Nobody ever talks about Hal Haberman's 2006 film Special anymore – it was just released only four years ago, and already it's passed out of the collective film-going consciousness. And it's a shame, too – because it really was a fine film, showcasing Michael Rappaport's finest performance yet. It might seem like I'm rambling a little bit, but the reason I bring it up is because what is most striking about Peter Stebbings' Defendor is how similar the two films are – and yet, how far apart they are, as well; co-opting what is basically the same narrative outline for relatively drastically different purposes.
Where Special was turned inward to examine the psychological plight of Rappaport's character, Peter Stebbings' Defendor looks outward, and examines the effects of a severely misguided (in this case, possibly even slightly retarded) individual on those around him, those he reaches out to, and who reach out to him, and eventually – brace for it – on the morale of an entire city. But luckily, it avoids doing so through too-obvious over-sentimentalization, and because of that, its emotional impact as it nears its finish is much, much stronger than its various trailers seem to want to admit.
Which isn't to say the film is entirely without its comedic elements here and there, but for the most part, they seem to reside wholly as small, minute bits in a larger, starker emotional context. Yes, Defendor comes at his attackers ( who seem to mostly consist of undercover cops) with jars full of wasps, and he may get in a good shot or two with his taped-up baton, but that doesn't stop them from yanking it away from him and beating him mercilessly with it – something the film depicts with a brutal honesty again not too dissimilar to Haberman's Special; the bruises this character receives don't fade away over time, and by the end of the film, Woody Harrelson's already cartoonishly proportioned face is a mottled mess of stitches and scars.
Much of what is great about the film depends on this only slightly heightened honesty in watching and following Harrelson's Arthur Poppington in his search for Captain Industry, and it's Harrelson's pared-down, quiet performance that gives much of the film its heft. From the film's bookends in the psychiatrist's (portrayed by Sandra Oh) office as more is gradually revealed about Arthur's past to the moments where the character strips away the black face-paint and becomes what is basically a sweet-natured simpleton of a guy, whose complex delusions and simple sense of right and wrong make him initial cannon fodder for the young hooker he takes in, this is a role of great weight, one whose quality isn't dictated solely by the presence of Name-Not-Announced mental disability within the character, and every bit as affecting as Jackie Earl Haley's louder, angrier Rorschach from last year.
It's after Poppington has been arrested and admitted into psychiatric care that the film hits its stride – bringing up surprisingly complex questions about the societal worth of the character's actions within the city, over newspapers and radio call-in inserts, and the effect it's had on the rest of the common people. Certainly, it's a more heightened depiction than something like The Dark Knight where this kind of thing is concerned, but it's one that brings the film one of its most striking images – one that it returns to near the end-credits – of a mural painted somewhere in the inner city, with the hero's name scrawled iconically in bright orange lettering, while a skewed yet remarkably vividly sketched Defendor figurette watches down from the corner. Beneath all, in bold black letters, are only two words: “Fight back.”
To be sure, it is an uneven film – Peter Stebbings seems to walk a weird line between two different scales of reality within the movie, one that is at the first slightly caricatured, even implicitly comedic in its familiar trappings of a jut-jawed Elias Koteas as a conniving undercover policeman, and Poppington speaks in a faux-Christian Bale Batman voice, being able to appear and disappear into a police station at will. And, yet – there's still another one that posits a greater sense of verisimilitude, within the sequences of Poppington and his young female ward-by-proxy or on the front porch of his brother, where we're told about the character's past, something low-key that seems to cut at his essential core. I've never been one of those guys who's said that a film has to remain adhered to one tone, and in many cases, I've chastised a film for doing such a thing – but Stebbings alternates between these two a little bit too quickly, and without the intent of creating any sort of meaningful juxtaposition or contrast between the two. But, there's more than enough here that allows for a glossing over of such a thing, I think.
In a sense, the film ends as you might expect it to, but – because of all that has come before – with a stronger emotional heft than what might be expected initially. Perhaps it's the fact that we don't really believe that what happens to the character has really happened, because we've been faked out twice before. Or, maybe it's the still lingering sentiment of what his brother had said to him only a few scenes earlier, something that seemed to cut at the essential core of the character – or, it might be neither of those things, or all of them at once. For my part, it might be the film's two codas, the latter revealing the fate of Kat Denning's self-named character Kat, and reveling in what might have been Defendor's truest, greatest act of heroism.