Monday, October 05, 2009

Movies: The corpse of true love never did run smooth.

Deadgirl is a pleasantly bracing satire of coming of age flicks which takes the extreme dehumanization of Girl Next Door and plays it as a slick epater la bourgeousie. The film's being widely heralded as a profound exploration of humanity's heart of darkness, though this seriously oversells it. It's unfair to poor Deadgirl. The flick's absurdist plot, pixilated characterizations, and lightly worn nihilism - all of which are sources of the film's grisly charm - get crushed under the ideological baggage being heaped upon it. It also elevates vacuous moral exhibitionism that confuses its metaphors for the real and then congratulates itself for grand Potemkin stances made under conditions where the right answer was given to them. The best approach to the flick is think of it as dark comedy.

Deadgirl, first feature from the directorial team of Marcel Sariento and Gadi Harel, tells the story of Rickie and J.T., two inarticulate and rage-filled slackers who ditch school one day to drink warm cans of beer and vandalize an abandoned mental hospital. Ah, youth. These early set up the dynamic between our two leads. The Mexican-American Rickie is the reserved, mopey, artistic one. Dirty white boy J.T. is violent, snide, a charismatic in a strictly animal way. Long before the titular plot development makes the scene, viewers know how this relationship is going to pear-shape on them. Rickie's the innocent - even his sexual fantasies center around a JoAnn, a girl he kissed when he was 12, suggesting she's more a symbol his own pre-sexual childhood than a real human woman with which Rickie wishes to make the beast with two backs. (In fact, the only action Rickie will see in a movie filled with rutting is when he shakes hands with Yul Brynner). In contrast, Noah Segan plays his J.T. as a destructive manboy, quickly adapting to all the worst elements of masculinity (from his Nicholson-by-way-of-Slater's-J.D.-from-Heathers delivery to his trailer trash efforts to affect Hefnerisms) filter through his pathetically limited world view. J.T. is an example of the despised becoming despicable.

Fleeing a pissed off stray dog that catches them in the tunnels under the asylum, the two boys find a captive woman, naked and bound to a medical gurney, in a hidden chamber. At first they assume that the woman is dead, but J.T. quickly discovers that she is only sorta dead. Inexplicably, J.T. wishes to keep her and, being a wuss, Rickie is unable to bring himself to call the cops. In short order, J.T. figures out that the dead girl - who remains nameless throughout the picture - is zomificated (though these teens seem to live in a world where no zombies movies, comics, or books have ever been produced since nobody uses the "zed word"). And, without much concern for the possible medical complications that would arise from fluid sharing contact with an inexplicably animate corpse, begins using her as a masturbatory aid or sex slave, depending what status you grant zombies as "people."

Of course, their secret gets out. J.T. invites stoner amigo Wheeler to join in on the fun. Then two rich kid bullies, who apparently wandered into this film from One Crazy Summer, discover J.T. zombie grotto. Complications ensue, deaths are involved, and the rapidly decaying relationship between Rickie and J.T. turns violently ugly.

Visually, Deadgirl is a surprisingly assured first feature. Though the inky blackness of the sub-asylum tunnels occasionally defeats the directors, Sariento and Harel produce a flick that is always professional and, occasionally, quite beautiful. The acting is sufficient to the flick, though I say that recognizing that the flick has tons of weird tonal shifts - from the squalid grotesque to near slapstick - and everybody should be applauded for managing to keep up at all. Segan's J.T. is a standout - Segan seems to be the only guy who not only handles the bizarre shifts in tone, but embraces them as an excuse to expand his character. Others, like Shiloh Fernandez's plodding Rickie, just hold one tone, refusing to break character even as the movie's loopy internal logic drags them from one scene to the next, breaking the logic of their characters for them.

I would say that there's just one problem with Deadgirl. Unfortunately, it is a doozy. The film wants the petrol that comes from it's shocking premise, but it doesn't want to pay the cost of truly engaging that premise. It wants to be a dark, stylish, slick, and sick entertainment; but the figure of the dead girl and grim implications of J.T.'s treatment of her loom too large in the mind of the viewer for them to come along. Despite the centrality of dead girl to the plot, what her unique status means in terms of moral engagement and how Rickie and J.T. react to that status as moral actors isn't really important to the story. The characters in the flick are written as incurious, almost thoughtless beings. There's a layer of irony that allows us to see their limitations, this also allows us to see the limitations of the zombie girl trope. It's a fake moral choice with a built-in out: For the viewer, there's never a reason to side with J.T. His position is insane and inexplicable from the get go. Even from a strictly self-interested perspective, you'd have to have a pretty specific skeez to overlook all the reasons J.T.'s option is a crap idea. Because we can't imagine siding with him, there was never really a moral conflict. Instead, we fall on the predictable idea that good guys just do good and bad folks just do bad. Rickie doesn't do the bad thing because he's a good guy and J.T. does the wrong thing because he's a bad person; and we side with Rickie because he's the good guy. But the viewer acutely feels the need for something more. The desire to see the creepiness of the abuse at the center of the film thematically justified nags at the viewer and undermines the filmmaker's more modest intentions. Like the boys in the film, they want the dead girl, but they want it consequence free. And - as any viewer of the film could have told you the moment J.T. decides to keep her - that isn't how it works out.

1 comment:

Adam said...

"It's a fake moral choice with a built-in out: For the viewer, there's never a reason to side with J.T."- Wow, I don't completely agree with your reading but I'm with you 100% on this.

Very articulate and thoughtful article. I'm so jealous.