Never Die Alone
Cynthia Fuchs, 26 March 2004
King David (DMX) lies in a
coffin, embedded in white satin, his Armani suit perfectly creased,
his arms crossed over his chest. "We reap what we sow," his
voiceover intones while the camera pulls out and circles him.
"That's what the Bible says." Beat. "Payback's a motherf*cker. I
think James Brown said that."
King's funeral opens Never Die
Alone, but his throbbing self-consciousness drives it. James
Gibson's screenplay, based on one of Donald Goines' pulp novels, has
King inflict every sort of evil a man might imagine. King is a pimp,
a dealer, a gangster and a bully, hateful towards women, coldly
vicious toward men. (Goines was himself a baleful character, thief,
heroin addict, murder victim at 36, currently resurrected in
allusions by hiphop artists.) As King recounts posthumously, he
returned to New York from Los Angeles after 10 years of self-exile,
with a plan in mind to right the many wrongs he inflicted on most
everyone he knew. It's telling that the only people he feels
compelled to reimburse are men, but most every man in his retro-noiry
world espouses such casual misogyny.
King's search for redemption is
figured as a distinctively secular spirituality: he travels with a
Bible that he's hollowed out in order to store his own audiotapes,
dictated while driving east and comprised of sordid tales and foul
language. Perpetually dissatisfied and bad-tempered (his daunting
demeanor enhanced by X's distinctive growl), King's real problem --
the one that seals his fate, as it were -- is that his decision to
settle his earthly debts comes too late. His former associates, at
least as treacherous and untrusting as he is, aren't about to
forgive him, no matter how much interest he offers on the money he
owes (he's quaintly convinced that his quarter of a million dollars
is something of a fortune). These include the mightily colorful
kingpin of everything (heroin, women, and apparently, smoky club
singers), Moon (Clifton Powell) and his young henchman, Mike
(Michael Ealy, popular pretty boy of the Barbershop movies).
The latter carries a special grudge
against King, having to do with a big old scar on his cheek, which
he touches ominously, head lowered, whenever King's name comes up.
It's not hard to guess what Mike's grudge is about, but what the
film lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in grim, aggressive style,
its embrace of its sensational literary roots. Directed by Ernest R.
Dickerson (Spike Lee's former cinematographer and director of
Juice and Our America), and shot by Matthew Libatique on
"special stock," the film a peculiar blend of harshness and
darkness. Shadows seep through every crimson interior King enters;
even the film's flashbacks to sunny California are oversaturated
with gloomy expectation, permeating the grainy color.
These flashbacks are generated by
those audiotapes, which King bequeaths to the last man to see him
alive, Paul (David Arquette). Hanging out at the Blue Room to soak
up thuggish local "color," Paul's a wannabe journalist looking for
"the story" that will put him over. When he sees King go down in a
knife fight outside the bar, Paul rushes him to the hospital in his
big old pimp car, Holy Bible on the passenger seat and weapon in the
glove compartment. When the doctor brings the bad news that King has
died, he also says Paul's the recipient, via King's deathbed
declaration, of all the dead man's worldly goods: the car, his heavy
gold crucifix, and the tapes that he's stashed inside the Bible.
The story King tells apparently
fulfills all of Paul's fantasies of thug life, from the
movie-inspired catch-phrasing ("Enter the motherf*ckin' dragon,"
breathes King, as he stands on a threshold) to Moon's desirous
mantra: "What else is there? Money, pussy, and money." Paul's more
than ready to consume this tale, living in an uptown apartment
decorated with Wu Tang and Miles posters, and dating an upscale
black girl (Aisha Tyler). She finally dumps him when he misses their
anniversary dinner in order to take King to the hospital. Tired of
what she calls his "whole slumming thing," she cuts deeper still,
accusing him of using her as "part of your research." Paul doesn't
even bother to talk her out of leaving (apparently, he can't help
himself: "I need to find out how this man died," he whines).
Frankly, girlfriend's assessment sounds about right.
Paul's mini-meltdown rather pales
in comparison to the film's other major narratives, namely, King's
excursion to L.A. and Mike's vengeance against Moon (whose contract
on Mike results in the inadvertent murder of Mike's schoolgirl
sister, another plot point that comes as a ferocious non-surprise).
The beachy scenes have King picking up a pretty blond actor, Janet
(Jennifer Sky), whose coworkers on a Baywatch-y tv series
provide King with a ready set of users. Their addictions make him a
fortune selling junk and reinforce his general sense that everyone
is weak, pathetic, and beneath contempt, including Janet, whose
heroin habit is the result of his switching up her coke. As he tells
it, for the eager reader Paul, no woman can resist him.
Given Paul's own predicament, it's
easy to see how this appeal to rage and resentment works. He begins
to see in King a kind of "nobility," a self-recognition that
elevates him above common crook. This is, of course, the sort of
ominous self-consciousness that Goines portrays in so many of his
anti-heroes, men who inhabit a bleak underworld and commit all forms
of mayhem, yet comprehend themselves and their environments in stark
King's next and most visibly
pathetic victim is Juanita (Reagan Gomez-Preston). When King first
spots her, he narrates, she's serving drinks and going to college,
or, as he puts it, "Everything a man could want, beautiful,
intelligent, uncorrupted." Predictably, he has to turn this
situation around; that is, he notes on spotting her, "I promised
myself that she'd be mine." His seduction involves various
corruptions, from unleashing her passions ("They're all freaks to
begin with") to impressing her mama with his claims to an "exports"
business, to, at last and apparently inevitably, exchanging
Juanita's coke stash (which he's provided) for heroin.
Pathologically incapable of intimacy, King can only destroy anyone
who shows vulnerability or desire, or worse, as is the case with
Juanita, disrespect. By the time she's turned into a runny-nosed,
shattered junkie, he's way past caring.
Looking at her so willing to debase
herself for a hit, King is reminded of another woman he ruined, back
in NYC. At this point, as he tells it, he's had enough of his own
damage. As Paul listens avidly, even obsessively, trying to find an
answer, King heads back east and the film picks up where it began,
this time framed by Paul's creepy captivation. This is the end of
King and the film's most devastating revelation, that his incredible
story, so enthralling and revolting, is produced in its reception.
Ernest R. Dickerson
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult