The King of Marvin Gardens

king nicholson 2

Directed by Bob Rafelson


If this film and Five Easy Pieces are indicative of the level of quality Rafelson puts out, it is a crime that he lacks the reputation of being one of the greats. His films are focused, thought provoking, fantastically made (the cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs is beautiful yet gritty, perfectly representing the films that they are in), and even more fantastically acted.

Due to my purchase of the Criterion “America Lost and Found Collection” I’ve becoming more acquainted with both Rafelson’s work as well as Jack Nicholson’s 60’s work. Nicholson is a true master and is quite possibly my favorite actor as he still churns out great performances, something that I can rarely expect from De Niro or Pacino anymore.

The film follows two brothers, Jason (Bruce Dern) and David (Nicholson) as they try to put together a Hawaiian prospect and start a brand new life. David is a depressive, self deprecating loner and Jason is an ego-centric, delusional, extrovert who thinks he can talk his way into anything happening. There’s a lovely moment of dialogue where Louis, a gangster played by Scatman Crothers, remarks “Jason talks and Louis knows.” There are many scenes like this which embody something wholly complex with stunning simplicity, a lovely paradox.

These moments come and go with a subtlety that must be recognized, as it emulates the passive personality of David. He rarely seems truly sold or invested on the schemes but goes through the motions, becoming more and more inextricably tied to his brother’s plans and his love triangle, the two women being played excellently by Ellen Burstyn as the aging, unstable “main lady” Sally and Julia Anne Robinson as her best friend and competition, Jessica.

At it’s core, the film is about disillusionment, and the danger inherent in the illusion. “The gun was always kept next to the water pistols”. Again and again, we watch the characters be pulled into these big plans and ideas, but due to the cold, distancing cinematography, we, like David, are never able to completely buy them. Everything always has a realistic taint. When David arrives on a train to see his brother, the band isn’t ready to play and welcome him and his brother is in jail. When he meets Louis for the first time, he is mistaken and mislead only later to realize that he was dealing with the true power in the city. The more information we are given about Jason’s plans, the more holes we see in them. He hasn’t “sealed” any deals, he doesn’t have Louis backing him, his fabulous life with two women is rife with problems and plans, and all those other inescapable problems that keep big dreams from being anything more than that.

In the end, Jason’s refusal to acknowledge reality destroys him. All the signs of Jessica’s self destructive and impulsive tendencies are before him yet he ignores them, much as he does his felony charge. He simply does not want to face that he is over his head. So when yet another argument with Sally turns suddenly violent and he is shot to death by her, we feel both shocked yet understanding of the inevitability.

The final image of the film is an old video of the two brothers as children playing on a beach. They are trying to build a sand castle together, both ignoring the rising tide behind them. It’s a marvelous statement on human hubris and our denial of our impermanence.

I’d also like to mention that the film starts with Nicholson delivering one of the best monologues I’ve seen. I was immediately wrapped up in the film and didn’t disengage until it was over. When you’re the King of Marvin Gardens, you’re the king of nothing. You’re playing the wrong game. You’re the king of a sand castle.

Final word: I loved the movie. If you like 60/70’s film aesthetics and style, as well as slower paced character pieces, this is one of the very best I’ve seen. Also watch Five Easy Pieces. It’s at least as good.

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