This post discusses the events of the “Veronica Mars” movie in extensive detail.
“When the class war comes, Neptune will be ground zero,” “Veronica Mars” (Kristen Bell) tells us at the beginning of the movie that bears her name, a follow-up to the little-watched but deeply-loved television show of the same title, created by Rob Thomas, which bowed out in 2007. “Veronica Mars,” set in a California town that’s home to both an economically struggling immigrant community and the beneficiaries of successive tech booms and entertainment industry salaries, has always been perceptive about race and money. And the movie Thomas wrote and directed, which follows Veronica as she returns to Neptune to help an old friend beat a murder rap and attend her 10-year high school reunion, brings together those threads to tell a deeply disturbing story about police misconduct and the prospects of law enforcement reform.
“Veronica Mars” tells two stories. The first is about a sharpening racial and class divide in Neptune, which has begun to affect policing in Veronica’s home town. The second explores something terrible that Veronica’s wealthy, white classmates did while they were in high school. What makes the movie so smart is the way “Veronica Mars” ties the two together to make an unsettling point about what it takes to address police misconduct.
When Veronica returns to Neptune, she finds her hometown changed, and not for the better. On a drive with her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni) a former sheriff-turned-private-eye, the two come to a checkpoint. “Stop and frisk,” Keith explains to his daughter. “Some local developer bought all of this–now the police are running off the undesirables.” Keith can’t resist tweaking the cops who are searching the car ahead of them. “What’d you get those two crime lords for. Embezzlement? Human trafficking?” he wants to know. “I’m sure we’ll figure something out,” a sheriff’s deputy tells him, and he’s not being figurative. “Unless you want to be a YouTube star by tomorrow morning, you’ll let those boys go,” Keith tells the man, pulling out a cell phone and uploading the video he’s shooting.
It’s a nasty little encounter that pulls together a number of hotly-contested criminal justice issues. Earlier this month, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dropped a challenge to a law that would make it easier to sue his police department for racial profiling, though the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is still fighting it. And “stop and frisk” is hardly gone from the New York Police Department’s playbook. “Veronica Mars” just sharpens the motivations for the policy. If in New York, the practice reinforces informal borders between members of different races and classes, in Neptune, it’s a service a wealthy developer can purchase from a deeply corrupt police force to run young men of color out of a gentrifying neighborhood.
“At the time we added the ‘stop and frisk’ scene, I was looking for something that could show the casual abuse of power by the Balboa County Sheriff’s department, and ‘stop and frisk’ just seemed like the simplest opportunity to put abuse of power on display in a cinematic way,” Thomas tells me, explaining that the plot line was meant to reinforce Neptune’s class divides. “A couple 19 years olds have cans of spray paint in their car–I’m certainly not saying that every police officer would roughly cuff the kids, tase them, but I don’t doubt that many people would doubt that what we show is a possible result. It’s certainly well within the realm of probable results.”
Keith’s attempts to capture the actions of Neptune cops on video carries real risk, too. Just last week, the Baltimore police department settled a lawsuit against cops who took Christopher Sharp’s phone after he recorded them arresting a friend of his. As the Associated Press reported at the time, “The case led the Department of Justice to issue guidance affirming that people have a constitutional right to record officers performing their official duties.” But just because the Justice Department says it doesn’t mean that police officers won’t try to intimidate private citizens who try to take records of their actions. Keith Mars may be comfortable standing up to employees of the sheriff’s department he used to run. But not everyone will have the same confidence, and the same knowledge of the law.
That cop’s nonchalant “I’m sure we’ll figure something out” response becomes even more ominous later in the movie. On the way home from a ten-year high school reunion, Weevil Navarro (Francis Capra) stops when he sees a car being buzzed by men on motorcycles. The woman inside is Celeste Kane (Lisa Thornhill), the former wife of software mogul Jake Kane (Kyle Secor), who is frantic with fear that she’s about to be raped and murdered. But when Weevil comes over to ask if he can help her, she shoots him through the closed window of her car, later claiming that he knocked on the glass with a pistol, rather than his fist, and saying that he threatened her. It’s a shocking scene with horrifying echoes of the death of Renisha McBride, who was shot to death by a suburban Detroit man when she knocked on his door. Theodore Wafer, who has since been charged with second-degree murder in the case, didn’t even bother to open that door before he fired through it, hitting McBride in the face.
The same cops who were running the “stop and frisk” checkpoint appear to have gone to extra lengths to make Celeste’s story true: Weevil is found with a stolen gun that a guilt-wracked Deputy Sacks later tells Keith he’d checked into evidence. “This is my 11th client in the last 6 months to claim the sheriff’s department planted contraband on him,” Cliff (Daran Norris), the Mars’ lawyer, tells Veronica and Keith.
Thomas says that in writing that storyline, it didn’t even occur to him that Celeste Kane could get charged for shooting Weevil, much less go to jail–instead, he found himself focused on what would be a long campaign by Veronica and Keith Mars to exonerate Weevil.
“Of course she doesn’t,” he says. “The Trayvon Martin case was certainly on my mind when I was developing the story, then the Michael Dunn verdict came down after we’d already shot the movie, so we were sort of, unhappily, landing in the zeitgeist.”
But it’s not the tragedy of Weevil’s shooting, or the excesses of “stop and frisk,” that ultimately force reform in the Neptune police department. Rather, Sheriff Daniel Lamb (Jerry O’Connell, in fine, mugging form) is finally disgraced when he overreaches in another direction: Going after an innocent white man on a murder rap.
The white man in question is the legal Pigpen of Neptune, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), Veronica’s ex, who’s been accused of murdering his girlfriend, pop star Carrie Bishop (Andrea Estella). He’s innocent, of course, because for him to be otherwise would be to deny us a smoochy reunion between Neptune’s favorite blonde private eye and the guy she just can’t quit.
But Carrie, it turns out, had some stains on her own character. In high school, she and a number of her wealthy friends, including Gia Goodman (Krysten Ritter), let one of their classmates, Susan Knight (Christine Lakin) overdose during a party, and sunk Susan’s body on an anchor so she couldn’t be found. “We’re picturing jail time! Lost futures! Lost fortunes!” Gia eventually confesses to Veronica. It’s a stinging reminder that the wealthy and powerful don’t just do bad things because they’re reckless with other people’s lives. Sometimes, they commit crimes because they have an awful lot to protect.
But Gia and Carrie couldn’t just erase Susan and move on to, respectively, marriage to a Senator’s son and a successful pop career. In a twist on Neptune’s stratified social scene, Lou Cobbler (Martin Starr), who Gia describes as “Just this total trailer park weirdo,” bought his way into the party where Susan died by providing the drugs that she eventually overdosed on. And while he encouraged the popular kids he was partying with to dispose of her body, he didn’t participate, stepping back to take pictures instead. Cobbler had been blackmailing Gia and her friends ever since. In a town marked by radical income inequality, the incentives for preserving your reputation are high. And if you have the means to ruin a wealthy person’s image, the price you can charge them to keep their secrets is astronomical.
There is an extent to which the story of Carrie’s murder feels like a soapy diversion from the racialized policing tactics Veronica has seen practiced in plain sight since she returned home to Neptune. That’s especially true after Deputy Sacks is murdered to prevent him from becoming a whistleblower about his department’s corruption, and an attempt is made on Keith Mars’ life to prevent him from passing along the information he’s learned.
But just as Veronica’s smart enough to tell 911 that “A cop has been shot,” knowing they’ll respond faster to a crime scene for a police officer than for a civilian, “Veronica Mars” recognizes that sometimes, the only way to force even minor reform is to acknowledge that power and money mean more than appeals to justice or racial equality. At the end of the movie, Sheriff Lamb is vulnerable to an electoral challenge. But it’s not because he planted a gun on Weevil. It’s because he told Logan that he intended to railroad him into a conviction, an event Veronica recorded from a camera concealed in a truly awful trucker hat, and then released to TMZ.
And while it’s great that Veronica has managed to make it possible for someone–maybe even herself–to mount a credible campaign against Lamb, the means by which she achieved that victory leaves plenty of people out. Most prominent among them is Weevil. At the end of the movie, Veronica still hasn’t managed to vindicate him against Celeste Kane’s charges. And with his reputation as a family man and a business owner in tatters, Weevil’s gone back to riding with his old motorcycle gang.
The end of the movie raises another question: Veronica sees herself as a reformer, but is she really so different from the cops she looks down on? Her training as a private investigator has made her awfully comfortable breaking into houses, spying on the people she suspects, and threatening to expose people who have done the wrong thing.
“I don’t know if Veronica will ever have a self-reflective moment about the lengths she goes to in her quest for justice or vengeance. It’s the part of her I like writing,” Thomas says. “It’s a slippery slope, I know. I’m certainly on the political left, but I do think of Veronica sometimes when I think of the Obama administration. I voted for the guy. I like him. I catch myself having faith that warrantless wiretapping or drone strikes are all done with our best interests at heart. I have to force myself to remember it won’t always be someone I trust sitting in that office.”
“Veronica Mars” ends on a triumphant note, with Veronica determined to clean up the home town she ultimately can’t leave behind. But there’s a real note of uncertainty there, too.
“Dad always said this town could wreck a person,” Veronica reflects sadly, musing on Weevil’s fate. “It’s what happens when you’re playing a rigged game.” But however much Veronica sees herself as capable of resisting the town’s traps and the corrupting effect of taking power, Thomas acknowledges that his beloved heroine is walking a fine line. “I show cops casually tasing people in order to show that these cops are not worthy of our respect; Veronica is, of course, pretty cavalier about tasing people,” he acknowledges. “I recognize the hypocrisy in that.” And the risks, as well.
It’s a testament to “Veronica Mars” that the movie isn’t just an exercise in fan service and nostalgia for a television show long gone. Instead, it’s a sad, sharp statement on what happens when income inequality, police misconduct and racism compound each other, and how hard it is to win even limited change.