doesn’t work like that. You gotta wait until the bad guy kills the good guy, then when you kill the bad guy you’re the good guy.”
Such right on, offbeat poetry is the first language of the characters in this film, from Martin’s secretary to a security guard to a cashier. But none are so fluent as Martin and Debi, “two young lovers with frightening natural chemistry.” That same description could be applied to the actors playing them. Like some perfect improvisation, Cusack and Driver seem to be writing the lines as they speak them. The lines are brilliant, but the unspoken ones in between are even better.
But no one can beat Cusack, who plays Martin like a wall with a thousand peepholes. Upon arriving in Grosse Pointe, the first place he haunts is the old homestead, which has been razed and replaced by a convenience store. In a dementia unit he finds his mother, whom he asks, “mom, what happened to the house, and all the money I sent?” She doesn’t have an answer. In the next scene, at a cemetery, Martin walks a bottle of scotch down an aisle, giving it away to his father’s tombstone, watering the grass with the amber liquid and dumping the empty bottle. Cusack wears sunglasses and tightens his lips – and we know everything and nothing.
Underneath all of this existential exoskeleton, Grosse Pointe Blank still has a beating heart – or maybe just a beating head – determined to find meaning. It’s almost a companion piece to It’s a Wonderful Life. You think you’re better off dead, until you come home and no one knows who you are. But then a good woman calls you by name.