While so many of his kindred company directed films so busy getting high-strung, coked-out, and animated with a life on the edge, reveling in the tension of their own deathless drive teetering on the edge of demise, Hal Ashby’s unhurried The Last Detail may actually be mistaken for druggy, hazed-out ‘70s relaxation. However, peering beyond the tempo of the film, or reading it more accurately, reveals that Ashby’s looseness is less relaxation than resignation. The Last Detail, like many of his films, is a sighing and reflexive awareness of the essential anonymity of energetic wild-man rebellion against a system designed to truck on against you until it flattens you to the pavement of a hopelessly square, domesticated existence. Wounded and shot-through with a brittle awareness of the ephemeral nature of the hippie dream, the film embodies the weary, wounded trajectory of time. It replaces Scorsese’s or Coppola’s nervous alacrity, a fear aimed at a coming insurrection, with a post-destruction elan, a strained sense of giving in to the amiable pleasures of fooling around as the only leftover joy during the decade-long amble that was the American ‘70s.
A tragicomedy in the most literal and mature of senses, The Last Detail does not vacillate between caustic humor and downbeat melancholy. Instead, it unsettles the dichotomy and decries the notion of an emotional monolith by breeding confusion about the space between emotions. It interweaves a tale where tragedy and comedy aren’t dueling partners vying for control but mutually constitutive and one in the same. Scenes that might be wound-up in another American New Wave film are distressed here, suffering from a post-coital sense of torpor temporarily reviving the energetic blitz of the ‘60s in a pitilessly temporary fashion. Every moment of levity is doomed to slide into tragicomic awareness that the playful demeanor is mostly a way of spinning wheels until anything better comes along. Comic scenes that might end with a spark or follow a narrative sense of raise, climax, and resolution instead wander around errantly in an existential fugue state searching for the punchline.
Fittingly, the narrative, or the structuring idea for a film without much of a narrative, is that of two navy sailors, Billy Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Richard Mulhall (Otis Young) on shore-leave to deliver another lonely soul, Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), to a naval-yard prison in Maine. A disabled, maimed road trip ensues with all the usual shenanigans and tomfoolery one expects from the like. But Robert Towne’s screenplay singes the looseness of the narrative, creating an emblem for a wandering America crippled with an existential inability to etch out a forward path. Much like Monte Hellman’s acid-speckled Westerns Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting (also starring and co-written by Nicholson) where the desert mutates into an existential void, The Last Detail does not kindle but sour the get-away narrative into a journey without a destination. The narrative of the hairpin turn sours into a slump as the endearingly sloppy three-day scruff the film grows mutates into a woolly, uncombed monstrosity of a life even the characters cannot cope with. Just getting out of bed to perform a narrative at all is too arduous a task for a film more interested in wasting the day away in the stupor of life.
Speaking of Nicholson, The Last Detail is another quintessential wrung on the ladder of roles that trace the contours from ramshackle mirth of an elastic, unsettled lifestyle to the increasingly less scrappy disillusionment of never quite arriving at the location you didn’t realize you were secretly hoping to find all along. (The most definitive such angry, brittle young man role for Nicholson was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, although the much superior Five Easy Pieces begs to differ; The Last Detail is not as stupendous as the latter, but it too exceeds Cuckoo’s Nest, an acting tantrum of a movie without a formal style to match wits with). Unfortunately, Nicholson’s lunacy would warp into a garbled gargoyle version of cartoon rage once the ‘80s found a kitschier, poppier, friendlier way to use his maddened energy. But in these early roles, every line reading and searing, glazed-over gaze suggests a person in mortal tension between anti-social enmity and seeking refuge in their own rugged disobedience that increasingly feels merely self-serving when dwarfed by the all-seeing monolith of social domesticity, conformity, and governance. His animalistic energy and tweaked, reflexive intimations of tiredness is a canvas upon which all the decade’s indiscretions, apprehensions, hesitations, and hang-ups can be analyzed and scrutinized.
Ashby’s style is not formally as abrasive as Nicholson, but the director rouses himself to explore the anatomy of hollow American spaces. He directs with an eye for ephemeral places that add to the character of the film’s malaise rather than funneling us through a story with no room for tangents. (The narrative is, after all, about men who live lives exclusively through tangents so much so that they cannot really even be called tangent to anything.) His customarily laconic visual style also evokes the emotional tension between inebriated hang-out and drunken wake, intermingling the fun of structureless, roundabout joking with slovenly, unfinished sentences that never get to the point. His sense of humor, as well as Nicholson’s energy, discover the vacant lives hiding behind humor rather than pummeling us with a nihilistic brutality that would replace the casually caustic and cynical vibe of the film with something needlessly nasty.
Put more bluntly, rather than preassuming that life is terrible from the beginning, The Last Detail feels out its depressed vibe through contrasting it with the genuine but compromised comedy of living only to goof around. Written in the sort of barbed chicken scratch that clings to you even as you try to escape it, the film ultimately suggests that the only consequence of fighting against the dying of the light was your own corpse being thrown into the grave with the hope of the ‘60s. In death, you could at least hope to give the light’s corpse an eternity of company, albeit not of the conversational kind. For a decade of people collectively sharing a drink they called loneliness (to paraphrase one of its most famous chroniclers), The Last Detail ponders if even that was truly better than drinking alone.