Sunday, March 13, 2011

Kill Theory: Words Get Shouted, Things Get Broken

After my last post on My Little Eye, it occurred to me that there are quite a few "people forced to play a deadly game" movies floating around. Some of them are pretty good, some of them are pretty bad, and some of them are part of the Saw franchise. Accompanying the basic premise (people, isolated location, do a thing or you/somebody else/everyone dies) is usually some half-baked psychology - how badly do you want to keep living, what will you do when faced with your worst fear, how far will you go for money/survival, yadda yadda yadda. It's half-baked because you don't need to put people in some convoluted trap house to find that sort of thing out. Hell, just sit a couple of people in different rooms and have them play out the Prisoner's Dilemma if you want to see what people are capable of doing and for far lower stakes. Narratively, it gives the filmmakers a pretext upon which to hang the events of the movie, the framework for the icky stuff to follow. Contextually, it gives the evil mastermind types some justification for the atrocities they perpetrate. They can tell themselves they're investigating the depths of humanity, but they aren't. They're just sadists - no, wait - they're pretentious sadists.

If you're going to take this "the real monster is humanity" route in your movie, your best bet is to underplay it, to let believable characters with plausible motivations act naturalistically. If you're going to try and convince me that people are capable of monstrous deeds under sufficient pressure, then make the protagonists recognizably human. Show, don't tell. My Little Eye, for its faults, did a very good job of this. Kill Theory runs so far from this approach to storytelling that it can't find its way back.

The movie opens with one of the least plausible conversations between a psychiatrist and patient ever. The patient survived a mountaineering accident, cutting himself loose from his three best friends to keep himself alive while they plummeted to their deaths. In case that wasn't apparent from their conversation, we're treated to superimposed news clippings telling us pretty much the same thing.  The patient believes that anyone else would do the same thing he did in a similar situation (hence the title KILL THEORY and no awards for subtlety). The psychiatrist all but says "I think you're wrong about that, and the state says you're not a danger any longer but I'm writing another book and you're going to be good for a few chapters, so I'm not signing off on your release unless you agree to another year of treatment," cementing the patient as someone with unresolved issues and the psychiatrist as an unethical asshole.

The entire conversation was totally unnecessary except to tell us "hey, a crazy dude who is being irresponsibly released is probably going to make a bunch of people choose between themselves and their friends in some kind of weird survival game to prove some point to an asshole psychiatrist." In case we thought we were watching a tender coming-of-age story entitled KILL THEORY.

Cut to our van load of teen meat headed into the woods for a long weekend of pre-college graduation debauchery. There's seven of them - egotistical rich boy Brent and his vampish girlfriend Amber, nominal decent guy Michael and his equally decent girlfriend Jennifer, ethnic goofball Carlos and his Maryann-ish girlfriend Nicole, along with girlfriendless nice-guy fifth wheel Freddy. They are walking clich├ęs, head to toe. All they talk about is drinking, sex, sex after drinking and drinking before having sex. Many, many uses of the word "bro." They're staying at one of Brent's fathers' many summer homes, well stocked with beer, liquor, and a trashy stepsister named Alex. Alex rides a Harley and lets Freddy know up front that she won't be giving him any pity fucks. So, you know, classy.

With that one exception, they're children of privilege, living it up because they can, enjoying the world like it's there all for them. There's lots of talk about how they're good friends and there for each other, but it's pretty obvious Brent is an asshole, there's some relationship issues, and Freddy is, from go, a ticking time bomb of frustration and insecurity. The characters are defined completely by a trait or two each, and they're all mostly unsympathetic. Ten minutes in, the first thought that popped into my head was "I cannot wait to see each one of these characters die", which doesn't bode well if you're going to try and evoke horror through identification with the characters in the midst of their plight. At this point, it's just a shooting gallery of jerks.

Moreover, it's a shooting gallery of jerks who seem more than capable of turning on each other without any outside assistance. They're in a house in the middle of rural nowhere, there's a lot of booze, a lot of buried resentment, and at least a couple of guns and other sharp, pointy shit floating around. This is the sort of thing that breeds the very scenario the filmmakers are looking to examine. The crazed mental patient is just as superfluous to the narrative as the opening scene introducing him.

But there he is, gravelly-voiced dude tormenting them and making them turn on each other - the specifics aren't especially important, because it's not what happens in movies like these, it's between whom it happens. Lock a bunch of people into a situation like this, and it's the relationships that are going to drive the tension, not any outside threat or inventively graphic methods of execution. So if the people aren't well-drawn and we don't care about them, and there's really not much to them beyond one or two character traits, what we get when things go bad is a lot of yelling (to indicate strong emotions like fear, anger, and grief) and stuff getting broken - windows, dishes, bottles, electronics, you name it - lots of loud noise and crashing to indicate that Bad Things Are Happening and we should Be Upset. But it's no substitute for empathy, and none of these people seem to really be all that loyal to each other to start, so what we're left with is a very noisy set of death scenes, punctuated by either whispering or yelling. We don't want the torture to end as a release, we just want it to end so everyone will just shut up.

At the end of it, we are left knowing nothing more about the human condition than the point that if you take a bunch of self-centered people with screwed-up priorities and you put them into a situation which encourages them to be self-centered and screwed up, they're going to do self-centered, screwed-up things. This is a revelation to exactly nobody. What should be tense and horrifying isn't because tension requires that we care and being horrified requires that we don't want bad things to happen to the protagonists. Behavior should be identifiably, plausibly human for us to recognize our own flaws and be frightened for the protagonists, and frightened of our own weaknesses. When it isn't, it's just a pantomime of human interaction, interrupted by flashing neon signs telling us "THIS IS BAD" or "PEOPLE DO BAD THINGS WHEN THEIR LIFE IS ON THE LINE," overplaying the situation at every turn. It's unpleasant caricatures of people and loud noises bookended by pretentious bullshit about the "primal core" and "closure." It isn't a horror film, it's an opera about the cast of Jersey Shore being starred in a snuff film, written by that one high school student who's weird and wears all black and shit. No, wait, I might watch that.

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