All that remains of the written introduction is the film's opening scene, set in a club's parking lot. The Rolling Stones' "Rip This Joint" blares on the soundtrack until it suddenly stops, giving way to the sound of a car alarm: Parker (Ryan Phillippe, sporting a pubic beard) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro, looking lost and dangerous), lazily shooting the breeze, have made themselves comfortable on someone else's hood. A frizzy-haired freak shouts at the two to get off his car, but it's the man's girlfriend (played by stand-up comic Sarah Silverman) who calls the duo out for a fight: "You like to fuck baby heads?!" she bellows, trying to goad them with each escalating insult. But they need no provocation; they'll take all comers. With that, a parking-lot brawl ensues, the Stones reappear (cranked up louder then before), and Parker and Longbaugh are left beaten and bloodied on the cement. Then, the opening credits roll -- the movie hasn't even begun.
If the opener is a shotgun blast, what follows is the echo and the satisfying ache in the shoulder: McQuarrie, who won an Academy Award in 1995 for his screenplay of The Usual Suspects, has penned a screenplay this time out that is all blank spaces. His characters barely speak to one another, exchanging glances and shrugs instead of lines of dialogue. Where The Usual Suspects was one big, brilliant put-on -- a criminal telling a cop what he wanted and needed to hear, leading him down a path littered with lies -- The Way of the Gun allows the audience to make up the story, to fill in the gaps. We're given the barest of essentials -- ambiguous characters, desert settings, bang-bang action -- but motivations remain buried, hinted at but seldom revealed. If The Usual Suspects is all plot, a winding road map on the printed page, The Way of the Gun takes place between the lines. Every single utterance is quotable, but only because there are so few.
On the surface, it's a familiar story: Parker and Longbaugh are two career cons looking for the fortune that's been looking for them. "The ending is always happy," Phillippe mutters in voice-over early on, "if only for someone else." (Phillippe talks to the audience on occasion, but he barely ever talks to Longbaugh -- as it should be, since partners need not explain themselves to each other just for the benefit of others. For the first time in a long time, movie characters act like real people -- and look like them as well, a bit soft and out of focus.)
The duo travels from here to nowhere, picking up spare change along the road; early on, they make a deposit in a sperm bank, perusing the porn with little interest. There, they overhear a receptionist talking about a woman who's carrying the baby of a wealthy couple unable to have their own. Parker and Longbaugh are thus properly motivated: Knowing only the basics ("deep pockets, a pregnant woman, bodyguards, and a doctor's name"), they set out to kidnap the girl, Robin (Juliette Lewis), outside the office of her doctor, Allen Painter (played with damp-eyed fear by Dylan Kussman), and hold her for ransom. When their plan goes bad, after a car chase that takes place at Flintstones pacing, Parker calls Dr. Painter for help -- against Longbaugh's grunted protests. "You have too much faith in people, man," he tells Parker, to which his partner responds, "How can you kidnap people without it?"
But their simple plan crumbles when Painter tells them who they're messing with: The "father" of Robin's child is a man named Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson), who "makes his living collecting other people's garbage." He's soft on the outside but has veins made of barbed wire; he either doesn't know or doesn't care that his pretty young wife, Francesca (Kristin Lehman), is carrying on an affair with one of Robin's bodyguards, Jeffers, played by Taye Diggs. (Nicky Katt appears as Obecks, Jeffers' partner.) But Hale will not allow two thugs to kidnap his child, the sole object of his desire. He calls on old friend Joe Sarno (James Caan, the bagman in a Members Only jacket) to deliver the money, kill Parker and Longbaugh, and return his child. Robin, it turns out, is a moot point -- to Hale, at least. Finally, the film builds not toward a climax but a clusterfuck: It's The Wild Bunch played for sick, smart grins.
The Way of the Gun takes place beneath the surface; people are not what they seem. But this film is no Usual Suspects, because there is no twist, no gotcha. McQuarrie hints at characters' motivations without revealing them; he's a plot tease. We learn Dr. Painter committed some gruesome act in Baltimore, but we never learn what happened -- which only makes his secret all the more venal, or at least as venal as the moviegoer's imagination will allow. There's nothing McQuarrie could tell us that will top what we think Painter has done, so we can never judge him: His actions suggest a "good guy," while his secret past hints at the very bad guy within. We never know whether he's contrite or impenitent; neither, it seems, does he.
But there are no good or bad guys in The Way of the Gun; everyone in the movie is covered in a dingy shade of gray, and the "wrong" people suffer the consequences. "Karma's only justice without the satisfaction," growls Caan's Sarno, "and I don't believe in justice." Everyone is conflicted, and no one is to be trusted. McQuarrie gives the audience final power: We judge, condemn, sympathize, like, and loathe without being told whom to root for. Had The Way of the Gun been produced by someone like Jerry Bruckheimer, or directed by Michael Bay or Dominic Sena, Parker and Longbaugh would have been smart-alecky villains-as-heroes -- Nic Cage in Gone in 60 Seconds, the wronged bad guy seeking revenge. They would either pay for their crimes or skip off into the sunset, rich and free, but McQuarrie digs up that third option, and the movie has a more fulfilling finale for it.
There's not much to like about Parker and Longbaugh: When the kidnapping goes bad, when Robin's bodyguards try to come between them and their prey, they go out with guns blazing, taking out any innocent bystander between them and their getaway car. We don't see the shootout -- we only hear it, in pop-pop-poppoppop echoes outside the doctor's office -- but we do see a parking lot littered with corpses, and Parker and Longbaugh never comment on the dead bodies; it's just business, after all. But slowly, we discover there's a little humanity beneath the grimy exterior: Though it's never said, we can tell that as Parker rubs his hand over Robin's swollen belly, he wonders what his life might have been like had he married, had a family, gone straight. The thought is a fleeting one, but it's there -- like Robin, always muttering in the background, or Hale's wife, Francesca, always floating around a scene without saying a word.
McQuarrie feels no need to dash toward the inevitable, bloody finale; he takes his time, paces himself until the silences bear as much weight as the words and explosions that come from guns that grow and grow as the film progresses (a pistol becomes a rifle becomes a machine gun). There's no reason for Longbaugh and Sarno to have a drink and a smoke in a dumpy Mexican bar, but it's there nonetheless -- a long scene, in which bad men talk about their sad lives like bored businessmen at happy hour. For a moment, you will think nothing's happening, and you may be right, but you will not want it to end. Sometimes, when a guy says nothing, he's telling you everything.