War of the Roses

There’s one scene in the Robert DeNiro movie What Just Happened that I think about a lot. In it, a movie producer is arguing with a director about the ending of the movie on the eve of their first test screening. The producer is saying: you can kill the hero, you can kill the girl, but you can’t get away with killing the dog. The director says no, all of them have to die for the ending to be truthful and honest. They go back and forth for a while, then they screen the movie, the dog dies and everybody hates it.

I bring this up because there’s a scene halfway through the War of the Roses were the tone of the movie radically changed for me. The beginning of the movie establishes that Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner fell in love when they were young. As their kids get older they start to drift apart. Their fighting grew more intense, and it gets particularly bad after Turner decides not to go visit her husband in the hospital after he thinks he’s had a heart attack. So far this is all adult drama sort of stuff about the fraying of relationships. Then one night Douglas asks Turner for a sleeping pill, which she refuses to give to him out of spite. He leaves the house in the middle of the night to go to a 24 hour drug store and accidentally runs over her cat in the darkness. He then hides the body so he won’t have to admit what he’s done.

Now, even though he doesn’t kill the cat out of malice, that moment marked a turning point in how I felt about the movie. Something about that dead cat – and his subsequent lying about the dead cat – made the movie felt less like an adult drama (or even like a black comedy, which seemed like it was the director’s intention) and more like a horror movie. That’s the scene where I started to get the sense that these people were going to be driven to the point of madness in their pursuit of hurting each other. And I was right: after the dead pet turning point this movie began to be about a sort of malicious lunacy that is, quite frankly, frightening to watch, because the whole time you’re got to be waiting for the domestic abuse to begin or a murder to happen.

After Turner finds out her cat is dead she responds by fooling Douglas into thinking that she’s killed his dog and fed him it’s liver on a cracker. Shakespeare used a variation on this concept to end Titus, his bloodiest play, but this is only halfway through the movie. More boundary pushing is coming, with Douglas attempting to rape Turner at one point and Turner trying to murder Douglas by dropping a chandelier on him a bit later. Their ugliness seeps into everything around them, turning their Martha Stewart house into Grey Gardens. The movie’s cynicism becomes all encompassing right before it presents a moral that pretty much amounts to “if you’re getting divorced, don’t do this!” Well, no shit, Sherlock – only a true psycho thinks that fake-murdering your dog is acceptable.

What Just Happened is right: don’t kill the pet. It’s upsetting in a way that’s hard to get over – especially if you kill the pet halfway through and put it’s liver on a cracker. That’s not fun for anybody, and I don’t know why it would be in a ‘comedy’ about people who are making each other miserable unto death.

Winner: The Cat

The War of the Roses on IMDB