Robert Altman’s The Player begins with the clapping of a slate in front of a large painting of a studio at work, fashioning a nesting-doll joke in which we’re seeing a fictional representation of filmmaking within yet another facsimile of the same. Altman’s name is written on the slate, confirming that we’re seeing the creation of The Player, foreshadowing the bitter conclusion in which the film’s existence is revealed to be predicated on the death of a quasi-innocent. The camera tracks in and around a studio office in a variety of pirouettes that are both amazing and a touch ludicrous in their intricacies, forging a nearly eight-minute spoof of tracking shots that’s also itself one of the great tracking shots in cinema. Every significant character hums in and out of the nearby parking lot, establishing the film’s entire plot, cast of characters, and playfully debauched tone in one sequence, while parodying the contrivances of such sequences, and even the contrivances of parodying the contrivances of such sequences. The reverberations are endless.
The opening indicates a significant difference between The Player and many other Hollywood satires, which are compromised by their inability to rise to the level of craftsmanship routinely exhibited by the dream factories under their microscope. The pleasure of The Player partially stems from its confirmation of the director’s casual mastery of storytelling. Altman might be one of the few recent mainstream American directors to flirt with breaking cinema out of its boxed-in allegiances to theater and radio, but he can play by the rules of the three-act thriller when compelled.
A stalker narrative merges seamlessly with Altman’s hyper-stylized fly-on-the-wall examination of a studio ecosystem. A master of densely lived-in textures, Altman stocks The Player with virtually every star of note in the early 1990s, only to convincingly take their presences for granted. Altman provides us with a powerful “insider” illusion only to punish us for wanting such a thing in the first place. Angelica Huston and John Cusack have lunch as themselves in the background of a scene, presumably not long after their wonderful turns in The Grifters, and Cusack blows off film executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) with an unexaggerated impression of irritation that’s topped only by the way in which Burt Reynolds, also as himself, fails to remember another toadying exec, Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher), in passing at a power breakfast.
We follow Griffin as he competes with Larry over a job while evading his outing as the murderer of a pompous writer (Vincent D’Onofrio), whom he thought to be threatening him, as the real interloper continues to harass him in increasingly terrifying fashions. Griffin’s paranoia tarnishes the pleasure of the celebrity sightings, as we sense that he can be assaulted from any one of a hundred vantage points. Griffin’s privilege comes to feel suffocating and deadly, as every person and object portends doom, most memorably movie posters, with titles that provide amusingly on-the-nose meta commentary, along with dialogue that actively describes the stereotypes being indulged and transcended. The Player is an X-ray of a film, reminiscent in certain respects of Brian De Palma’s oeuvre, as it’s a thriller about the mechanics of thriller-making, including the hoops that need to be jumped through, in a mercenary, self-involved atmosphere, to net funding for said thriller.
Altman and screenwriter Michael Tolkin add layer after layer of self-reflexive trickiness, which intensify a plot that also needles at Hollywood’s obsession with formula. Which writer begging Griffin for a break into the big time is actually trying to kill him? Is Griffin’s stalker a stranger played by Lyle Lovett? Does Griffin’s chilly new lover, Jane (Greta Scacchi), who happens to be his recent victim’s ex, know more than she lets on? Do any of the numerously featured stars know more about Griffin’s potential firing than he does? This comic suspense is escalated by a guessing game: Which celebrities are playing themselves, and which are playing fictional characters within the narrative? Sydney Pollack initially looks and acts a lot like Sydney Pollack, for example, until he’s revealed to be playing Griffin’s attorney.
These games serve as resonant signifiers of The Player’s pervading satirical hook: That executives are killers of the true artists, writers, who aren’t even gifted. (Jane memorably says that her dead ex struck her as “uniquely untalented.”) One roots for Griffin because Robbins’s tranced-out stylishness in the role, which is thrown a bit off-kilter by his boyish innocence, is deeply, insidiously appealing. The actor’s charisma is complemented by the sensual confidence of Altman’s direction, which merges sinuous dolly shots with surreal horror expressionism, tightening a formalist vice that nevertheless accommodates the sort of loose behavioral sketches for which the director’s known. The film’s satire seems mild now, especially in a scene in which callous executives are shown to be robotically dreaming up a potential John Boorman project (if only!), but Altman’s erotic, ironically humane anti-human craftsmanship has resisted the ravages of time, remaining vital in a new age that lives and breathes cynicism.
As production designer Stephen Altman says in one of the supplements, The Player has a subtle "art deco" look that suggests a merging of 1930s-era fashion with a contemporary sense of aesthetics. There’s a lot of sharp edges in the film, which abounds in angular compositions, and this angularity has never looked crisper than it does in this new transfer. A decent amount of grain remains in the image, though it’s attractive and reflective of the source material. Colors are vibrant, particularly the many shades of gray and beige that comprise this modern noir landscape, and facial textures are superb (one can make out a very fine layer of hair on Greta Scacchi’s face during a sex scene, which is the sort of detail that separates the great love scenes from the perfunctory). The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is rich, velvety, and as detailed as the image, most obviously in terms of presenting the horns of Thomas Newman’s eerily discordant score.
Many of these supplements are from Criterion's 1992 laserdisc, but they warrant preservation, particularly the audio commentary that fuses together observations by director Robert Altman, screenwriter Michael Tolkin, and cinematographer Jean Lépine. Altman is the best listen of the three, but all offer astute discussions of the production. One of the more memorable sentiments is Altman's description of the opening tracking shot as "using the thing as the thing it is becoming," an oblique way of saying that he likes to use artistic devices in fashions that both sustain and undermine a dramatic illusion at once, giving The Player its head-spinning density of texture.
A bunch of other diverting odds and ends fill out the package. Footage of The Player's cast and crew at the Cannes Film Festival is notable for the pointed words Altman and Tolkin have for audiences who demand only escapism and "happy endings." "Robert Altman's Players" elaborates on the planning and shooting of a pivotal fundraising scene, and there's a gallery devoted to mapping out the film's many cameos, as well as TV spots, trailers, and alternate commentaries devoted to discussing the opening tracking shot.
One terrific new piece has been added though: a series of interviews with Tolkin, Stephen Altman, actor Tim Robbins, and associate producer Dave Levy that covers the production from the perspective of hindsight. Robbins discusses how Altman pushed for spontaneity "within a frame of the script," and Stephen Altman offers new observations about some of the sets, which he thought were too conceptual, though the director loved them, particularly Jane's apartment. The cumulative takeaway of these talks is that Altman was a great artist because he pushed things, surveying what he had, always revising and adding details that deepened a sense of texture. This piece should be profoundly influential on would-be directors.
With this classic Hollywood thriller, Robert Altman proved that career rehabilitation can spring from stylishly biting the hand that feeds you.