Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Hanged Man: Cut, Paste, Copy, Paste.

Much of film - especially horror film - is about artifice.  You're trying to convince viewers of something that isn't actually happening, whether it's that Gotham City is a real place, George Clooney robbed the Bellagio, or the nice house in the suburbs is infested with malevolent spirits. And we're complicit in that as viewers, at least if we want to enjoy the film we are. This is probably why I have the prejudices I have toward criticism based in comparisons to the real world. We are suspending disbelief to one degree or another when we watch any kind of film. Film is designed to facilitate that. There are exceptions - documentaries of course, but also mockumentaries and deliberately artificial films which instead use violation of that disbelief as a storytelling tool. But in general, we're watching a movie under the pretense that we're watching actual things happen, instead of being played out for us.

The Hanged Man screws this up in a big way, and doesn't even have the decency to use its mistakes as subtle clues to some larger end.

The film opens with a montage of people typing messages (which we hear in overlapped voiceover) in some sort of chat room. The tenor of their conversation is one of anger and despair. These are people who wonder why they should go on living. In fact, these are people actively contemplating suicide. As the montage continues, a new voice enters the conversation - one saying he has a poison that will help each one of these people reach a peaceful end. A pact is made, and a meeting place is set. They will meet at an abandoned barn owned by one of the group members, and they will wait for the man with the magic potion to come, so they can all leave this world together peacefully.

So these people - six in all - arrive one by one at the abandoned farm. They insist on addressing each other by their screen names, so we're introduced to Spaceshot, a shy young woman who owns the property; SoCo, a hotheaded young man who doesn't think Dwarfstar (the one with the poison) is going to show up; Flash, as irritating a caricature of a redneck as you could want; Miles, a fairly levelheaded normal-looking guy without much to distinguish him; X-Factor, a young graduate student; and LT56, an investment banker intent on going out with a bang. They gather at the barn, and wait for Dwarfstar to show. And then the local sheriff shows up, and the hallucinations begin, and it seems like everyone is being stalked by some evil presence determined to…kill them?

So there's problem one - make your protagonists suicidal, and suddenly threatening their lives seems kind of silly. Still, you can use an actual threat as sort of a "hey, living isn't so bad after all" wake-up call, so that's not a big deal.

Problem two is a big deal though - and that's that this is one of the most artlessly artificial movies I've seen in some time. Pretty much everything about The Hanged Man screams "hey, this is a movie made by someone who has no idea how to make anything look natural." The dialogue is awkward and not delivered so much as recited - it's a bunch of people saying words someone else wrote, complete with measured pauses between each person speaking, as if everyone is waiting for one person to finish before they begin. That they refer to each other by their faintly ludicrous screen names only underscores how absurd the whole thing is.  It even extends to the cinematography - many shots, especially toward the beginning, are so aggressively staged and composed that even our perspective on the unfolding events feels staged. You can't get away from the feeling that these people are being displayed, running through the motions. It almost feels like a teleplay, but still not a very good one.

On top of the technical issues, the characters themselves aren't terribly believable. The idea of a bunch of people who only know each other through the Internet meeting to fulfill a suicide pact has potential, for sure. The tension between putting real-life selves to their online personas has potential, as does the way that strangely detached intimacy would interact with an even more intimate act like group suicide. These should be lonely, emotionally damaged people, but they aren't. They're just a bunch of people who showed up in the same place at the same time. It's hard to tell if their conversations are awkward because of who they are and aren't to each other or because the dialogue and delivery are so forced. 

Then there's the question of why they're there - the suicide pact is supposed to be contingent on Dwarfstar (the seventh member) showing up with the poison he's concocted. He keeps not showing up, they keep waiting. As one does when this sort of thing happens, they start getting distracted, talking to each other, working out Internet relationships and group politics face to face in real time. Into this narrative void arrives the town sheriff, looking for a car that LT56 stole. Things go bad, and the next thing you know, the sheriff is tied up in the hayloft in the barn and everyone starts hallucinating that he's walking around free, cutting them down with scythes as visions of them killing themselves in entirely different settings flash through their heads. So there's the twist, I guess, but it's staged in a very fitful and distracted way - there's no rising tension, no climax, no twists. Things happen, then they don't. Sometimes the characters remember why they're there and advance the plot, but not all that often. 

For that matter, sometimes the characters remember that they're supposed to be characters, to have history and internal lives and purpose.  We get little flashes of insight into each one - at least one isn't who they pretend to be (on the Internet? Why I never), others lie to themselves. Some of these little bits are trite as hell, but some are actually staged well - there's a bit with Flash that's so good and so surreal it feels like it came from an entirely different, more interesting story. It's hinted at throughout that not only do these characters have their own secrets, but also that where they are isn't necessarily really anywhere - like it's a purgatory in which each character only sporadically remember that they're already dead and how they died. This isn't a spoiler, though - because that's not what's going on at all. If it were, it'd still be a huge clich√©, but it'd at least make sense in terms of what we're given. But, it's something else entirely, and its climax is so thoroughly illogical and uninteresting in light of what came before that whatever little goodwill the film has earned by the end goes up in a cloud of "what the fuck?" Maybe it's supposed to be a twist, but twists are usually existing events reinterpreted from a different basic assumption. This is just a flat-out lie, dropped in out of nowhere, out of a different movie even.

And that's probably The Hanged Man's biggest failing - it's cut and paste from the bottom up. The dialogue is pasted in the actor's mouths, the shots are pasted in as storyboard moments with little narrative flow, the story is a bunch of elements pasted in in some vague order without consideration to drawing connections between events. Somebody plunked down all the pieces you need to make a scary movie and slotted them together without once asking why they should bother, and the transparency of that is so blatant as to border on contempt.

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