Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Jug Face: Old-Time Country

You know who routinely gets a raw deal from horror film? People who live in the country. Going all the way back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, people who live out in the sticks, the boondocks, the middle of nowhere, etc. are routinely portrayed as debased and subhuman. Sadistic at the very least, often cannibals, inbred to the point of monstrosity. Maybe it’s because the country is shorthand for the unknown, the place where you can’t find your way back, the place where your cell phone can’t get a signal. The place where you are lost. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tremendously effective, this sense of being out of your depth and at the mercy of those whose world it is. At its best, it’s terrifying, and at its worst it’s one more tired cliché.

That said, it can be a problem. Horror film, like any other creative work, cannot be separated from the cultural context in which it occurs, and painting an entire swath of a country’s population as nasty, brutish, pig-ignorant monsters over and over again is, well, a little creepy. Even when it’s the noble, stoic dignified country folk of We Are What We Are, well, they’re still doing awful things in the name of tradition, in the name of the “old ways.” It’s the same shit, just in nicer clothing.

In this regard, Jug Face is interesting. Like the aforementioned We Are What We Are, it deals with traditions, the old ways, and what happens when youth insists on defying them. But this isn't the stately country of We Are What We Are, this is squalid and ramshackle and at least in the beginning, uncomfortably cartoonish. But that changes as it's made clear what's at stake, and what begin as tired redneck tropes clarify over the course of the film into wickedly sharp commentary on the desperation of life as the rural poor and how things that seem monstrous from the outside might be the only way to survive.

The opening credits are done in the style of folk art, describing silently the life cycle of a rural community. They tell us who and what this community is - what's important, what their rituals are, how life goes on in these woods. A man spins clay into a person’s likeness, that person is chosen to go to the pit, where their blood is spilled, where they are given to the pit, and so life goes on. Life revolves around the pit, as it always has.

Our way into this small community is Ada. We meet Ada as she’s running into the woods, chased by a handsome young man. They seem like two young lovers, stealing a moment for a kiss. This is our first impression. This is our romantic impression. But there’s not a lot of room for romantic ideas in these woods. The young man is her brother, and he half-cajoles, half-forces her into sex with him. You get the sense that they’ve been doing this a long time, and that it’s mostly based on him wanting to fuck her whenever the mood strikes him. Ada puts up with it more than anything else. Their return to the community (it can’t even be called a town - it’s just a loose collection of shacks and run-down trailer homes in the middle of the forest) brings more bad news: Ada is to be married (well, “joined”) to another young man. It’s already been arranged between their fathers, as it has been since olden times.

Ada doesn’t want to marry this other boy. She loves her brother, even if they can never, ever speak of what they’re doing (to its credit, incest is frowned upon here). But the bad news keeps coming. As it turns out, Ada is pregnant (and of course, her brother denies any culpability or responsibility for it), and the bad news keeps coming - Dawai, the community’s oracle of sorts, has spun a new “jug face” - a likeness of someone in the community to be given to the pit.

The face is Ada’s.

Needless to say, Ada isn’t thrilled with the idea of dying, and she buries the jug out in the woods. But that’s not how sacrifices work, that’s not how the pit works, and soon, people start to die, as they will continue to die until the pit gets what it wants, as it always has.

At first, Jug Face hits all of the worst stereotypes of the rural poor - there’s incest, living in trailers and shacks, selling moonshine to get by, all kinds of dialect and antiquated traditions, and to be honest, I almost turned it off in disgust when Ada’s father picks up some roadkill to save for dinner. It starts out awfully close to ugly caricature. But, as the movie progresses, these people become less caricatures and more people living in a very specific and difficult set of circumstances, and the young woman who wants to break with those traditions isn't a free spirit looking to move her community into the 21st century, she's scared and selfish and keeps running away from her responsibilities and obligations. Normally this causes problems anyway, but here, the problems are on the scale of people dying suddenly in messy ways, their spirits damned to haunt the forest forever and never know peace. No matter what Ada does, there's no reasoning or bargaining or ducking around the truth - until the pit gets what it wants, people will die. 

The methods these people have for dealing with people who violate the rules are harsh and brutal - from sudden, sharp episodes of ugly domestic violence to public flogging - but it's because they live on a knife's edge and death is omnipresent, like the clockwork ticking of some unknowable beast. The choice they have is this: Give up one person every full moon, or lose as many people as it takes before the sacrifice is made. There is always death, this is the price of life, and because life is precious, this bargain is enforced very strictly. Life in the country is hard, life when you’re poor is hard. Both together are unfathomably hard, and the pit becomes a metaphor for a pitiless human condition. This life will consume the young and the old, arbitrarily and suddenly. Defiance of this fact causes nothing but further suffering. 

The film does a lot with a little - spare, clean cinematography and good use of light go a long way, as do the repeated use of specific colors to articulate what's happening and some tasteful CGI is employed for the more supernatural elements that these people accept as their lot. It's never too much, it doesn't get overplayed or look overly artificial. It’s just enough to tell us that this is how it is, and how it has always been.This is a small community of people kept alive by hewing to some very old traditions, and they don't play by the rules the rest of us do. They probably would if they could, but the pit wants what it wants. The pit heals, the pit provides, and so when the pit wants blood, you’d better provide it.


  1. I was really impressed by Sean Bridgers in this movie as Dawai. He couldn't be more different here than he was starring as a very different sort of country boy in the Lucky McKee/Jack Ketchum movie The Woman.

  2. I still haven't seen The Woman (its prequel, Offspring, may be one of the worst movies I've ever seen), but I know Sean Bridgers as Johnny Burns from Deadwood, and Johnny's basically Dawai but sort of played for comic relief. I was surprised to see Sean Young in this.