THE BAD SLEEP WELL 

Kurosawa's bruising business-is-murder morality play anticipates today's corporate scumbags — but couldn't guess how bad they'd actually be

Kurosawa's bruising business-is-murder morality play anticipates today's corporate scumbags — but couldn't guess how bad they'd actually be

Honestly, it's almost quaint. Fifty years after the fact, the corporate maleficence of Akira Kurosawa's 1960 film-noir classic The Bad Sleep Well seems sort of, well, innocent. That a corporation would go to such great lengths to actively snuff a single life — instead of, say, passively destroying the entire economy of the Gulf of Mexico — ranks as rather old-fashioned and penny-ante, like Dr. Evil holding the world ransom for one million dollars! (yawn). Call it nostalgia for the devil you knew or wishful thinking, but we'd take the graft-shuffling, harakiri-ordering bosses of Kurosawa's Public Corporation over the blame-shuffling, dispersant-ordering know-nothings behind the wheel of the single greatest environmental disaster in American history.

The Bad Sleep Well, the fourth film in The Belcourt's Kurosawa Centennial celebration, isn't the first movie that jumps to cinephiles' lips when they discuss the late director — and frankly, that's a shame. Kurosawa's samurai films (among them Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress) may have more sex appeal and more crossover with American films: The aforementioned movies were remade or refashioned into The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars and the original Star Wars, respectively. But his explorations of corruption, crime and mid-century Japanese culture stand among the strongest and most relevant films of the 20th century, and few are better than this scorching variation on Hamlet, with modern-day corporate Japan standing in for the wormy state of Denmark and a scheming secretary cast as its avenging prince.

The Bad Sleep Well follows one Kiochi Nishi — played by frequent Kurosawa collaborator and legend in his own right Toshiro Mifune — as he slowly and resolutely extracts revenge against the corporation that killed his father. From the film's start at Nishi's wedding to the boss's daughter — one of the most brilliant and economical pieces of exposition in cinema history — to the final scenes in a bombed-out munitions factory, the audience bears witness to a man struggling with the burden of vengeance and the moral ambiguity of vigilante justice, where success leaves only the taste of ashes. A masterful depiction of the harrows of corruption, The Bad Sleep Well is a hardboiled, unflinching morality play that ranks among the best, most nuanced examples of the genre.

And that's where it fails — it's just a genre movie, not life. In 2010, in the midst of Oil Spill Summer and fresh on the heels of the greatest financial meltdown in modern history, it's tough to watch The Bad Sleep Well and not want to bolt the theater and hunt down BP CEO Tony Hayward and all his smug yachting buddies. The Bad Sleep Well is essentially a two-hour taunt — you know that you'll never be able to get behind the wheel of a Studebaker and chase Goldman-Sachs executives down a dark alley. You'll never get to slap around the heads of Citigroup, AIG or Halliburton, or shake the shit out of the plutocracy that has filled their pockets while plunging our nation into environmental and economic turmoil.

Sadly, we have to let Toshiro Mifune's Nishi stand in for all of us — a fictitious character living out the dreams of everyone trampled under the profit mandate's boot heel. And while the film eventually slows to a pace that could be generously described as bureaucratic, The Bad Sleep Well makes a powerful case against the callous corporate system and its dehumanizing effects — a case that, especially in the midst of our ongoing national catastrophes, is more relevant and more important than ever.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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