“Your tree is dead, and if it’s not chopped down, it will continue to disturb and harm the living.”
In 1999, Robinson Devor made the best Charles Willeford adaptation of all time, and one of the greatest neo-noirs of a decade full of them. The film starred Patrick Warburton as an amoral used-car salesman who gets into the film industry, only to be driven insane by the indifferent system; it was an incisive critique of the myth of the American Dream, and, though this idea may have dated, it had rarely been tackled with this much panache. This film was shot in gorgeous, high contrast black and white, and it was directed with ambition, a direct surrealism that still feels bracing today. That film was called The Woman Chaser, and it bombed. Miserably.
The failure of The Woman Chaser sent Robinson Devor to the outskirts of the film industry. It’s a terrible shame, because I think the world has been essentially robbed of one of its great cinematic poets. This title gets thrown around often, but I really do think that Robinson Devor is the true heir to Terence Malick – not only in his use of ellipsis and gliding cameras, but in his resolute humanism. Each of his works (save for his latest, which I can’t speak for) showcase an incredible ability to find the human in the absurd, something that brings depth to even his most esoteric outings.
Since The Woman Chaser, Devor has made only three features. Pow Wow – still on the festival circuit and unseen by this author; Zoo – a strangely beautiful documentary about a man who was killed while having sex with a horse; and Police Beat – a hard to describe film that I would call Devor’s masterpiece.
Police Beat tells the story of Z, a West-African immigrant and rookie bicycle cop in Seattle, who struggles to focus on the increasingly bizarre crimes he encounters due to concerns over his girlfriend’s infidelity.
It takes a while for Police Beat to unspool the whole of its premise, dropping hints and flashbacks that walk around all of the central elements. Once the entirety of our protagonist’s situation falls into place, however, it acts as an important grounding force. Devor jumps off Z’s singular situation to craft an expressionistic tone poem that encapsulates the confusion of life.
Police Beat is at once intimate and alien, political and personal, violent and gentle. Z’s mind is fractured, and his world reflects that. His story, which takes place over seven days, spans across life and time, a fractured series of episodes of varying horror and hilarity, all belonging to a sense of otherness. The film pointedly takes place in the midst of the Bush presidency, and Z’s discomfort with his place in that United States – grateful for the chance to prosper but angry at policies that allow for such potential – manifests itself in his tenuous romantic relationship. A loving but distant romance that confuses Z as much as it enthrals him.
Z is a moralistic, black and white force in a confusing world, and that friction is evident when contrasted with the strange realities of his life as a cop. Men drown in piles of lily pads. A BDSM sexual encounter ends with a woman running naked through the park. A man comes into a house with the owner’s permission, walks upstairs and masturbates to birds, then leaves. There is no reason underlining this life, no consistency. But still, Z simply moves forward, unable or unwilling to confront his present for fear of his uncertain future. How do you comprehend the external when your internal is so confused? How do you enact the law when your moral code doesn’t seem to match the world surrounding?
All of this turmoil is captured in a gorgeous, stripped-back cerulean palette, reminiscent of Andzrej Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe. Where Zulawski’s science fiction hellscape uses its colour scheme as a distancing device, however, Devor uses it to evoke a calm sea, guiding us through his world with his curious, roaming camera. He shows us a raging monsoon but shoots it like a gentle rain.
Police Beat is confident in its oddness, settled into its strange rhythms. It has no care for anyone who it may be alienating, and that refusal to compromise may be an understandable turn off to many. But if you gel with its peculiarities, you may find it transformative.
“We’re going to learn the lindy dance.”