Life doesn't have much value in Clockers. (Lee co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Price, from Price's novel of the same name.) The movie's world -- a Brooklyn housing project -- is one of unremitting violence, guns, drugs, cash, and near-hopelessness. It is a small, self-contained hell from which there seems to be no escape. Yet the moral rot, while extensive, is not complete, and the connections to the outside world, while frayed and fragile, have not been entirely severed.
The main character, for instance, a young clocker (drug dealer) nicknamed Strike (Mekhi Phifer), is interested in trains, even though the only train he's ever ridden is the subway. Strike, with his shaved head and billowy clothes, assumes a feral pose on the street; he wears an expression of inscrutable alertness and brings off drug deals with elaborate hand signals worthy of a third-base coach.
But at home with his trains he curls into a vulnerable boyishness, because he still has the imagination of a child, and there's a part of him that hasn't been spoiled. Strike is the movie's central and unfathomable paradox; he's the product of a paradoxical world in which humans treat each other with inhuman, cannibalistic brutality, but cannot quite escape their feelings of kinship.
Despite Strike's boyishness, it's not hard to believe that he committed the murder whose investigation drives the movie's story. Lee's camera carefully peeks at the handgun inside the folded newspaper Strike cradles in his arms as he approaches the victim, a self-absorbed jokester who works as the night manager at a fast-food restaurant. Four shots ring out -- but off-camera. The cops (all white) arrive, joking crudely about the victim and referring with brutish contempt to "Nubians" and "DMFs" (dead motherfuckers). To them the murder is just another bloodstain on the pavement, another casualty in a civil war that has nothing to do with the white middle classes. They don't care.
There is one exception: He's Rocco Klein (Harvey Keitel), the lead investigator assigned to the case. Keitel, with his plain but compelling looks and a chord of decency sounding beneath his coarse street pronouncements, stubbornly refuses to believe the confession of Strike's brother Victor (Isaiah Washington), who until the shooting has somehow managed to be a straight arrow -- family man, reliable worker -- in a world whose incentives all tilt the other way.
It doesn't take Keitel long to suspect that the real killer is Strike, not Victor. For one thing, Victor isn't a troublemaker. For another, Strike is: He has a criminal history, and he works for Rodney (Delroy Lindo), the neighborhood's scurrilous drug lord, a man whose pleasantly weathered middle-aged face belies (as did the face of Marlon Brando's Don Corleone in The Godfather) a businesslike murderousness.
Rodney is the projects' moral cancer: He would never use crack, and he forbids his underlings to use it, but he "sells a product everybody wants," he tells Strike, and he'll "never go out of business." He sounds like a spokesman for a tobacco company, except that he packs a gun and has no compunction about poking it in Strike's mouth for the purpose of controlling by terror.
The movie is rife with moments that fascinate in their awfulness, but one of the most dreadful is Rodney's tale (told in flashback in the grainy, harshly lit style of a snuff film) of his first murder. The killing was unnecessary -- except that it created a blood bond between the young Rodney and his mentor. Rodney's pulling the trigger while his mentor watched gave the older man "something personal" to hold over Rodney's head. It's like the passing of knowledge from one generation of a family to the next, father to son, but the knowledge is death instead of wisdom, and the family ties are not those of affection but stark fear.
True to the unhappy model, Strike finds his own protege, a 12-year-old boy named Tyrone Jeeter (Pee Wee Love). Tyrone is a good student with a protective mother (Regina Taylor), but he longs for popularity and masculine stature. Soon Strike has him running a variety of nefarious errands. Their relationship is the most complex and contradictory in the film: Strike threatens to shoot Tyrone if he doesn't obey, but he also regards the younger boy as a little brother and tries in his own way to look out for him.
Toward the end of the film, the world closes in ominously on Strike, who by now is regularly spitting up blood from an untreated intestinal problem. In a brutal, poignant scene in a stairwell, Strike rejects Tyrone -- shouts at him, dismisses him, patronizes him, treats him like a brat scarcely worthy of attention. Tyrone is bright, but he's too young to understand that he's being thrown from Strike's burning ship for his own good. It's a scary and unpleasant experience, but it's the boy's only chance to be saved -- and maybe Strike's only chance, too.
The movie doesn't offer much in the way of hope, but it does show the simple heroism of people who refuse to surrender to bloody anarchy. Keitel's Klein speaks with casual ease of "niggers," but his repeated offers to help Strike and to protect him from a vengeful Rodney are genuine, if not loving. Tyrone's mother channels her anger in a productive direction -- against the corrupters of her son. Even Strike, who is at heart a frightened, cowardly child, manages to hang on to a shred of belief that he's a better person than circumstances permit him to show.
Clockers in the end is about mass helplessness fermenting into anger that corrodes from the inside, destroying people and their institutions -- but not everybody and everything. Anger can give sustenance, too, on the long march to social change.
Clockers is screening at area theaters.