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Mistaken For A Man: On The Emptiness Of Bob Odenkirk's Nobody
Steve Erickson , June 9th, 2021 13:20

Bob Odenkirk plays yet another middle-aged man with a midlife crisis in Nobody, a dad-action film that commits neither to its straightforward violence nor its critique, finds Steve Erickson

Mistaking cynicism for intelligence is a sign you’re not actually as smart as you want to be.Nobody, the new action film starring Bob Odenkirk, held irony up at gunpoint, then blew its brains out and set it on fire. It makes several references to John Wick, a franchise created by its screenwriter Derek Kolstad, with Liam Neeson’s dad-revenge movies like Taken as the other main reference point. Nobody’s problems do not lie in being badly made. The montage of its hero Hutch’s (Odenkirk) daily routine at the beginning of the film conveys the monotony of his life briskly, showing him repeating the same dull tasks every weekday, complete with the name of each day appearing onscreen. Despite his wife’s reminders, he continually misses taking the garbage in time for the city truck to come. Although he stays in shape by jogging, he’s forced to exercise by doing pull-ups on the side of the bus stop. The first half hour fits perfectly with a string of movies varied in perspective and quality released in 1999 that nevertheless established that white men working well-paying office jobs can be driven mad (even literally) by their alienation: Office Space, American Beauty, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich.

Hutch’s life is changed when burglars invade the home he shares with his wife and two children. Waking up in the middle of the night, he attempts to protect his family, but one of the burglars fights off his son’s blows and gives the child a black eye. Everyone acts as though Hutch committed a crime himself by not preventing the burglary or killing the burglars. The film keeps dropping hints that his life is more complicated than the middle-class ennui we see, and it soon reveals that Hutch used to be an assassin for “the alphabet agencies.” That past has now caught up with him, and he finds new excitement by returning to it, reconnecting in person with his brother, played by RZA.

Nobody plays Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” in its opening scene, establishing a pattern of using jazz and pop songs as ironic commentary. At first, Hutch smokes a cigarette while opening a jar of cat food to give to the kitten in his jacket pocket. A cut reveals that he’s being interrogated by two detectives. After he says, “Me, I’m…,” another cut shows a card of the film’s title. Like David Prior’s 2020 horror film The Empty Man, Nobody suggests, from its very title onwards, a running commentary on the hollowness of the genre tropes it mimics. But while The Empty Man has a genuine sense of mystery and the uncanny, Nobody plays its hints of critique too safe.

The film plays like the ID of a middle-aged American father who kills time during his dull days at work posting Tucker Carlson memes on Facebook, dreaming up an imaginary past killing Russians for the CIA rather than the actual reality of his youth, spent reading Tom Clancy novels. While Nobody is careful not to express any partisan politics, it reflects a neo-Cold War sensibility that fills the screen with cartoonish images of the Russian mafia (even though director Ilya Naishuller is Russian himself) common in American pop culture. While this began with the rivalry of American capitalism against Soviet communism, it persisted for several reasons: the perception of American/Russian rivalry continuing into the Putin era, Russians becoming “safe” villains because of their whiteness. Odenkirk was attracted to the role partially due to his personal experience, feeling traumatized after going through two home invasions. But while he’s very good at shifting from a hangdog affect to an embrace of his power, Nobody suggests he’s trying to jump on the bandwagon of dad-action movies to find the next stage in his career, after his portrayal of Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul gave him credibility as a dramatic actor. But even Odenkirk said that he realized during Better Call Saul’s second season that Goodman felt like an inchoate action hero and became interested in working in the genre.

Odenkirk re-shaped his body for the role of Hutch, spending hours a day in the gym for many months, so he could perform Nobody’s first big set piece, a massive fight scene on a bus, without stuntmen. The film calls back to the macho, conservative athleticism of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in the ‘80s; while Hutch shoots his enemies, he also gets into hand-to-hand combat with them using knives, baseball bats, plates, and a kettle of boiling water. The domesticity of those last three choices stands out, as does his failure to effectively fight back with golf clubs during the first burglary.

Like John Wick, Nobody has an idea of how ridiculous it is. But the passage of time and, more importantly, the accumulation of imitations (including its own sequels) have made the pathos behind John Wick more evident. It’s possible that Nobody’s sequels might make its POV look smarter in hindsight. While it creates a universe with ludicrous details (a nightclub exclusively for hitmen), to make its violence more palatable, Wick’s grief-stricken numbness and use of his skill with guns as a form of self-medication still comes through. But Nobody suggests something different: to use Instagram parlance, he’s living his best life when he’s killing people. The film implies that he’s relapsing back into an addiction, even playing a jazz song about a man with a “monkey on my back” just before he kills four people and sets their house on fire.

However, addictions damage a person’s life, yet Hutch becomes happier the more violence he commits. Nobody calls attention to his euphoria, showing him asking his wife for sex after the fight on the bus. The film initially gestures towards a satire on American attitudes towards gun violence, but expresses it in ways that can also be taken as macho celebration. Learning of the burglary, his brother-in-law casually points a gun at Hutch’s head, says “the safety’s on,” double-checks it and realizes that he was wrong, before giving Hutch the gun as a gift. When Hutch’s elderly father shoots two people in his nursing home, he cranks up the sound from a violent TV program to drown it out. The attendant comes in anyway, but leaves after seeing him hold up the remote, not realizing that he’s covering the mouth of a man bleeding to death with his other hand.

Nobody is too interested in working as a straightforward action film to be an effective critique, so it winds up committing to neither mode. It stays jokey even when Hutch is torturing people. Depiction isn’t endorsement, but at least by the film’s logic, Hutch’s targets are the right ones: he sticks to killing and maiming gangsters. While he only keeps up a bare minimum of interest in his wife and doesn’t hesitate to lock her away in the name of protection, she stands by him.

The strengths of films like Blow Out, Gremlins, Robocop and A History of Violence are inseparable from their complicity in the images they’re critiquing; they recognize the difficulty of turning cinematic violence against itself in mainstream English-language movies and use that as a way to avoid puritan self-righteousness. Hutch may be a sadist, but you need to turn to Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor – whose ultraviolence really brings out the pain, rather than the excitement, of such actions – for a depiction of the damage a character like that can really do. Serenading his violence with Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme’s “I Gotta Be Me” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” (the Sinatra estate must have charged too much for the rights to “My Way”) suggests something about how Hutch sees himself. But who needs cutting criticism when the obligatory setup for a sequel must be put in place? Truly challenging its audience’s perspective might get in the way of Kolstad’s second franchise.