I Live In A World I Didn’t Make

Recovering 8 Million Ways to Die (1986)

illustration by Dani Manning

“Don’t give up until the miracle happens.”
–Bill W., Alcoholics Anonymous



A slow fade in from black—one that feels less like waking up and more like coming to—reveals a cityscape vantage you’ve surely seen a million times before in a million opening scenes. The familiar helicopter shot of sky-high buildings all cloistered together and surrounded by endless curlicues of freeways dotted with the ellipses of traffic neverending, all those stories coursing through their ouroboral roundelays beneath a scab of sky smog-stained a dull brown that suggests either dried blood or wet bourbon or some lurid cocktail of both.

As this single-take shot progresses, such genre banalities emerge from that smeary cataract:

A downtown L.A skyline jagged with buildings like mismatched whiskey bottles. Cursive title credits in screaming blue neon. A hardboiled voiceover (“Yeah, ‘there are eight million stories in the naked city,’ remember that old TV show? What we got in this town, we got eight million ways to die). A thick, stabbing synth score. It’s a topography of 1980s neo-noir cliché, a cinemaworld we know by heart.

And then that whole fucking world turns upside-down.

The helicopter shot banks hard to the right, tracing a drunken arc south now—away from the screen-common glamorglitz megalopolis  of L.A. towards something else, something never made Hollywood-famous, past the bars and shopping centers that lattice Little Tokyo. Through the ruins of gangland-strafed housing projects like Aliso Village and Pico Gardens. Running along the southbound 5 freeway now, a gradual but definitive turnaround from the celebrated Los Angeles that you know and deep underneath into the South Bay territory that you do not. And as it presses into this arterial tangle of container ports, oil refineries, and auto plants, the camera vertiginously tilts—no longer is the shot straight ahead, rather, it slowly angles downward until it’s shooting directly beneath the helicopter, where in a moment of bravura moviemagic skill it somehow locks onto single police cruiser surging forward on the 5 amidst the millions of other stories spilling onto the heatsplit morning concrete, all in a  fearlessly audacious single take that began minutes and miles before.

The helicopter speeds past the police cruiser now, but the camera stays locked upon it, pitching backwards to keep the car in frame and thus rendering the entire shot upside down, as if the cruiser is now scaling a Sisyphean sky in which it must drive forever and impossibly upward from below, from underneath, and the entirety of this long unblinking tableau transforms what was slickly mundane into something dazzlingly unrecognizable. A beginning unlike anything else in the genre, for a film that’s never been accepted into that genre’s fold.

Millions of ways to start a neo-noir, but you’ve never seen one open like this. What we got is this film, we got 8 Million Ways to Die.


To Live and Die in L.A. Against All Odds. Manhunter. Black Rain. Blow Out. Year of the Dragon.

The list of style-slick and brutally violent neo-noirs of the 1980s is a catalogue of some of the finest studio filmmaking of that decade, dark and adrenalized auteurist visions in which mercurial filmmakers crafted gore-flecked and neon-shaded morality tales, using the crime films of their youth as a genre superstructure to wreak hyper-aesthetic havoc within. However—cut from that same coke-dusted cloth and yet forgotten, marginalized, mocked, and held at distant remove from both the list of genre classics and from cultural memory is Hal Ashby’s 8 Million Ways to Die.

Hungover with a “troubled production” notoriety, helmed by a cocaine-weakened director on a losing streak, and as grimly focused upon the lead character’s realistically-portrayed alcoholism as it is the genre thrills of a dead sex worker whodunit, 8MWTD came and went in the summer of 1986 without a gun-bang, or even a whimper, but simply a whiskey-breathed sigh of fatal resignation. Abandoned by critics and rejected by audiences, the film is now known more for its reputation as a failure, rather than any actually failings—a Mandela-effected fate to exist in twilight-dim obscurity, a crude but mesmeric light blotted out by brighter, more well-known titles, remembered more for its infamy as one of the worst films of its genre and the worst film Hal Ashby ever made, by those few who bother to remember it at all.

8 Million Ways to Die is a fucking loser.

But underneath that loser’s reputation, unseen and unloved, the film is also a kind of secret miracle, one of the best L.A. crime films most have never given half a chance. What the hell—more than that, this bruised and boozed slab of brokenhearted sleaze and salvation is a minor masterpiece, not in spite of its recklessly freewheeling pub crawl throughout the neo-noir genre’s tics, but because of it.


8 Million Ways to Die is not a conventional film, nor did it have a conventional production.

It isn’t even a conventional neo-noir, though it honeycombs around the genre’s tropes like brandy poured over ice. It is perpetually at war with itself, like a dry drunk white-knuckling through a world of infinite temptation—a film with a behind-the-scenes pedigree that was at once almost cosmically-gifted but wholly self-destructive. It’s a neo-noir without compare, an unstable and utterly unpredictable mélange in which every scene is a stirred mix of combustive, contradictory elements that challenge one another:

The hero and villain have the first of two genuinely electrifying and entirely ad-libbed confrontations…while eating pink snow cones in a parking lot, arguing and outright barking at one another for eight minutes straight about their sexual and financial virility. A seduction scene begins with the line “the streetlight makes my pussy hair glow in the dark like cotton candy.” The requisite car chase sequence features a dustheap Mustang grinding along South Bay streets with four flat tires. The love scene climaxes with the femme fatale drunkenly vomiting (twice) upon the hero detective’s cock. That hero’s harrowing, 12-Step journey to alcoholic recovery is honestly, humanely portrayed…within a surreal, logic-jangled noir plot about smuggling cocaine into Los Angeles County via artificial fire logs sold at a chain of low-income Black grocery stores owned by a Maalox-addicted pimp.

And yet.

From that fission of wildly ridiculous incongruences emerges a flawed but deeply-felt and nuanced portrait of bottomed-out lives desperate for redemption, a film that in its very messiness reflects the agony of its equally-flawed loser hero and the filmmaker directing him, using the world and tropes of neo-noir to literalize the imminent dangers and fatal temptations that lurked for both men around every corner. It’s a film that features every conceivable noir cliché, yet approaches each with such quirky and cross-eyed perspectives that we see them anew from a different vantage, upside-down and from underneath, giving them a freshly outsized, outlandish feel that mirrors our newly-(and shakily-)sober detective’s raw, unlubricated cannonball back into the world.

8 Million Ways to Die uses the aesthetic language of neo-noir but stretches it out into a drunken slur, saying all the old tropes and words we recognize, but with a clumsy, ferociously honest mouth—distorted, funny, violent and vulgar, sad, tragic, bemused with itself and its own clichés, hopeful, and deeply bizarre but no less true for its strangeness. Rather, in that rawboned surreality, it articulates with a kind of noble honesty the bewildering paths to sobriety, salvation, and storytelling.


Hal Ashby was stuck.

The Academy Award-wining editor-turned-director had built one of the most enviable New Hollywood careers of the 1970s, powered by his brilliant, meticulous editorial work in the 1960s (The Cincinnati Kid, In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair), then directing such benchmarks as Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and Being There. But by 1985, he was a three-time loser teetering on the brink of permanent disgrace. His recent trio of films (Second-Hand Hearts, Lookin’ to Get Out, and The Slugger’s Wife) had each been critical/commercial bombs, with the added humiliation of his being fired by the studio from The Slugger’s Wife before completing his edit. While a brilliant director (especially with actors, with whom he created thriving and thrilling environments of creative spontaneity) and an even better editor, Ashby’s erratic behavior and addictions began to fray his on-set reliability, with his intensely on-again, off-again relationship with cocaine jeopardizing both his career and his mortality. Ashby would hit bottom, get clean, score a gig, and then reclusively nosedive deep into the snow again and again, the tortuous rollercoaster of addiction that can eventually drive a high-functioner from the big top into the big sleep.

Then, in the mortifying dark following his Slugger’s Wife termination, a last chance: a script from Oliver Stone, adapted from a novel by crime author Lawrence Block, about an alcoholic ex-cop looking for a shot at salvation and, eventually, sobriety.

The low-budget production company developing the project, Producer’s Sales Organization (PSO), saw in Ashby a pathetic down-and-out has-been who could be easily broken and bent to their will, a hired gun who could shoot a stylish piece of corporate product with enough pastel-hued fucking and violence to trick Miami Vice fans into thinking they were seeing an R-rated version of Vice’s gloriously Nagel-pulp aesthetic (rather than the lazily exploitative smash ‘n grab looting of detective thriller tropes that Stone’s script actually was). But buried under the surface of the script, Ashby cagily saw something else—a chance to recover both himself and his once-superhuman talent—in the telling of a story about a man driven to the brink by his addictions, a man whose self-destructive obsessiveness, when pointed at the right object, could be the very thing that saves him.

With absolutely nothing left to lose, Hal Ashby risked 8 Million Ways to Die.


Matthew Scudder (Jeff Bridges) is stuck.

The hotshot Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Detective Sergeant has built an impressive life for himself as a good cop, a loving husband to Linda (Lisa Sloan) and devoted father to Laurie (Christa Denton). But by 1986, he’s a three-time loser teetering on the brink of permanent disgrace.  He’s recently lost his job, his health, and his family. It was his police cruiser surging out of the opening credits in the film’s earliest moments, his musing about the millions of ways in which the city, the job, and bottle can kill you. And that cruiser delivered him to an arrest gone terribly wrong just outside a local cemetery: during the routine bust of a drug dealer, the red-eyed and flask-nipping Scudder shoots and kills the dealer, who had tried to fight his way out of the arrest by breaking a Sheriff’s Deputy’s arm with a baseball bat. 

Scudder’s guilt over the shooting—was he justified? Would he have been able to only wound and incapacitate the dealer had he been sober?—manifests as a weeks-long blackout bender, on the other side of which is the loss of everything he cares about, including his family and job on the force. His erratic and irresponsible behavior has frayed his reliability into outright danger, with his intensifying relationship with alcohol running the risk of transmogrifying things like “loving husband” and “devoted father” from personal qualities into etchings found upon his tombstone.

And then, in the mortifying dark following that rock bottom, a last chance: Alcoholics Anonymous, a 12-Step program that leads him into six months of healthy recovery. Working as an unlicensed detective, at one of those AA meetings he is offered a case by a follower 12-Stepper, an opportunity to save a lost woman and, possibly, find a shot at salvation.

To those who have hired him, Scudder is a pathetic down-and-out has-been talent, a pathetic patsy to be manipulated and bent to serve purposes he can hardly suspect or discern. But as the case progresses, Scudder cagily sees something else—a chance to recover both his soul and his sobriety—in the mystery that will drive him to the brink of his addictions, a mystery in which every discovery and every mounting horror will offer him another temptation to drink until every day and every clue and pig and rat and dealer and pimp and bottle becomes another way to die…but it is also a mystery in which his self-destructive obsessiveness, when pointed in the right direction, could be the very thing that saves him.

With absolutely nothing left to lose, Matthew Scudder risks eight million ways to die.


“…put the gun away! I don’t want any mistakes…”

Like any journey through the 12 Step program, to tell the story of 8 Million Ways to Die is to make a reckoning with mistakes. And rather tellingly, this notion soaked deep into the film, throughout which characters alternately beg, demand, and warn one another not to make them, while doing all they can to prevent more.

The film, like an addict, is consumed by mistakes, jaundiced and liver-sick with them—mistakes made in the real world during its production, and mistakes made in-story by its characters. Meanwhile, both the movie, its director, and its characters struggle desperately to not be defined by the mistakes they’ve already made, but to transcend them. And the ruddy magic of 8MWTD is that they all (mostly) do—not by hiding from their mistakes, but by unabashedly embracing them head-on.

“…put the gun down, we want no mistakes…”

The film begins with the ultimate mistake: an unintended death. From that horror can come only one of two things—the closing credits, or rebirth. Scudder begins the film by drunkenly skulking through a place where stories are meant to end—a cemetery—and it is from there, at that rock bottom, that he must begin his impossible drive upward from below, like a car forced to drive into the sky.

Similarly, while some considered 8MWTD to be a “slumming” project for Ashby after nearly driving his career into the grave, the film genuinely plays as an honest attempt by the filmmaker to not only rectify the mistakes of his last three films, but of neo-noir clichés in general. Every scene incorporates one overused and garish trope after another from Stone’s coke-blown original screenplay, with Ashby’s underestimated loser’s vantage—looking up at the genre from underneath—crafting a quirkily offbeat deconstructivist revisionism that interrogates, ridicules, and ultimately elevates Stone’s sodden pulp material in a massively uphill (or up-sky) climb to turn the clichés upside-down and find something new.

“…but it’s in your hands, baby, so don’t make a fuckin’ mistake…”

And it is that delirious tension, that woozy mixture of off-set mistakes and on-set brilliance that counters them, that shot-and-chaser combo of corporate mismanagement and artistic integrity, that makes 8 Million Ways to Die so initially difficult to love and yet so ultimately impossible to ignore. Its production, and its plotting, was but an endless array of setbacks. Yet it was those very setbacks, those mistakes, that define all the hurdles that must be persevered in an addict’s road to recovery, and 8MWTD—while using a detective story framework as a wonked-out vehicle to explore that journey with Matthew Scudder—also serves in its very making and existence as a resounding metaphor for that struggle:

A film helmed by perhaps the finest director/editor in American cinema…only to be cut and spliced together by a studio-hired editor when Ashby was fired by PSO after principal photography wrapped. A film based on one of the definitive New York City crime novels of the 1980s…only to filmed and set in the industrial sprawl of El Segundo, California. A film featuring a murderer’s row of volcanic performers like Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette, and Andy Garcia…who were then forced to improvise their way through most of the herky-jerky plot when Ashby tossed the unworkable script and provided them with a 35-page beat-sheet instead.

The film, in production and in story, is a wobbly structure of repetition, endlessly dilating like cirrhosed and drunken pupils and then contracting as if dazed by hangover-hammered morning sunshine, discovering new and deeper rock bottoms of genre clichés and character flaws along the way, and returning from those setbacks each time with a weary but unyielding resolve to do better.

“…don’t make a fuckin’ mistake, man…”


8 Million Ways to Die’s first “mistake” is also the first misstep that it embraces, redeems, and transcends, and from which the remainder of the film and its form and aesthetic and relationship with mistakes flows—its very title. 

Eight Million Ways to Die, the original 1982 novel by Lawrence Block, derives its title from the population of the metropolis in which it is set: New York City, as well as the resultant number of ways the fatalistic novel-version of Scudder muses that NYC-ers can die. Every morning, he sits with his bourbon-spiked coffee, reading the newspaper and cataloging the various ways in which the citizens of his city are murdered, with the unspoken notion that the eight millionth—drinking oneself to death—is the one with Scudder’s name all over it. 

Ashby’s first move as director was to transpose the story of Block’s novel and Stone’s script from the Big Apple to the South Bay area beneath Los Angeles, immediately rendering the film’s title meaningless, as the area’s population in 1986 was smaller than NYC’s by millions and millions. Yet despite what on the surface appeared to be a cluelessly blasé dismissal of the intrinsic meaning behind the original story’s title and theme, Ashby’s stated goal in filming in El Segundo was to not only save the production on travel costs, but rather to avoid the tired cliché of a hardened detective scowling through the rainstained streets of NYC. Rather, by filming in the South Bay, he hoped to echo the 1967 revenge psychodrama Point Blank, in which the strange, flat vistas of Los Angeles reflected the hallucinatory mindset of its murderously-driven protagonist. In that way, the twisted industrial ironworks, the gutted neighborhoods, the smoke-stained bars of El Segundo all reflected the raw and jagged mind of the newly-clean movie version of Scudder, who haunts the film as a sweat-stained, mouth-crusted, and bent-backed mess of painfully new sobriety.

Further—and perhaps most importantly—despite Ashby’s location change, the film’s title takes on an added meaning for both the film’s protagonist and his director—around every corner of this film’s story and its making was a risk, a temptation, a stressor inviting Scudder and Ashby to give in, break down, to let their white knuckles flood pink with resignation while opening their fists to cradle a bottle, or a vial. On a coke-whitened film set in the 1980s, or deep in the sunken underside of Los Angeles hunting for a murderer in a the world of the South American cocaine trade, both men’s ailing bodies and aching minds faced a myriad of obstacles and threats to their sobriety—what must have felt like eight million.


In the film, Scudder’s nerve-frayed stumble back to salvation begins with $100 and a vague request—meet with Sunny (Alexandra Paul)—a friend of an A.A. friend—at a mansion in Malibu that evening. Scudder’s been six months sober since the shooting of the suspect, having bottomed out in the deepest bender of his life and come out the other side minus everything but his health, a lonely, one-room shack of an apartment behind a bar, and a tax-free vocation as an unlicensed detective. His family, home, and job are but synapse-fogged memories, and the guilt-driven bender that took them all is only shown in jagged, surreal slivers of what useable footage was available—disturbing and poignant shots of Scudder sleeping on a brick fence overlooking L.A., or breaking down in front of his daughter, or ambling off towards nowhere while half-naked and cradling a bottle, all in one of the many moments in which the mistakes of the production actually aid the film in conveying Scudder’s agonized journey:

Because once Ashby was fired after principal photography by a studio who didn’t trust his experimental but brilliant post-production style, he was unable to shoot pickup shots for various unfinished sequences (such as this one), and Scudder’s weeks-long lost weekend had to be blurrily conveyed as murky, thin-memoried sensations rather than cohesive scenes, strung together by an editor-for-hire as an assembly cut which Ashby would never be allowed to finesse or finish. Such mishmashed structuring, though, actually gives these moments an unintentionally nightmarish realism of being stuttered with the terrifying ellipses of lost time that a more intentional, structured filmmaking may not necessarily have so naturally conveyed, and in doing so strengthens the intensely personal addiction drama layered within this sweaty and half-crazed neo-noir.

Another such montage of broken time detonates the film’s plot just before the second act:

Sunny confides to Scudder that she is a sex worker looking to get out of the business. Her pimp, Chance, lives in the Malibu mansion, an almost hallucinatory estate/gambling club/cathouse high on a hill, accessible only by a cable-car railway funicular that lattices its exterior (in another example of the film’s unusual locales reflecting Scudder’s rickety psychological landscape), and Sunny claims he’ll kill her before ever letting her leave. Knowing Scudder to be a former cop, she offers him $5,000 to negotiate her resignation with the supposedly violent Chance.

Yet, upon crashing a party of Chance’s (ever the loser, the film makes a point of noticing Scudder’s scuffed and seam-popped shoes in a house full of shined alligator leather loafers), Scudder finds him to be charming, comically neurotic, and—kind of important here—not a pimp at all. Rather, he pays women merely to show up at his club and spend time on the game floor with his clients, with anything beyond that strictly between the women and the clients. Scudder also recognizes Chance as “Willie Walker,” a small-time hood that Scudder busted years ago. Chance confesses that Scudder’s arrest changed his life, and now, like Scudder, and seemingly like Sunny, he’s trying to transcend his life’s mistakes and make something right out of it (on top of making a buck)—he hires women not for sex but for companionship, while paying their rent, their car loans, and setting up their trust funds, while also owning a chain of low-income grocery stores in Black neighborhoods. He also, in a typical-for-the-film surreal inversion of Scudder’s own addiction, chugs and devours Maalox in times of extreme duress. And he refuses the money, telling Scudder Sunny is free to walk.

She doesn’t get far—when Scudder returns to her with the good news and her money intact, he watches instead as she’s kidnapped in a turbocharged van that his beater Mustang (whose four tires have been slashed) can hardly keep up with, in a car chase that undercuts the chase sequences we’ve seen before—the hero is doomed to fail before the chase even begins. And when he watches Sunny’s brain matter explode against the van’s rear window, Scudder realizes the extent of that failure, and loses himself again to the bottle. Once again, we don’t see the actual bender (Ashby was never given a chance to film it); instead, we see the aftermath, with Scudder’s body lying near death in a hospital, limbs pretzeled in on themselves, his body curved forward like the same question mark that punctuates his mortality, with whatever scraps of random footage Ashby had shot during production crossfading and dissolving over the near-dead detective. Shots of Scudder boozing and partying, Sunny’s body dumped in the L.A. River, random filaments of dialogue between the two that would have otherwise never made the finished film, all once again crafted a bullet-hard and brutal depiction of a bender and the disturbing damage it can wreak upon body and memory, a delusory brutality of vision that could have been so lacking in impact had it been portrayed in the same flat pastels and rigid camerawork that defines much of the rest of the film’s visuals.

And so, like an addict on the difficult journey to recovery, the film must frustratingly reset itself, its hero’s body now so poisoned that a nurse warns that another bottle could literally kill him—that eight millionth way to die. Aghast by these fragmentary memories and despite the nurse’s protestations, Scudder slumps and sweats his way out of the hospital to find who killed Sunny, and who drove him past his sobriety’s breaking point.


Upon its release, one of the many, many criticisms lobbed at 8MWTD is the ambling, stop-start nature of the plot. The first act roars out of the gate, a violent (and violently off-kilter) noir drama that loosely connects a series of thrilling vignettes—Scudder’s booze-bungled bust outside the cemetery, his kamikaze drinking and recovery, and Sunny’s hiring him to free her from Chance before she’s murdered in a genuinely shocking and graphic tableau. And then the second act…starts the story all over again. Scudder is once again clawing out of a desperately-edited together alcoholic haze. He’s once again slimed with toxically-gunked perspiration as his ailing body Rorshach’s his neverending Hawaiian t-shirts with flopsweat. He’s once again searching for a case that both gives him a purpose to keep from drinking, and which risks driving him right back to the barstool. It’s as if, critics have noted, the film’s first act happened for nothing.

Lost in that critical discourse, however, was the realization of how necessary that stop-start structuring is in the story of an addict—recovery is not a straight line. So often, all of the hard-fought progress made, the minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and fucking years can be obliterated by a drink or snort or spike at the end of One Hard Day, and it’s that zigzagged lightning bolt of recovery that the struggling Ashby knowingly scrawled atop his loose and freewheeling beat-sheet palimpsest of the script. It thus creates a film that challenges the conventions of the genre that contains it by not having our stable detective take a second case that connects to the first (that old detective movie standby); rather, it forces a realistic depiction of alcoholism onto the film, and drives Scudder deeper into the mystery of Sunny’s death, which unlocks the greater mystery of Angel Maldonado (Andy Garcia).

Oliver Stone’s scripted adaptation wholesale abandoned the entire central plot of the novel—in the book, there is no overarching villain; the sex worker Scudder fails to protect is ultimately discovered to have been killed by a machete-wielding assassin because she was stealing emeralds from a labyrinthine Columbian black market smuggling ring—and instead backboned it with a made-up noir cliché of a “Mr. Big”-type character—Angel.

An explosive, pony-tailed riff (translation: self-plagiarized take) on Stone’s version of Tony Montana just three years earlier, Angel is a ferociously-performed but two-dimensional drug czar villain wedged into the film to give Scudder some kind of foil for the noir plot. But while Angel begins as a plot device, with Ashby’s loose direction and Garcia’s manic performance, he becomes something else entirely.

As Scudder learns, Angel had Sunny killed for stealing from his drug operation—one that, improbably, fills fire logs with cocaine (L.A./the South Bay being a city much in need of warm fireplaces, natch) and disperses them throughout the county. As such, Angel  is also the force that pushed Scudder off the wagon; not only that, Angel comes to represent all the demons in the addicts world—he is the literal dealer who provides drugs to strung-out junkies; he is also a force of murderous chaos, able to stress a person struggling in recovery to the point of drinking again; finally, with his slick suits and his constant obsession with wealth, success, and the bottom line, he is every Hollywood executive who ever worked against Hal Ashby.

While the scripted version of Angel is something of a bungled, hackneyed mistake, in Ashby and Garcia’s hands he becomes a gravitational force around which the plot organizes and orbits, and the metaphor for every challenge an addict in recovery must face. He also allows—yet again—for the film to challenge the staples of its genre in a setpiece that is equal parts shocking, hilarious, almost dizzyingly stupid, and ultimately a deconstruction of the typically overblown machismo posturing of the ‘80s neo-noir.

Having pegged Angel as the murderer, Scudder demands a meeting in the parking lot of the L.A. Coliseum, where Angel meets him with a carload of body guards…and a trunk filled with an industrial Sno Cone maker as a sign of his extraordinary wealth. It is here, in what should be the galvanic mid-film confrontation between hero and villain…that Scudder and Angel stand toe-to-toe while licking and eating passion fruit sno cones and alternately murmuring, whispering, threatening, and screaming at each other for eight ad-libbed minutes about their sexual and financial power and Angel’s access to drugs (a standout: Bridges mentions “the white stuff,” and a giddy Garcia giggles with a mouthful of Sno Cone, “The White Stuff, isn’t that a movie about astronauts?”) and how either man shouldn’t dare risk challenging the other. 

Additionally, Ashby filmed each scene asking his actors to give their most over-the-top performances first, thus allowing them to eventually mellow into a laidback groove in the later takes, with the intention that the more casual performances are what would make up the film. However, after Ashby’s termination, the editorial team of Robert Lawrence and Stuart H. Pappé selected the first, most ridiculous takes for this scene, rendering it a surreal vision of ridiculous, testosterone-riddled madness—an editorial mistake that actually makes the scene work as a satirical takedown of the kind of dickswinging macho cool that permeated the decade’s noir films to an almost toxic and parodic degree. Once again, the film peers at the genre’s mainstays from underneath, providing a new (and intentionally/unintentionally hilarious) deconstructing gaze at what would otherwise have been a by-the-numbers confrontational setpiece with an otherwise by-the-numbers villain.


If Angel is all the demons of the world, then Sarah (Rosanna Arquette), with all her complications and rage and dismay at Scudder’s bullshit, offers a vision of what life can be if one survives the horrors of an Angel.

The Madame who runs Chance’s girls (including Sunny), Sarah initially is presented as the film’s two-dimensional femme fatale, a sexy and caustic beauty who exists solely to clock Scudder as a loser and trade garish barbs (a typical early exchange between the two: “Prick!” “Fucking cunt!”).  But with Ashby’s reworked script, and Arquette’s mostly ad-libbed performance, she becomes—like Angel—a burst of energy that saves the film during its second-act reboot, an explosion of trauma and anger and sexuality and forgiveness that not only gives Scudder a reason to keep going, but the film as well. 

After haphazardly kidnapping her from Chance’s estate to keep her out of Angel’s paranoid clutches, Scudder and Sarah spend a long night in hiding at the bar he lives next to, and then at his one-room shack. At the bar, Sarah teases Scudder for his alcoholic weaknesses as she downs drink after drink after drink until falling into a drunken stupor. Later, in his room, she attempts to seduce him, but instead drunkenly vomits on his dick…twice, in what is a strange and dramedic subversion of the typical second act sex scene between hero and fatale. Instead, the two spend a sexless night together, and wake to a morning of shared confessions:

Sarah’s father was an alcoholic who drank himself to death, that eight millionth way to die. In Scudder, a father, she sees the destructive force that ripped her family apart, killed her father, and created the central trauma of her life. Scudder, a barely in-control alcoholic, sees in Sarah the walking-talking results of what his addiction can do to an innocent life, the trauma it can engender. As they whisper their confessions to one another, there is a sense of raw peace and understanding that grows between them—she understands the disease that threatens to take his life, and he recognizes the life that his disease can traumatize. Together, in the yellowed sunlight of a South Bay morning, they sense a burgeoning want between one another—not a need, not an addiction—a drive to make peace with themselves, and in that peace to make peace with one another. There is a moment, staggering in its beauty, when Sarah wakes, wrapped in Scudder’s sheets, and smiles at the man—as if recognizing that if they can survive Angel, if they can survive the dead fathers and the looming bottles and the eight million ways to die, they may be able to actually mean something to each other.

In a genre in which hero and fatale almost always arbitrarily come together to fuck and fall in love in order to tantalize the plot, this realistically messy night and this morning of understanding of mutual traumas feels almost holy.


And then Angel pulls that holiness straight into Hell.

Moving against Scudder, Angel kidnaps Sarah to find what she knows about Sunny’s murder. In retaliation, Scudder recruits Chance (while also tipping off his former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s buddies) to gather all of Angel’s cocaine logs from Chance’s stores—and threatens to burn them all in a cavernously empty South Bay warehouse if Sarah isn’t released. What follows is one of the most bizarre, haunting, astonishingly unusual and unusually astonishing action climaxes to any neo-noir of the 1980s, or any film of the 1980s in general.

Scudder, ever the loser with nothing to lose, waits for Angel in a comically low lawn chair in the center of the warehouse, surrounded by endless logs full of cocaine, and several of his beloved beer bottles.Only the bottles don’t contain booze; rather, each is a crudely made Molotov cocktail ready to destroy Angel’s multi-million-dollar coke enterprise. Chance stands guard. Angel arrives, but not alone—one of his goons has a shotgun duct-taped to his hand so it cannot be dropped, with the barrel duct-taped around Sarah’s neck in one of the film’s ghastlier images. From there, Angel, his goon, and Sarah slowly begin approaching Scudder, even as the detective screams himself hoarse for them to back off and release Sarah.

It is a moment Scudder has been living his entire adult life—surrounded by bottles and substances that can destroy his life, all while the troubles of stressors of life slowly encroach around him, threatening to drive him to that final drink. Yet as the insane pitch of the sequence continues to rise—Scudder, Chance, and Angel never stop screaming at one another to back off, to not blow the deal, to make no mistakes, Chance waving his gun at Angel, Angel’s goon ready to blow Sarah’s head off, Scudder holding a bottle and lighting a match—and Scudder burns the first brick of cocaine, his previously deadened eyes alight for the first time in the film with a kind of joy and energy previously unseen—alight with the (hopefully) final chemical high of his life as the coke fumes envelop him, but also the high of a new, exalted level of recovery from his trauma: he may die here, they all may die here, but by God he will not die by that eight millionth bottle, and he will die making the world, this world he notes in A.A. that he did not create, just a little safer with no more Angel Maldanado in it.

(It’s also a sequence in which one can see Ashby working out his own demons—the feeling of trying to orchestrate something as nerve-wracking and complicated as a film, the constant encroachment of producers interfering  with his every vision.)

Finally, Angel cuts Sarah loose, and an even grander level of madness erupts—the endless minutes of throat-bloodied screaming boils over and Chance opens fire on Angel’s goons, getting himself killed in the process. Scudder opens fire on a fleeing Angel but misses. The L.A. Sherriff’s department rappel down from the ceiling and let loose with semi-automatics and shotguns, while also detonating purple and yellow smoke bombs, turning the warehouse into a phantasmagoric nightmare that once again reflects the harried mental state of an addict desperately trying to hold it together in a world designed to shatter him, but also reflected the chaos of this film’s production, and predicted the even deeper chaos its post-production sank into when Ashby was terminated. It is a setpiece that truly must be seen to be believed, and is truly the only climax that could match the strange and deconstructed film that came before it.

Later, when Scudder and Sarah sit in an ascending cable-car at the Chance estate to take refuge in the dead man’s home, they find Angel waiting for them at the top of the railway, gun in hand. Tactically in the superior position, Angel waits for the car to bring them both within shooting range—until.

Until Scudder bails from the cable-car and drops beneath the railway, barely hanging on with one hand while desperately aiming his gun at Angel with the other—like the film, like it’s amazing opening sequence, like it’s every subversion of every noir trope in the book, Scudder, with nothing left to lose, takes the loser’s vantage, upside-down and from underneath, and is able to surprise the unprepared Angel with a fatal headshot, saving both himself and Sarah.


8 Million Ways to Die is a mess, and it is an addict, like its director, and like its hero. It is an addict personified, racked with the deliriously high highs and numbcrush desultory collapse of the low lows, continually having to start over, making the mistakes, suffused with desperation, but also the hope that there can be some kind of peace—if not a happy ending, than one simply of peace. Ashby did not get that happy ending (dying two years later of cancer), nor did the film itself (languishing for decades as a film-geek joke), but there is the hope that the film’s two surviving characters may achieve it.

And while the film ends with a rather saccharine A.A. meeting on the beach—Matt is now one month sober, with Sarah at his side—he locates a kind of tired, tarnished nobility in his journey, noting that all of its chaos and pain has led him to a place where he has the strength to accept love, and to be able to wake up in the morning, rather than come to. It is a scene that does not promise an ultimately happy ending—the journey of recovery is one landmined with Angels and mistakes—but it does provide a vision of two characters who have learned to be at peace with themselves, and in that peace forge a bond that gives them both a reason to be strong, to avoid mistakes, to recover from their haunted pasts.

There are eight million stories in the naked city,” remember that old TV show? Just as there are eight million ways to die in the City of Angel(s). The secret miracle of this film, what all of its subversions and mistakes and deconstructions and crudeness build to, and what Scudder and Sarah discover at the end of 8 Million Ways to Die, is that in finding peace with oneself, and even love with another, there are also a few ways to live.