Grand Canyon (1991)

(c) Twentieth Century Fox

Grand Canyon doesn’t want to thrill you.  It wants to sit down beside you and tell you things you might already know, but have probably forgotten.  It wants to remind you of goodness amid the chaos of urban decay.  It unfolds itself slowly, jolting you at precise moments.  Much like a tale told from the chair of an aged grandfather, it both swells your soul with triumph, and repels you with its pretentiousness.

On his way home from a Laker game, Mack finds himself stranded in a rough corner of Los Angeles, a white man in a predominately black neighborhood.  He calls for a tow and waits in his car, and before long, a carload of thugs arrive to torment him.  One of them compels Mack to step out of his vehicle with the flash of his gun.

Before anyone can make the next move, light breaches the darkened street in the form of a tow truck’s caution lamps.  At the wheel is Simon, a blue-collar black man just doing his job.  He manages to diffuse the situation long enough to hook up Mack’s car and escort him away.  Back at the garage as Mack waits for his car to be fixed, an unlikely friendship starts to form.  

On the surface, it’s a bridge between cultures, between races.  Look a little deeper and it’s really the connection of two good people.  Goodness crosses boundaries, it’s colorblind, and perhaps that’s a little of the sage wisdom the film wishes to convey.

On the other hand, this inciting incident helps undergird the film’s heightened sense of tension.  One of Mack’s friends is Davis, a Hollywood movie producer who’s built his career on violent films.  Irony twists the threat of violence into a promise when a mugger shoots Davis in the leg.

We also get to meet Simon’s sister Deborah, a single mom with two kids—a little girl and an older boy.  Her son, we learn is part of a gang, and while we never get to see what he does when he disappears into the night, the dark world he plays in crashes home in the form of a drive-by that terrorizes his mother and his sister while he’s away.

This opening salvo tells us one thing: this city is a monster.  Every moment onward carries a hint of danger.  We see a woman try in vain to scrub a stain of blood from her sidewalk.  A police helicopter always seems to hover nearby, watchful, but too far away to make a difference.  Even an afternoon driving lesson, the simple task of making a left-hand turn, bristles under the threat of violence.  It tells us that no character is untouchable, and ignites a sentiment oft ignored by anyone watching this story unfold—no one is promised a tomorrow.  We simply endure.

There are other moments, however, that shine like shafts of light through holes in a dark canopy.  Dee, Mack’s assistant where he works, drives aimless through the city, tormented by her love for a man that refuses to return it.  She nearly finds herself the victim of a carjacking before an approaching police car spooks the villain and sends him away.  An officer gives her a brief respite from her pain, and perhaps even gives her the courage to move on.

Mack’s wife, Claire, finds an abandoned child while jogging in the neighborhood.  By this time we’ve learned their son is on his way to camp for the summer as a counselor.  The nest at home feels empty for the first time, and when Claire finds the baby, she takes it home to care for it before calling the police.  She works throughout the film to adopt the child.

Mack emerges as the film’s Everyman.  More than any of the other characters, he knows he owes his life to someone else.  Simon, we learn, is not the first person to rescue him from danger.  He is a picture of the enduring struggle, the fall and the recovery, a man living with many mistakes (we know he once cheated on his wife, for instance), doing his best to learn and live in response to the light he’s been given.

Life, says the film, is cruel. Violence and pain is a fact; there’s nothing to overcome it.  Davis, tragically, embraces this as truth.  He actually says he’s seen the light, promises never to make another violent film, and later turns his back on that vow.  His speechifying actually serves the story, highlighting the plight of fallen man while at the same time glorifying in the fact that man is fallen.  “The violence is real,” he says to Mack.  “Nothing’s gonna make it go away, until someone changes something, which is not going to happen.”
But that’s not the way it should be.  Simon knows it.  That’s what he tells the thug that threatens Mack.  That’s what he knows when he looks out at the Grand Canyon.  The hint of grace sits patiently in every scene.  The only thing getting in the way of it are the words the characters sometimes choose to say, tiny little morsels of moral truth that spell out what the film has already showed us successfully.  It woefully injects an otherwise thoughtful film with moments that play like an overwrought PSA.

In the midst of soul-crushing turmoil, however, we see people doing good.  Simon rescues Mack.  Claire rescues the child.  The officer rescues Dee.  In turn, Mack, determined to pay his debt forward somehow, sets up Simon with an acquaintance through Dee, and a spark makes a flame.  Claire adopts the baby.  Life is restored, and given a second chance.  When everyone arrives at last at the gaping mouth of the Grand Canyon, it might feel a little anti-climactic (you know, given the title and all).  But it’s worth noting that everyone present had to surrender something.   The film, though ponderous at times and a little wordy in others, is haunted at every turn by the forgotten promise of a better way.

Kevin Kline (Mack)
Danny Glover (Simon)
Steve Martin (Davis)
Mary McDonnell (Claire)
Mary-Louise Parker (Dee)
Alfre Woodard (Jane)
Jeremy Sisto (Roberto)

Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Meg Kasdan
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

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