Last week, Slate published a piece shrewdly entitled, for maximum provocation and outrage sharing, “Subtlety Sucks.” It generated the intended tsunami of derision, at least in the corner of Twitter where I hang out—and rightfully so, regarding its inane ostensible subject. As is generally the case in these situations, however, the article’s true argument bears only a scant resemblance to its click-baity headline. Possibly writer Forrest Wickman chose to frame his essay as an attack on subtlety because he knew that few readers would get overly excited about a more measured, sensible piece suggesting that blatancy, too, can be magnificent. That’s not an especially controversial opinion. Accessible, straightforward movies do tend to get short shrift from critics, so for this edition of the column, I thought I’d examine one of the most thrilling populist moments Hollywood has produced over the past 20 years, from a movie that made truckloads of money and won plenty of awards, but gets relatively little respect.
That would be Gladiator, the first of two consecutive movies starring Russell Crowe that are popular answers—among cinephiles, anyway—to the question “What’s the least deserving Best Picture winner of the modern era?” (The correct answer, now and for at least the next two generations, is Crash.) I happen to think Gladiator represents big-budget studio filmmaking at its finest, and have trouble understanding how anyone not predisposed against historical epics in general could possibly dislike it. In particular, the scene in which Crowe’s enslaved former general, Maximus, reveals his identity to Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the emperor who tried to have him killed, achieves a galvanizing potency that’s only possible when dramatic nuance gets tossed aside in favor of the most slam-bang, direct approach possible. The confrontation occurs at roughly the movie’s midpoint, but everything that follows feels anticlimactic. It’s as close as I’ve ever come to standing up and cheering in a movie theater. This is heroism done right:
The battle that immediately precedes this clip is the first Maximus has fought in Rome’s Colosseum, after having made his reputation as a gladiator in the provinces. It’s also the first time he’s worn a mask, which he presumably dons because he knows Commodus will be in attendance. It’s unlikely, however, that he thinks Commodus will actually come down to the arena to meet him face to face. At the very beginning of the clip, you can see Maximus, still astride a horse, toss his sword aside and grab a spear that’s sticking out of the dirt. Had Commodus remained in his seat, Maximus would almost surely have attempted to kill him by hurling the spear into his chest from a distance. But that would be dramatically unsatisfying, because Commodus has no idea that Maximus is still alive. Plus, there’s a lot of movie still to go, which is why Maximus’ revenge gets further delayed by the sudden arrival of Commodus’ nephew, Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark), whose mother, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), was once Maximus’ lover. Director Ridley Scott makes everything perfectly clear visually, but none of it is spelled out—not the reason for the mask, not the abandoned long-distance murder plan, not even Maximus’ subsequent decision not to use the arrow he stealthily picks up. It’s that confounded subtlety Forrest Wickman’s article reviles!
Thankfully, there’s nothing remotely subtle about what happens next. Commodus, all smiles, asks “the Spaniard” to remove his mask and state his name, intending to honor him. Maximus coldly replies, “My name is Gladiator,” and starts to walk away. Turning one’s back on the emperor is an insult, which Maximus knows perfectly well; it’s a big stretch to think he would actually do something so blatantly disrespectful, as it could easily get him killed on the spot, to little purpose. But who gives a damn about plausibility? What’s important is getting Maximus to face the other way, so that he can remove the helmet and then slowly turn back around as Scott simultaneously pushes in for a close-up. This shot is only maybe two notches down from Dramatic Chipmunk, and I suppose detractors would deem it cheesy. But clichés are clichés because they’re effective, even if becoming a cliché inevitably makes them somewhat less effective. Here, Maximus’ slow turn to reveal his face, Scott’s camera moving forward to make sure that face filling the screen, Crowe’s glowering expression, and the staccato surge in Hans Zimmer’s score all combine to create a thrillingly cathartic moment—one that the audience has awaited for roughly an hour.
Crowe’s Best Actor award also frequently gets cited as an Oscar injustice, which is absurd. Not that he necessarily gave that year’s best performance—I’d probably name Mark Ruffalo for You Can Count On Me, and others might champion Christian Bale (American Psycho) or Tom Hanks (Cast Away) or a host of others. But genuine movie-star charisma is rare, and while Crowe has given performances that are more interesting and more daring and more technically proficient, he’s never been as old-school-Hollywood commanding as he is here. Reportedly, Crowe hated the whole “I will have my vengeance” speech and tried to avoid delivering it, which makes perfect sense—on the page, that speech reads incredibly hokey. It’s hardly an actor’s dream. But Crowe commits to it anyway, and if he opts to underplay the lines ever so slightly, that only makes Maximus come across as more steely and determined. Besides, Zimmer takes up the slack by hitting each of the items on Maximus’ curriculum vitae—“father to a murdered son,” “husband to a murdered wife,” etc.—with its own brass flourish, just as Maximus takes several steps toward Commodus. It’s all perfectly engineered to deliver a dopamine rush, and it works like gangbusters.
Phoenix, for his part, chooses to act the latter half of this scene almost entirely with his lower lip, which quivers so hard it seems to be trying to escape his face and hide in his tunic. He was only 26 when he made Gladiator—it was his first really notable role, apart from To Die For five years earlier—and it’s hard to remember now how counterintuitive his casting seemed at the time. Since he’s playing the villain (the film’s Commodus is a highly fictionalized version of a real-life Roman emperor), it’s not a problem that he’s acting in a very different register than Crowe and the rest of the cast (excepting Oliver Reed). His grandiose sniveling certainly doesn’t qualify as subtle, but it’s tremendously entertaining, especially when Commodus is at his most “vexed.” Likewise, Phoenix chooses to telegraph Commodus’ fear and anxiety when Maximus reveals him, rather than portray a man desperately trying to hide those emotions and only partly succeeding (which would be the subtle approach). That way, it’s abundantly clear that Commodus refrains from having Maximus killed solely because doing so would anger the crowd. These are big, broad elements that benefit from big, broad treatment; not going for broke would only result in a tepid movie.
Unfortunately, the odds of going viral with a piece entitled “Subtlety Has Its Time And Place, But Let’s Not Disregard the Thrillingly Obvious, Which Can Be Pretty Awesome Too” are exceedingly slim.