Ten years before Target (1985), Arthur Penn directed Gene Hackman in the detective film Night Moves (1975). Here they are, at it again, and a fabulous job it is! Target is not entirely dissimilar in its thematic preoccupations from Night Moves, for, once more, family is the heart and soul of the picture.
Here it is set in the larger context of a poisonous past snaking its way into the present and wrapping constrictive coils around a very ordinary family. At least it seems very ordinary — at first. Walter Lloyd, a successful lumber yard owner, takes a little drive (adumbrating the coming odyssey into his past), slowly and properly, out to a racetrack where his son, Chris, is fixing a car (is this a displaced version of his repeated attempts to fix the relationship between his father and mother?). The father and son don’t see eye to eye on things, especially the son’s future. He wants to be a race driver; his father wants him to finish college. The tension between them is palpable, as are the stresses in the relationship between the father and the mother. Part of the problem is that father and son don’t know each other, and the husband has grown too cautious. The son knows there are problems, the father knows it, and the mother does. Indeed, she’s off on a vacation to Paris on her own.
Walter and Chris try to get to know each other, taking a fishing trip together, but it is painful. Up to this point the pacing has been glacial; nothing has really happened.
The classic telephone call in the night changes all that and propels the narrative to fast-forward. It reveals that the mother has disappeared from her tour. Walter wants to wait for more information, but Chris says he is going now — if they wait till the father is ready, it will be too late. From here on in the film swiftly cranks into high gear, and the story starts to rev.
I won’t give away important points of the plot. Suffice it to say that in the course of the working out of a katabasis tale, layers and layers about the father are unpeeled, and Chris gets to know him in a way he would never have imagined possible. A murky past catches up with Walter, and in the gradual explaining of a distant causality for what now transpires, he slowly admits his son into his confidences and reveals a deeper truth about himself, his identity, and his life before settling down. As true katabatic hero, he is reborn out of his past (observations are made several times that Walter — Duke – was thought to have been dead all these years [if, as not infrequently happens in films, someone who is ‘believed dead’ turns up alive, be alert for a katabasis pattern]).
The katabasis map in Target is unmistakable to my eye. Walter, the hero, must rescue his wife. She is being held by a man named Schroeder. First there is the escape from Paris to Hamburg by car and train; an old ‘friend’ will help them in Hamburg, Lise — the typological goddess, so to speak, who helps the hero. There are obstacles on the way, in the form of a nasty number, Glasses, and Carla, a woman Chris meets by apparent chance. There is the taxi driver and Schroeder’s emissary, both of whom hunt Walter in Hamburg (he escapes by leaping down on a boat). The son helps him. The colonel whom Duke visits is a Teiresias figure.
This lighter variant on the journey into foreign terrain is paralleled in the trip to East Germany. Like Viet Nam, East Germany (or Russia or China) is the ‘underworld’ of choice in many a Cold War thriller: it’s got the demarcating check points, the forbidding minions guarding the entry way (often with Cerberus-like dogs), the strip of no man’s land (the region you enter after leaving the real world but before you enter Hades’ realm proper). The trip out is usually more arduous than the one in. Once Walter is in, a Hermes-figure dressed in black takes him by black motorcycle-sidecar deeper and deeper into East Germany. The landscape becomes more desolate, the forests thicker, the fog hanging over the terrain denser. Arrived, finally, at Schroeder’s place (having passed conspicuously through two open gates), Walter meets the Man.
Schroeder is old, in a wheelchair. He sits in a dark recess of a greenhouse, and when we first see him we cannot make him out. He emerges slowly, a large black dog by his side. He takes Walter to a cemetery and discourses on his convictions that Walter had killed his family some eighteen years ago. Schroeder is a perfect Hades who, if you will, is mourning eternally the loss of his Persephone.
Walter and Schroeder, after some tense moments, come to a revised understanding of what happened in the past, and the denouement, a piece of nail-biting excitement, unveils the real culprit. Walter frees, by defusing the bomb attached to, his hostage wife and son’s mother, and brings the family together. Full circle from the start — the look on Chris’ eyes as he sees his parents embracing fervently speaks for all children, of whatever age, whose fantasies yearn to see parents together and not at the other’s throat. The explosions that background this physical reunion resonate: the hangar, which contains ancient planes long since fallen into desuetude, emblems of Schroeder’s animosities of, goes up forever. The family can leave the past, finally, and get on with their lives in the here and now.
You may wish to argue that what I see as a katabasis is simply typical thriller stuff. Well, yes, but these reviews are my world, and I happily need answer to no disdainful editor who knows better than I how to write my own stuff. If you want to argue that the map of this film — and so, so many others — is not that of the katabasis of classical myth and not that of the reconciling father and son of any mythical family, then the burden of proof is on you. That these are basic tales endlessly repeated merely illustrates the obdurate tenacity with which their typologies have taken root in our collective imaginations. The narrative phenotypes are protean, as numberless as the Shades below; but the tale’s genotype endures, unchanging and immutable, like a Platonic form somewhere above.