Abashed the devil stood / And felt how awful goodness is.
It’s Devil’s Night in Detroit and the urban sprawl is in flames. Year after year the night before Halloween is known for the destruction brought upon by the gangster Top Dollar and his hired hands. Nothing goes down in the Motor City without Top Dollar’s say so and when the tenants of a particular apartment building refuse an edict to vacate, he sends a crew down to deliver a message.
The recipients of that message are a loving couple, Shelly Webster and her rock and roll boyfriend Eric Draven, who are set to be married the next day. The four gangsters – Tin Tin, Funboy, T-Bird and Skank – rape and beat Shelly when they find her home alone and viciously murder Eric when he returns home part way through.
Exactly one year later, Eric is resurrected from the dead, his soul returned to his body by a crow, which legend says is used as a vessel to transport the deceased to the land of the dead. Immortal as long as the crow lives and tormented by the death of his fiance,
Eric sets out to seek vengeance on those who destroyed his happy life one year ago.
Why We Love It
People who love the Batman film franchise, specifically the two titles directed by Tim Burton, will find a kindred cinematic spirit in The Crow. On the surface, the Detroit featured in The Crow shares a lot of similarities with the plight-stricken Gotham City. Both cities are populated with looming Gothic architecture (the climax for The Crow also takes place on the roof of a cathedral), citizens inclined only toward lawlessness, a powerless police force aided by vigilante justice, and a saturating visual scheme: gloomy days for Gotham and rainy nights for Detroit. The bleak cinematography and derelict set design of the Alex Proyas film paint the city as a neo-noir urban battleground. Visually, the city looks like a logical chronological extension of a city featured in hard-boiled detective films of the 40s or the pre-cursor for what will become the vast squalor of the city in Blade Runner.
In that same vein, both Eric Draven and Bruce Wayne/Batman are products of their environment. The closing monologue of 2008’s The Dark Knight talks about Batman being the hero Gotham deserves rather than the one it needs, which holds just as much validity as a statement for Draven as it does for Batman even if the modus operandi are worlds apart. Whereas Batman seeks to restore a balance to civil order through justice, Draven only seeks to balance the scales of his own life – or what once was his own life – through vengeance. He has no concerns for a larger moral or social order outside of eliminating the 4 men who eliminated the one great love of his life and only then will he rest in peace.
It would at first seem unusual to right the ship through vengeance unless one keeps in mind the mantra that hatred is an extension of love. Love on such an intense and individualistic scale, such as the love Eric felt for Shelly, is often much more passionate and motivating than altruism and can therefore be so much more potent. When T-Bird, duct taped to the front seat of his car and terrified at the aspect of his imminent death at the hands of someone he already helped kill, speaks his final words, he quotes the italicized line at the top of this blog, which comes from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” when the devil realizes what he’s missed by passing up goodness. At that moment in the film, T-Bird realizes the same potential that goodness possesses as he sees that one man’s quest, one man’s love, one man’s goodness was so powerful that it allowed him to forgo the grave and make right what T-Bird and his crew had made wrong.
It’s death, unfortunately, that people ultimately think of when this movie is mentioned due to the untimely death of lead Brandon Lee, who was killed during an onset mishap with a prop gun. The accident cut short what would undoubtedly be a promising career as it’s Lee’s charisma that elevates this film. It’s important to note that Lee was not portraying a hero, but a regular person who is very much unsettled by what happened and why he’s been brought back. Because he does not adapt a persona, Draven interacts differently with the motley characters that he meets: he’s wrathful with T-Bird and his crew; he toys with Gideon like a cat with a mouse; he’s Messianic to Darla; he’s humorous and introspective with Sergeant Albrecht. There’s a great versatility on display in the film and that speaks more to Lee’s talent than it does to the lack thereof of the cast around him. All of T-Bird’s boys are unique and fucked up in their own ways, from Funboy the junkie to Skank the stuttering buffoon. Additionally, Michael Wincott brings something diabolical to Top Dollar, a man that makes it clear without saying so that he’s seen and done so much that he needs extremes to feel anything. “Greed is for amateurs,” he says. “Disorder, chaos, anarchy: now that’s fun!”
The Moment We Fell In Love
The very first villain Draven takes on when he returns to life is knife-throwing Tin Tin. Alone in a dark alley, Tin Tin leans down to a fire in a barrel to light a cigarette and sees through the haze of the heat someone with a painted face walking toward him. After a brief scuffle, Tin Tin throw Draven against a wall and removes his leather trench coat to reveal a collection of blades. “Let me introduce you to two buddies of mine. We never miss.”
He spins and throws the first blade. Draven ducks out of the way. He tosses the second blade. Draven effortlessly bats it out of the air. Aiming more carefully with the third, Tin Tin lets the knife fly and with a clap of his hands, Draven stops the projectile midair inches away from his face. It’s clear at that moment that Tin Tin is fucked. As is anyone else who gets in the way.
The Crow may have been a film that many of us first saw when we were teenagers, after which we all declared, I’m sure, how badass it was. The charm of the film has faded a little with time due to some revealing effects shots and unanswered exposition (Why does Top Dollar set fire to the city year after year? How does he make money off it? What’s the deal with his wannabe mystic sister/girlfriend?), but Proyas and crew were able to take a small budget a long way. I for one love the stark lighting and the grungy look and feel of the film, which is a style Proyas would use to great success in his next feature, Dark City (then squander with I, Robot and Knowing). Had the accident not occurred, this film would’ve been a great dramatic jumping off point for Brandon Lee, who up to that point had only starred in kung fu films and TV episodes.
Additionally, for dudes uncomfortable with or spiteful toward chick flicks, they can always cite this film as proof that they have a sensitive seeing as it is, more than anything else, a love story.
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