A Very Serious Question I Have For The Screenwriter of "Grosse Pointe Blank"
1,500 words about one line in a movie that came out 25 years ago.
I was watching the film Grosse Pointe Blank a few weeks ago. It’s wonderful. Everyone who saw it knows it’s wonderful but it actually didn’t do terribly well at the box office so maybe lots of people haven’t seen it. It’s also not a movie that people seem to talk about much so it’s sort of a perfect film to revisit.
Anyway, there is a moment in it I keep overthinking. Want to go down a wormhole with me?
John Cusack is a hitman who returns to town for his 10 year high school reunion. Minnie Driver is his former high school sweetheart who he stood up on prom night and she’s heard hide nor hair since. Neither of them are over the other. She is the local radio DJ and she keeps Grosse Pointe Michigan tuned to a rocking 80s soundtrack while oversharing random thoughts from her life.
Cusack shows up at the radio station and barges in. She forces him to have this awkward reunion on air and solicits callers to tell her if she should give him a second chance or not. It honestly doesn’t go well for John Cusack and he sheepishly shuffles out.
It is at this point that Minnie Driver muses to herself and the radio audience, “the best I can do is a rhyme: Where are all the good men dead? In the heart or in the head? Back later”
It’s got a nice cadence to it, that line! It sounds like a famous quote that she recalled in this moment. But it isn’t. It’s a play on a famous quote from Merchant of Venice.
Boy wants to marry girl. Girl’s dead father says that she must marry the man who picks the right casket of three. One is gold, one is silver, and one is lead. In one of the caskets is his daughter’s photo.
The first, of gold, who this inscription bears:
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
The second, silver, which this promise carries:
“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt:
“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
How shall I know if I do choose the right?
The first suitor picks the gold casket. Wrong! He learns the famous lesson, “all that glistens is not gold.” Bru was greedy.
The second suitor picks the silver casket. Wrong! He was conceited and thought he deserved Portia.
So comes the third suitor, Bassanio, our hero. Portia loves him and is scared that he’ll pick the wrong casket, but he insists. Portia tells her staff to sing a song while Bassanio thinks about his choice. The song is where we got the line.
“Tell me where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?” Where does attraction come from? The sort of passionate attraction that we all know to feel in the beginning of a romance. Is it thought out and from the head or inexplicably emotional and from the heart? Neither, the singer says. “It is engender'd in the eyes.” Lust starts with looks. But lust is not the goal! Lust is temporary! “With gazing fed; and fancy dies In the cradle where it lies.”
Bassanio chooses the casket made of a material that rhymes with bread and head: lead. Winner winner chicken dinner!
You that choose not by the view,
Chance as fair and choose as true!
Since this fortune falls to you,
Be content and seek no new,
If you be well pleased with this
And hold your fortune for your bliss,
Turn you where your lady is
And claim her with a loving kiss.
Looks aint everything, buddy!
Indiana Jones clearly knew Merchant when he chose the right Holy Grail cup in the Last Crusade.
So back to Grosse Pointe Blank.
It’s not difficult to take this and apply it to the movie. It’s a pretty universal thought about romance. If Minnie Driver had actually quoted it properly you could imagine it is her struggling with how to reconcile her heart pounding attraction to this man who hurt her with the knowledge that, well, lust doesn’t last forever and he maybe he’ll hurt her again.
But she doesn’t quote it properly. She says, “where are all the good men dead, in the heart or in the head?”
This changes the meaning entirely. There are three types of men now: bad men, good men dead in the head, and good men dead in the heart.
There are, according to Minnie Driver, no good men alive in both the heart and the head. But there is still a meaningful difference between good men and bad men. Good men do evil things because they’re dead in the head or the heart; bad men do evil things because it’s in their nature.
This is now a cynical statement about the world being filled with people who hurt other people and only in the best case is it by accident. It’s also a cynical statement about aging and the irrevocable corruption of the soul.
There are two men in Minnie Driver’s life: her father who she seems quite close with and John Cusack who hurt her and ran off. You can see when you look at these characters why she would have such a dark with of the world.
But if you look at it further there is something more.
Consider her father, played by Mitchell Ryan1. He is the man John Cusack is supposed to kill. As Cusack says in the movie “if I show up at your door, chances are you did something to deserve it.” This is how Cusack justifies being a killer. And it’s true. Ryan did do something to do it. But not the thing that brought Cusack to his door!
He’s a whistleblower for some automobile factory lawsuit. We don’t get many details about his case but it’s easy to infer that he spent 60 years working for Ford or Dodge or whoever and made lots of compromises and then in the twilight of his life decided to tell the truth about corporate sins he had previously been happy to ignore.
A widower, he had been dead in either his heart or in his head—he has committed sins through his life that have besmirched his soul—but then he was woken up for some reason we can assume had to do with approaching death and decided to right the wrong. It is this act, blowing the whistle, that gets a contract put on him.
John Cusack is only in his late twenties but has made more clearly outrageous moral compromises. He went to the military and became an assassin for the CIA and then became a freelance hitman. He “killed the president of Paraguay with a fork.” He is dead in his heart. The most cynical man you can be.
Or is he? When he talks with Minnie Driver later in the film he explains being a hitman by saying, “Some of these guys need some kind of ethical philosophy to justify it, some guys like "live free or die," but that's all bullshit, I know that now, that's all bullshit. You do it because you were trained to do it, because you were encouraged to do it, and because, eventually, you know, you—get to like it."
And this realization, spurred by his reunion with Minnie Driver which reactivated his heart, has set his mind ablaze! He recognizes the sophistry of his own delusion.
Getting old means looking at your life and reconsidering the tradeoffs. Ryan is literally approaching death and moves to make finite changes that compensate for his sins. Cusack is having a quarter life crisis but is recognizing that he has somehow become an instrument that prevents Ryan from making amends. He is a lock on the confessional door.
Now it turns out that neither of them are dead in the head or the heart. Those organs were just sleeping.
In this way, this whole is basically about how the difference between a truly bad person and a good person is that a good person can improve. There’s something Christian about redemption in it.
But let’s go back to the bare bones. This is a line Minnie Driver said extemporaneously! on air! Live!
She could have:
!) came up with this rhyme on the spot and either doesn’t remember being subconsciously influenced by Merchant or consciously is changing it to make a point that only really makes sense if she knows everything she has yet to learn about John Cusack and her father,
2) thought she was quoting Merchant accurately and just got it wrong,
3) at some previous point in her life she came up with this play on words and then she recalled it in the moment.
None of these options make sense!
I have clearly thought about this quite a bit and I have no idea what the answer is. I desperately need to know what the reasoning for her saying this line in this movie is. How did the screenwriter or director explain the line to her? What was the intent???
Anyway, I hope you’re having a good night!
New post about something more important in the morning.
CORRECTION: I originally said Charlton Heston played this role because I was too stupid to check and my idiotic memory made me think it was Charlton Heston. It is not Charlton Heston. It is an actor named Mitchell Ryan who looks a lot like Charlton Heston. I regret the error.
I’m sorry for various typos in the first version of this post. I thought it was going to be three sentences when I started writing it and it just sort of expanded so I didn’t write it in Word or Grammarly. Apparently I can’t be trusted to write directly in the CMS without a spell-check net. I’m glad so many of you also love Grosse Pointe Blank though!