Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Baskin: Between Two Worlds

It’s a tricky thing, to try and mash up two different styles of film into one. When it’s done well, you get something fresh and interesting that elevates both styles, and when you don’t you get an incoherent mess. And I just got done watching a whole lot of incoherent messes, so I really, really don’t want to write about another one.

Luckily, Baskin (Raid) is not an incoherent mess. It’s a striking effort that really straddles two worlds, not just cinematically, but thematically as well.

It’s late at night, and a young boy is asleep in his bedroom. There are toys everywhere and drawings he’s done, and dim light streams in through the windows. The boy is awoken by some sounds from outside his room - what sounds like moaning coming from the bedroom across the hall. It’s the sounds of two people having sex, and the boy almost knocks on the door, but then thinks better of it. He wanders out into the living room, where the TV is on, tuned to static. He heads back to his room, but when he turns, there is red light streaming out of his room. It upsets him, and he doesn’t want to go near it, but suddenly there is a hand - bloody and outstretched - reaching toward him. He tries to run into the other bedroom but the door is locked. He calls for his mother, but there is no answer.

The hand reaches out, and the door slams, blinding us to his fate. Smash cut to title.

It’s not immediately clear who the boy is or what happened - although it will be made clear in time - but after the title, we’re introduced to the actual protagonists of this story. It’s a group of cops - paternal Remzi, burly Apo, young Arda, belligerent Yevuz, and nervous Sabo. They’re sitting in a restaurant, having a few drinks, having some food, and swapping crude stories as men do. Sabo’s stomach is bothering him, though it isn’t clear why, but the others are just hanging out and enjoying some camaraderie. Something’s off, though. There’s something in the air. Sabo gets sick and cries out in terror. Their waiter makes the mistake of laughing at one of Yevuz’s stories, and Yevuz takes offense to this. You get the feeling that Yevuz was waiting for an opportunity to take offense to something. Things get ugly for the waiter.

Basically, our protagonists are a pack of bros with badges and guns. They’re not bad in the sense of being evil or corrupt, but they’re comfortable throwing their weight around. They leave the restaurant, crank up some tunes and rock out for a bit like bros do before they get a radio call - it’s another unit asking for backup. It’s in a bad neighborhood. Not bad like, crime-ridden. Bad like...cursed. 

And this is how our five cops find themselves entering a very old building. A very old building where an even older ritual is taking place.

Baskin is in many ways a film about duality. The film itself alternates between two tones - dreamlike and visceral. This shows up in how it’s shot - the first half of the film is dominated by saturated primary colors, with a lot of haze and bloom in the lighting, giving the whole thing sort of a slightly fantastic feeling, like a fairytale. The second half, when the cops enter the building and things start going super-wrong, is dominated by stark lighting with lots of shadows, half-glimpsed figures, vision constrained by the beam of a flashlight, and everything is murky and grimy. Long shots and slow, sensual detail are replaced with quick cuts and frenetic movement. The protagonists enter another world, and the nature of the world around them changes as well.

It also shows up in the juxtaposition of two very different types of story. On the one hand, one narrative thread feels very much like a sort of ghost story, focusing on Arda and his surrogate-son relationship with Remzi. Arda has been plagued, ever since he was young and lost a close friend in an accident, with recurring dreams where that friend is trying to contact him but he doesn’t want to see his friend. He tells Remzi that sometimes it feels like he’s still dreaming, and this story provides surreal punctuation throughout, and it isn’t really clear how much of what we’re seeing is actually just in Arda’s head. The other narrative thread concerns what happens when the cops enter the building and stumble on a cult engaging in a sacrificial ritual. They can only find one of the cops who made the original call for backup, and he’s hopelessly unhinged. This story is focused, sharp, immediate and deals strongly with concrete, material things like flesh and bone and how they can be joined and separated. The cops are taken prisoner and become horrible witness to the cult’s unholy exercises. This is very much in the tradition of newer violence-heavy films in the New French Extremity mold. 

And this to me is interesting, because it’s tough to find two styles of narrative that are more different. The opening sequence serves as a thesis of sorts, integrating both styles - The opening dream turns menacing , as the young boy wanders through the long shadows of a house late at night, only to be confronted by a hooded figure with a bloody outstretched hand., and the initial sequence of the cops at the restaurant is filled with dread - the sense that something very bad is either happening or going to happen is strong. It’s definitely a slow burn, only picking up about halfway into the run time. 

And when the action shifts to the abandoned building in the middle of the forest to which the police have been summoned, the implied awful stuff is made explicit. This is where the film takes a turn for the gory, but it does a lot of its heavy lifting with economical suggestion - quick glimpses of bodies, smeared with blood and filth, writhing and contorting, wet, meaty smacks as someone does something to someone else behind a plastic curtain, quick shots of hooded, blinded, or masked figures baring filthy teeth in a feral snarl. The camera doesn’t linger in these instances, and it’s all the more effective as a result. Some of it is sort of bog-standard gore stuff, but a lot of it is striking and in some cases almost perversely poetic. Most importantly, it doesn’t go over-explained. We don’t know what’s going on exactly, and nobody is inclined to explain it to us, only that really really bad shit is going down. Where most films would stick to one style or the other, having either Arda experience events unsure of their reality or having him and his colleagues be trapped and tortured by a cult, the decision to jump between these two (and in the conclusion, bring both together in a way that dislocates our perception of what’s come before) feels audacious and makes the entire experience slightly hallucinatory. There’s a persistent internal logic to it, with imagery repeated and recontextualized and iterated upon throughout, bridging the two stories and the two styles, and so it feels like there’s a larger meaning to all of this, some important thing we’re just on the edge of grasping, but aren’t quite able to. A lot of stuff is left suggested or unanswered, but it feels less like they are loose ends and more like everything we need to know is there, but we need to look closely.

All that said, it’s not without flaws. It slows down a little too much in the third act as the officers are taken captive and the action is halted for the cult’s leader to engage in a lot of talk about passengers and doorways and opening your heart, and a lot of the intensity initially built up is sort of burned off as a result. The conclusion meanders a little when it needs to be tense or to really punch the revelation. But it’s still effective, even if not entirely unexpected, because it makes us look at everything that’s gone before, including the very opening scene, in a new light. This makes it even harder to pin down what kind of story we’ve just been told. It’s not a slam-dunk, but it’s definitely a fresh and interesting approach to telling what could have been one of two really formulaic stories, and that elusive sense that I almost know what’s just happened continues to linger several days after I watched it. I’d call that a win.

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