As is often the case with any Jack Nicholson film, Jack was the greatest part of this film. While it is said to be a crime thriller meant to keep audiences on their toes with its action and drama, which is not really the effect that Chinatown has on the audience. This film actually makes more of a statement on the social and political situations in the United States (in this case L.A). If audiences walk into this film expecting a mindless crime thriller, then they will be sorely disappointed.
In a broad sense, this film is about America as a corrupt capitalist society. Jack Nicholson's character J.J Gitte seems to be one of the only characters in the film who sees the water drought in Los Angeles for what it really isthe controlling of a vital source of life for a civilization by the rich and powerful. The rich and powerful owners of capitalism are represented in the film by the character of Noah Cross and (most of) the members of the Water Department. These men are able to use money and power of influence to re-route the city's water to certain places in order to make themselves even more money. It's a classic case of the rich getting richer by stealing from the poor. J.J sees through this and as a private investigator used to dealing with cheating spouses, he gets himself in way over his head while investigating the death of Noah Cross' partner (and son-in-law), Hollis Mulwray. Hollis, it appears, was one of the good guys, one of the liberal men like J.J, wanting to do good. It was his decision to give the ownership of the city's water to the people instead of himself and the corrupt Noah Cross.
The characteristics of Noah Cross and J.J Gitte are almost entirely opposite from one another. Also, the way that these two men treat women seems to be indicative of the way they treat others. Throughout the film, references to J.J's past working in Chinatown seem to be ever present. It comes to our attention that J.J left Chinatown when he tried to "save someone from getting hurt" but couldn't. It's to be assumed that he tried to help out a woman that he had feelings for, failed, and that she died. This is exactly what happens to Mrs. Evelyn Cross Mulwray. He falls in love with her (or at least lust), tries to help her, and it ends up turning out exactly as his past Chinatown experience. J.J tries to do good, but there are so many powerful situations beyond his control that he simply cannot. Noah Cross, on the other hand, controls everything. Throughout the film we come across many different people who's actions have been influenced by Cross. It then comes to our attention that Noah Cross raped Evelyn when she was 15 years old, that she got pregnant, and that the childKatherineis both Evelyn's sister and her daughter. It is no understatement to say that Noah Cross literally controls everything around himincluding his daughter and what to do to her. He seems to embody the epitome of cruel, whereas J.J embodies the epitome of naïve goodness.
Chinatown itself is another symbol present in the film. Chinatown appears to be the place where everything goes wrong for the good guy. There's no law in Chinatown, there's nothing to stop the rich and powerful from getting away with whatever they want. It is the end of goodness, as is represented by the murder of Evelyn Cross Mulwray by one of the cops. J.J's associate walks up to him as he is staring at Evelyn's dead body in the car and listening to Katherine's screams as she is taken away by her cruel grandfather/father. The situation is entirely hopeless, so all he can think to say to J.J is "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown." It's a powerful last moment of the film, but it still offers no relief to the audience. We know that J.J won't be able to stop Cross' plans to steal a majority of the city's water to help himself profit during a drought, we know that Katherine will be raised by her "grandfather" and perhaps suffer the same fate with him that Evelyn did, and we know that there is no solving the fact that the nation (symbolized by Chinatown) will never stop being run by the corrupt because the good are powerless to stop it.
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