Keith Gordon’s “The Chocolate War” (1988) marked an impressive directorial debut, in which the character actor-turned-filmmaker ambitiously took on Robert Cormier’s eternally controversial 1974 novel.
The opening phrase of Cormier’s novel is, “They killed him” and Gordon ably demonstrates the meaning, as Jerry Renault (Ilan Mitchell Smith), our protagonist, gets clobbered on the football field.
A freshman with talent on the field but carrying the agony of recently losing his mother to cancer, Jerry is happy to be included among the new players at Trinity High School, as it’s the only thing going right in his life.
In the midst of the Kate Bushissaince, check out Keith Gordon’s exceptional THE CHOCOLATE WAR which among all the other things to recommend it, also features an absolutely banging soundtrack. https://t.co/hTUm2byk2a
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We also meet Archie Costello (Wally Ward), the head of The Vigils, a secret organization that calls the shots, possesses confidential student info and has influence over staff members at Trinity. Archie and his stooge, Obie (Doug Hutchison) are planning to force lesser members of the school population to sell boxes of chocolates for a school fundraiser.
When Jerry is summoned by the Vigils to sell 50 boxes alongside other select students, he infuriates Brother Leon (John Glover), and basically everyone else, by declaring “No” and refusing to take part in a Trinity tradition.
Like “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the rebellious corporate drone of Herman Melville’s novel who also suffers for refusing to conform, Jerry becomes a symbol among his peers for not giving in to the pressure the school authorities and The Vigils impose on him.
Exactly why is Jerry is doing this?
The need for some control, perhaps, after his mother’s death rattled his home life, as well as recognizing a need to stand up to an evil cabal that has taken over a religious school.
Either way, Jerry suffers both psychological and physical abuse for not selling boxes of chocolates and the “war” of the title mirrors the internal and physical battle Winston Smith endures while fighting against the assurance that he must love George Orwell’s “Big Brother.”
Gordon’s film makes the same mistake that hinders most teen dramas: although set in a high school, everyone looks college age. Renault is supposedly a freshman but Smith, as winning as his performance is, can’t convince me otherwise and neither can his co-stars.
The film is notably low budget (notice how the walls are under decorated) and some scenes and performances feel like works in progress in need of more takes.
Nevertheless, “The Chocolate War” felt like a striking contrast to both the genuine and knockoff John Hughes films of the decade. Devoid of ’80s sheen (it appears to have been filmed on overcast days) but recognizing the danger of bored, rich and unstable yuppies, it’s a welcome counter to the “Greed is Good” back patting of most dramas of that era.
Gordon likes his characters (a genuine strength of any filmmaker and screenwriter) and aims for a Kubrickian composition and pronounced stylishness in nearly every scene.
There’s also a great soundtrack full of unusual choices, such as Yaz’ “Only You” adding to a tender remembrance, a great use of Peter Gabriel’s “I Have the Touch” during a montage and an ahead of its time, perfect capper of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” playing over the end credits and providing Jerry a perfect anthem.
Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” itself became a pretty-good Crispin Glover vehicle in 2001 but Gordon’s film hits much harder.
There’s pain in Smith’s eyes, evoking Jerry’s loss, and struggle for a true connection in his life. Ward’s performance as Archie is lacking – the actor goes for icy disinterest and comes across as self-consciously weird.
In Cormier’s hands, the character was like a young Patrick Bateman, with an outward joy to the hurt he was inflicting.
Glover, in the showiest role as a corrupt, power-hungry instructor and faculty member on the rise, gives a ferocious performance. A young Adam Baldwin pops up in a supporting role and a misused Jenny Wright makes the most of her screen time as Jerry’s teen dream.
A cameo by Bud Cort gives the famous “environment” scene is a sly kick.
Like the novel upon which it’s based, “The Chocolate War” is bleak and offers an understanding of isolation that gives it authenticity. Gordon’s film captures the pain and loneliness of being a nonconformist in the midst of empowered, angry and violent sheep.
Jerry never explicitly says why he keeps saying no to selling the chocolates, though we always get why he’s doing it. Even without the eerie dream sequences, we see that Jerry is trying to restore a sense of normalcy and moral center to the world, but at what cost?
While Gordon’s film is mostly a faithful adaptation, a few elements are missing, such as the recurring phrase “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” (Jerry’s mantra and central question), and a phone call that could have given Wright’s character more purpose.
While Gordon’s film is rated R for language (containing more “F-words” than Cormier’s PG-level profanity), it dials back the references to masturbation that have continued the novel’s status as a Banned Book favorite for schools and libraries.
THE CHOCOLATE WAR (1988) John Glover, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Doug Hutchison. Dir: Keith Gordon 4:00 AM ET
Story of the repercussions endured by a nonconformist at a Catholic boys school in New England.
1h 40m | Comedy | TV-MA pic.twitter.com/TZaLTLffAS
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The most notable and unfortunate change from Cormier’s novel is Gordon’s new ending; by giving the climactic quasi-boxing match a more traditional comeuppance, Gordon was satisfying audience expectations of the day, but he also softens and sort of obliterates Jerry’s struggle; what’s the point of standing up for oneself if the whole thing can be fixed in a “Karate Kid” moment?
Gordon stages the climax well enough and, undoubtedly, gives the sort of satisfying conclusion that Cormier refused to give his readers. Yet, by softening the third act, having everything being tidy in its resolution (and Jerry’s conflicted view on his ultimate decision excised from the screenplay), it becomes good versus evil, instead of the more complex question of whether we’re willing to suffer for what we believe in.
For that matter, considering the Catholic school setting and, in the novel, Jerry’s public pummeling to a crowd that is cheering for his demise, it definitely felt like Cormier was exploring a contrast of Jerry’s doomed endurance test with Christ’s willingness to endure a horrifying public death in order to send a message about belief.
Because the movie pits Jerry against the central villain (the book made the canny observation that real villains have minions do their work for them), the film finishes with the sort of crowd pleasing that Gordon himself had avoided until that point.
The ending in the film only works if you take it as one of Jerry’s dreams – otherwise, this is a happy ending that “The Chocolate War” doesn’t deserve, as much as viewers will believe that Jerry has earned it.
Gordon’s conclusion is still somewhat bittersweet, suggesting that the cycle of sadism put in place by The Vigils doesn’t end at this school. Yet, Cormier’s famously downbeat ending remains a devastating surprise and says more about Jerry’s suffering for not becoming a Vigil.
Gordon proved to be an always interesting and risk-taking filmmaker, as his subsequent films (such as “A Midnight Clear,” “Waking the Dead” and “The Singing Detective”) are anti-mainstream, cinematically experimental and lean into character and mood over formula.
“The Chocolate War” stands out for not only being such an accomplished first movie but for its compliance with Cormier’s brutal depiction of how the misuse of words and forcing moral compromise is its own form of abuse.
Until that pesky finale, Gordon’s film stands tall above most of the high school films of its era. Cormier’s book explored the ramification of someone bold enough to “disturb the universe” and allow himself to be “murdered” twice over the course of the story.
Gordon’s film softens the resolution but not the feel and heartache of the novel, which is why, on its 35th anniversary, “The Chocolate War” deserves to be rediscovered.