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Ballad of a Lonely Traffic Cop

In a city of sunny weather and spit-clean sidewalks, Expired explores the other side, the beleaguered world of Los Angeles traffic cops, that special breed of police officer who are treated like the scum of the earth.
At first glance, Cecilia Miniucchi's Expired pivots on the same hoary indie plot: Loser with crappy job meets same, and they fall in love. While the writer/director's film flirts with this romantic comedy standard, Miniucchi ends up jumping bravely into much darker waters. These characters are so painfully dysfunctional that it's hard to imagine what will come of their clumsy attempts at mating. 

 

But the director, in her first full-length fiction feature, clearly does love them. "I am a little bit of all of my characters," she said in a recent phone interview.  "I feel compassion for all of them." But what about the really really annoying ones? Laughing, she says, "Characters arise from who-knows-where—it's not like it's more important to portray one character more than any other character.  It's important to be honest to them and the way the movie wanted to be made." It's this passion for authenticity that drives Miniucchi's work and makes the film ultimately redeeming.   

In a city of sunny weather and spit-clean sidewalks, Expired explores the other side, the beleaguered world of Los Angeles traffic cops, that special breed of police officer who are treated like the scum of the earth. Miniucchi, who was born in Italy but now lives in LA, experienced the abuse up close one day when she watched a bedraggled female traffic cop shrink away from a screaming driver in her neighborhood. "I felt so sorry for this woman when I saw her on the street.  What a horrendous job." When I wondered aloud that mean people in cars seemed more like an east coast thing, I was duly corrected. "LA is more wild west than back east. The city is so humongous and spread out, that the car is its own character. There is nothing but cars, and the disgrace of having to pay so many tickets. The traffic cops are horribly abused.  It's mean and it's uncivilized – you can actually see humanity devolving."

And there you have it—a perfect setting for an indie movie semi-love story. Samantha Morton stars as Claire, a quiet, passive cop who longs for an emotional connection but ends up with the kind of abuse she endures in her job when she falls in with fellow traffic cop Jay, played by professional film misanthrope Jason Patric.

Jay is a sad excuse for a grown-up, and all of his fear of the world gets directed into rage at civilians and their cars. He leaves interactions abruptly, telling Claire, "I'll probably call you." When they're in bed, he suggests that she "whiten her teeth a little, and shave down there a bit."

We watch Claire, in her impossibly passive way, struggle to reconcile the desire to have "something" over "nothing," while at the same time pushing Jay to treat her better. "Please be nice to me," she pleads to Jay, after her mother dies and they drive his little traffic cop car on the highway.  Buffeted by the winds of the highway and the whims of angry drivers, we're reminded how little protection Claire and Jay have, in their rattling police cart, from the world's caprices. In another scene, Jay approaches Claire in his cart as she directs traffic with large, impossibly white gloves. The gloves move with a regimented sureness and power that Claire lacks, and Miniucchi presents us with an irresistible contrast between the simulated authority of the gloves and Claire's helplessness.

Sometimes it's hard to understand why Miniucchi insists on portraying Claire without a backbone, and Jay as such a farcically unlikeable person. For the director, however, it's only realistic that the abuse in Claire's relationship with Jay would mirror the abuse in her job. "Because maybe that's all she knows.  It's because of despair and need that she clings on this path.  She is naive."  Her take on their relationship was much more Zen than mine. I wanted Jay to be run over by the next angry LA driver, but she sees their connection as a stage in Claire's life, something that "must be fully lived through in order for them each to grow."  Indeed, connections forged out of loneliness often don't make sense. Miniucchi feels compassion for her characters, perhaps more compassion than we do, but she cares less whether something "important" happens to them. Love? Relationships? These words aren't the goal: What matters is that she stays true to Claire and Jay as characters and that they change in their own small and clumsy ways.

This embrace of the authentic, in all of its shuddering, teeth-grinding awkwardness, is surely a challenging path for even an indie filmmaker to tread. Beyond the unique plot machinations, Expired is a visually striking film. Miniucchi, who is also a photographer, imbues her work with a Hopper-esque quality, paying attention to lonely figures and lighting cramped apartments with what she calls "the small little worlds of pathetic taste" that her characters inhabit. Occasionally she uses a very low depth of field and deft touch of chiaroscuro to augment the sense of isolation: small toy cars teeter on the edge of couch cliffs, plastic Christmas tree lights cast an odd glow in a darkened room. Her decision to shoot the entire movie with a Steadicam gave the actors a lot of physical flexibility in the moment; in the final scene, we travel smoothly along with Claire and Jay as they twist on the floor in a breathless, seamless shot.

Towards the end of our conversation, it becomes clear that there is another reason why Miniucchi has such compassion for her characters, and that she believes, ultimately, that Claire grows from her relationship with Jay. Due to budget and time constraints (as Morton left the filming on an earlier schedule), the film's missing the screenplay's final scene, in which Claire bravely tells Jay off, ending things for good. Jay, overwhelmed by emotions he is usually able to control, cries. I think Miniucchi sees the characters partly through the lens of this last scene, but the audience can only imagine what it would have been like to watch Jay shed real tears. .

Despite this disappointing gap, Expired's now-final scene leaves us with an extraordinary sense of vulnerability and isolation.  Jay and Claire tremble and curl into and away from each other on the wall-to-wall carpeting of Claire's cramped apartment. As the two crawl around agonizingly, we're left wondering, as Miniucchi suggests, whether humanity is evolving or devolving. In the world of traffic cop mating rituals, it's certainly hard to tell.

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