“After gods, after revolutions, after financial markets, the body is becoming our truth system. It alone endures, it alone remains. In it we place all our hopes, from it we expect a reality which elsewhere is leaking away. It has become the centre of all powers, the object of all expectations, even those of salvation. We are those strange, hitherto unknown humans: the people of the body.”
–The Coming of the Body (Hervé Juvin)
When we first see Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) in Pain & Gain (2013), he is pumping away outside a gym facility in Miami. Dwarfed by an image of physical perfection better than him, he heaves out short phrases of self-motivation with every crunch: “I’m big… I’m strong… I’m hot”. It’s the summer of 1995, we are told, six months after Lugo’s fate-sealing detour from ordinary life, and it’s time he paid for his transgression. Cut to the past. “My name is Daniel Lugo and I believe in fitness”, go the first words of the voiceover, channeling the opening lines of The Godfather (1972), where a man declares that he believes in America. The two sentiments are not too far off for, according to Lugo, to be fit is to be American. To not groom your body is then to be unpatriotic: “If you’re willing to do the work, you can have anything. That’s what makes the US of A great. When it started, America was just a handful of scrawny colonies. Now, it’s the most buff, pumped-up country on the planet.” The body in Pain & Gain is not simply a metaphor for America, its promises and its cult of the self; it’s the very incarnation of these things, of the Great American Dream.
Lugo believes in this dream more sincerely than anyone else. He takes pride in being self-made. He reads biographies – embodiments of the myth of self-sufficiency – of men whose “reach exceeds their grasp”. He borrows his world view from the movies and takes at face value the successes of Rocky Balboa, Tony Montana and Michael Corleone – various manifestations of the American way to the top. Lugo’s eventual failure is not because he hasn’t imbibed well the value of individual enterprise; it is because he has imbibed it too well. Like all his well-meaning compatriots with social ambitions, he believes that you can get whatever you want in life if you worked hard enough. No pain, no gain. But then he also assimilates the dark corollary of that ideology: if you don’t have what you wanted, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough. He attends self-improvement classes and convinces himself that he just needs to be a “doer” to transcend his rickety financial situation. ‘Do’ becomes an intransitive verb for Lugo. He does things to get what he wants. It doesn’t matter whether or not he does the right things. He thinks he can improve himself and also make America a better place by simply acting out of free will. He becomes blind to any effect the external world can have on him, to any invisible boundaries that might thwart his endeavours. The more hopeless his circumstance, the more he seems oblivious to it. And every time a situation gets out of hand, he regresses back to the one thing he has control over: his body.
The acute observations that Pain & Gain makes helps foreground the body-centrism that marks postmodern ethos. It recognizes that the body is today both the most-prized capital for the individual as well as the most-productive domain of his investment, that, instead of being a means to a transcendental end (religious mortification, ideological sacrifice), it is the end in itself. While it might be true that, in a post-historical cultural climate, the body becomes the site of resistance to all homogenizing, subjectivizng ideologies, only the most fiercely individualistic and socially-isolated among us can succeed in rejecting the corporeal norms that the images around impose on us. What doesn’t overtly instruct us in the name of beauty instructs us under the guise of health. But then, within a fractured food system, even health becomes a luxury of the affluent. A few centuries ago, the body presented a sort of contradiction to the seeming omnipotence of wealth. Not just in its eventual mortality but also in its essential intolerance of alimentary richness. Now, the wealthy buy their way to better food while the rest sustain themselves on industrially-manufactured junk. (One of Lugo’s clients expresses his distaste for salads, pointing out that it was invented by the poor. He’s right, but it is today the preeminent rich man’s food.) If good health, longevity and comfort be the prerogatives of the well-off, it also gives rise to a curious desire for physical exertion. Millionaires tending their own garden in order to dirty their hands, artists taking up projects that make them feel closer to the working class, enthusiasm for expensive extreme sports, increasing population of premium gymnasiums – the examples of this sublimated death drive are numerous. I am reminded of the protagonist of Cosmopolis (2012), whose alienation from all tangible reality provokes a search for physically destructive experience.
Lugo identifies with the idea of body as the locus of economic activity instinctively. He thinks that physique is an initial capital given to everyone of us whose full potential needs to be realized through constant self-improvement, and that to squander these “gifts” is un-American. (Even the arm candy he hires, an east-European stripper, is convinced that her body is a passport to the American Dream.) He puts to use this theory of body-as-capital without reflection or qualification. He promises his boss, the gym owner, that he will triple the institution’s membership in a short span of time. He tells him that his facility has no chance of surviving if it continues to concentrate on its elderly members, the reasons being (a) that the old are more at risk of injury and hence are bad publicity and (b) that the aged have lesser motivation and time left to invest on their bodies compared to the young. The gym, Lugo says, needs new blood: “you cannot build a muscle Mecca without muscle”. He entices younger customers with free body waxing service. He gives free membership to strippers to attract newer clients. His Sun Gym is a veritable meat market where muscle needs to be invested to get more muscle.
Lugo’s rise on the social ladder is predicated on a similar maximization of his body potential. He ropes his fellow gym instructors Adrian and Paul (Anthony Mackie and Dwayne Johnson) into his kidnapping scheme on the conviction that the trio, with their superior athletic ability, can do the job better than even Delta Force. Adrian needs money for the expensive injections that he must take for his sexual dysfunction and for his dinners with chubby dates. Even the pious but dimwitted Paul, whose religiosity and its demands of material transcendence must counterpoint the bodily preoccupations of his comrades, believes that God has given him the power to knock people out if needed. The trio’s morbid crimes continuously run against the intractability of the corporeal. Pain & Gain is one of the few films that I can recall which underlines how difficult it is to kill someone, while acknowledging how easily modern culture enables it. The gang tries to knock off their captive; they torture him, crash him, burn him and run him over twice, in vain. At a later point, they struggle to get rid of two corpses by chopping them up. (The breast implants of one of the two victims go on to become incriminating evidence.) Their whole rigmarole of detention, torture and extortion takes place in a gonzo warehouse for sex toys – a cross between industrialized commerce and body idealism; corporal capitalism, so to speak.
There is no ostensible moral compass within the film and all the characters fall under the critical hammer. There are neither uncompromised heroes nor unblemished victims here. Even the respectable private investigator (Ed Harris) who finally nails Lugo’s racket seems to get a gentle rap on the knuckles. As he comes back to his chic villa by the shore after wrapping up the case, his wife remarks, lamenting the murders: “Some people just don’t know a good thing when it’s staring them in the face.” The seeming sincerity of her words is undermined as it’s immediately juxtaposed with Lugo’s desire to be like everyone else. It’s a stark reminder that this law enforcer, who can’t simply sit in his posh home and enjoy his retired life, is not exactly cut from a different existential fabric compared to Lugo. None of this is to say that the film is blithely cynical, for as much as we recognize the depravity of all its characters, we also impart our sympathy to each of them in turns. Like in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the film’s moral position is sufficiently evidenced by its aesthetic choices and doesn’t need to be elucidated through a literary mouthpiece. Both Daniel Lugo and Jordan Belfort are self-appointed Nietzscheans who put to full use their physical and mental prowess to cheat and beat the system. Their success is the grotesque form of the aspirations of those around them, but unimpeded by dubious moral compunctions.
Pain & Gain is directed with a verve and nerviness comparable to Scorsese, whose influence is palpable in the film’s relayed voiceovers, sound bridges, gliding camerawork, rapid shifts in timeline, economy of exposition and high-key performances. While the on-screen texts seem too clever by half, director Michael Bay’s other stylistic excesses – his flamboyant, market-friendly colour palette, his sporadic submission to vulgarity and echoing of adolescent attitudes – are all fruitfully absorbed by the polemic edge of the material. The best sequences of the film, in fact, display an elegant classicism rare in the post-continuity cinema of Hollywood. (Note how laconic and sharp the sequence composition is when the trio meets at the gym for the first time: trust, suspicion and solidarity transmitted in a few shots of tightly controlled actor gestures and cuts.) It’s a small wonder that a much-derided director and largely-undistinguished pair of screenwriters could come together to produce a work of tremendous cultural insight and expressiveness. It may be that Pain & Gain is a fluke masterpiece, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.