Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Thousand Cuts: Not As Clever As It Thinks It Is

Self-reflexivity in horror films is some tricky, tricky shit. It is really easy to try for “clever and self-aware” and end up in the land of “smirky and overly pleased with itself.” The first Scream film balanced its whole examination of the “rules” associated with slasher films with being balls-out scary and intense, but it’s a fine line to walk. Horror films about horror films are high-risk, high-reward and when they fail, it’s embarrassing. You’re not just making a horror film, you’re making a film that also communicates a particular view of the very thing you’re doing - it’s easy to be smug or overly celebratory or self-indulgent, and in my opinion, horror films work best when they’re completely sincere.

Case in point, A Thousand Cuts, which tries to be an incisive indictment of a certain type of horror film, but ends up dumb and contrived, oddly unaware of the very thing of which it purports to be aware.

Lance Ross is a successful director, responsible for the very popular and lucrative movies A Thousand Cuts, A Thousand Cuts 2, and ATC3. They’re slasher films, maybe of the type usually referred to as “torture porn” (I still hate that term), and they’ve done him well at the expense of any artistic integrity he once had. He has a nice house, and the film opens as he’s throwing a big party there, with all kinds of Hollywood movers and shakers in attendance. As the party winds on, strange things happen - intermittent power outages, a mysterious message left on the lawn, and finally a bomb threat. This last (combined with one more power outage) gets everyone to go home, until it’s just Lance and Frank, the affable electrician who came out to fix the power problem.

Lance may be a big Hollywood hotshot (from making three slasher films?), but he’s still down-to-earth enough to invite Frank in for a beer. They get to chatting - Frank doesn’t go to the movies much, but he’s familiar with Lance’s work. See, Frank used to have a daughter - a daughter who died at the hands of a killer who copied the method from Lance’s movies down to the last detail.

Out comes the gun and some handcuffs. Frank wants to teach Lance a lesson about accountability, and he’s going to start with Lance’s sister Melanie. Who is not where she’s supposed to be. Instead, she’s someplace where she’s rapidly running out of air.

There's a germ of a good idea here - a filmmaker who traffics in cheap thrills and gory sensationalism being faced with the potential cost of his glib, shallow treatment of violence (especially in terms of serial killers, something about which I've made my feelings clear on multiple occasions). And there are moments in this movie that hint at what this could have been - scenes of interrogatory exchanges between Lance and Frank where there's actually some give-and-take around the idea of responsibility and causality. To outside observers, the film industry can come off as insular and complacent sometimes (witness people who come to the defense of someone like Roman Polanski, apparently tone-deaf to its implications), sheltered from how others live and at risk for mistaking its own value system for one with any relevance at all outside of the entertainment industry. There’s a reason “Hollywood types” are often painted as flakes living in a shiny privilege bubble, and so maybe there's something there worth interrogating. But if there is, this movie doesn't get to it.

Most egregiously, almost everyone in this film is a caricature. The opening party scene is an interminable parade of clichés sketched in ways so broad as to practically be crayon. There’s a wannabe actor whose entire repertoire is impersonations, there’s an obsequious screenwriter hopeful who endures terrible treatment for the hope of getting his treatment read, there’s a female filmmaker who is too smart for the room and a sexist pig of a producer who offers her increasing amounts of funding for every article of clothing she takes off. Lance begins the film every inch the smug, preening asshole, the ultra-successful director who is slightly contemptuous of his own success and far removed from his more artistic and idealistic film school days. None of it feels real because it inhabits a world in which making three slasher films puts you somehow on the level of someone like P.T. Anderson or Darren Aronofsky. Even the most successful directors of this style of horror film do not have that kind of legitimacy or that kind of income. As a result, the whole thing feels like a straw argument against the film industry written by somebody whose entire experience is from the outside, and maybe that of someone who is both weirdly jealous of it and defensive of their own outsider status. It's hard to articulate, but when an agent tells Lance "if you made a movie that got a good review in the New York Times, you would have made a movie that nobody went to go see" it feels like somebody is arguing for populist genre entertainment like the gimmicky slashers Lance makes, but doing so with absolutely no nuance or insight whatsoever, or any recognition that violent horror movies do sometimes get good reviews in the New York Times. It’s a critique completely uninformed by the economic or artistic realities of the movie business.

This pervasive unsubtlety extends to the events of the film proper. Lance and Frank essentially engage in a battle of wills, and Frank sort of has the upper hand, in that he doesn't care whether he lives or dies, and he knows where Lance's sister is being held. All he has to do is keep his mouth shut and not do anything and Lance loses his sister. There's nothing especially wrong with that, but the goalposts sort of keep moving throughout the film - does he want Lance to own up to who he is? Does he want Lance to kill himself? Does he want Lance to go through the torment his own daughter went through? For someone who seems to have this whole thing thought out, Frank's endgame seems to change depending on what needs to happen next in the film. Events occur out of convenience (there are some last-minute reappearances of people that beggar possibility), and things that feel like they should be twists never actually resolve in interesting ways. It starts off going one way and being interesting, but then sort of half-asses the resolution in the most obvious and clumsy ways possible.

So in sum, a lot of potential gets squandered. Frank's own past failings as a parent are touched on a little, but not as much as they could be, and there's the possibility that Lance has some skeletons of his own in the closet that keep him from being exactly innocent too. There’s a repeated idea that everyone in Hollywood is trying to get into the movie business somehow, and stale though this observation is, it leads into questions about who someone appears to be and who they really are, and if it is possible for those two people to merge, which is interesting given that we’re dealing with someone who traffics in the appearance of violence and someone who is a casualty of that violence made real. Lance only has Frank’s word on a lot of things that are going on, and Frank is careful to control the situation, much like a director controls the events of a film. Unfortunately, not a lot happens with this. The whole tension between appearance and reality in general could lead to much more interesting developments than they do, but it ends up being as shallow and relatively thoughtless as Lance.

Which brings me to another thing that stuck in my craw - it's supposed to be a critique of dumb, shallow, violent movies, but it is itself dumb and shallow. It's not especially violent - all we ever get are elliptical suggestions - but if you're going to make a movie that purports to critique a certain type of film, never mind the whole film industry, you should probably be at least as smart as, if not smarter than, your subject. What we get here reads like something a novice screenwriter thought was deep merely by virtue of its self-reflexivity, while leaving the majority of the potential for that self-reflexivity untouched. In its broad, uninformed characterization, relative bloodlessness, and an ending that comes damn close to being some kind of altar call, the whole thing feels like a Christian-entertainment answer to a torture porn film. It’s heavy-handedly moralistic, it nods to ideas it doesn't actually explore, and presents a pat answer of spirituality (or at least abandoning a decadent lifestyle) as the "right" answer, without any of the actual appeal or engagement with dangerous imagery the genre requires.

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