Sean Penn excels in flawed portrait of an American loser
In 1974, a Baltimore man called Sam Byck tried to kill then US President, Richard Nixon. He never came close, of course, and, although his scheme might seem eerily prescient – he planned hijacking a plane and crashing into the Whitehouse – history consigned him to the dustbin.
Why first-time director Niels Mueller has salvaged Byck, or Bicke as he’s rechristened in this fictionalised account, seems a mystery; until you realise failure, and what it does to people in a society like America’s, is the entire theme of his hazy, nagging movie.
Sean Penn plays Bicke. A King Midas in reverse, everything he touches turns to shit. His own brother has fired him from their tyre business for incompetence. He’s close to losing his new job, as an office furniture salesman. His marriage is over, but while his estranged wife, Marie (Watts), squirms impatiently away from his attempts at communication, he still imagines he can get back with her and their children.
Bicke stubbornly believes the problem lies with society, not him. All he wants is to be recognised. All he sees are lies and power games. Finally, utterly alone, he becomes obsessed with Nixon, the biggest, most powerful liar around.
“Bicke” is close to “Bickle,” of course, and Bicke records random thoughts (“I am a grain of sand”) onto tapes he senselessly plans sending to Leonard Bernstein, just as Travis once scrawled fantasies in his journal. With an authentic, shabby early-70s feel, Assassination plays like the suburban offspring of Taxi Driver and King Of Comedy, with some of the latter’s desperate, clueless-loser’s comedy: seeking support, Bicke sympathises with The Black Panthers, and, in the craziest scene, visits them to suggest opening the organisation to whites and renaming it “The Zebras.”
Where the movie falls down is in its complete lack of narrative pace. Quickly, it becomes simply a draining succession of scenes of Bicke screwing up, then sitting alone and staring at Nixon on TV, then screwing up again. But within this lies one of the finest character studies you’ll see. Penn is at his lightest and most intense, moving hesitantly toward breaking point. He’s an uncertain smile and mild, nervous energy, losing himself in Bicke’s troubles like Art Pepper in a lonely solo. Trouble is, soon, the solo is all there is.
By Damien Love