Thursday, February 08, 2018

Square in the Maenads: 68 KILL

Trent Haaga's darker-than-black noir comedy posits, early on, that even within the cartoonish, exaggerated post-grindhouse-fueled Alamo Drafthouse-bound renegade spirit popularized in the mid-90s by Tarantino--there are rules of engagement yet to be broken. Even for characters who--like the assassins of Banquo---are so incensed by the vile blows and buffets of the world they are reckless what they do, there are hot babe messes more reckless still. For hard-working squaresville lovestruck septic man Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler), roped by crazy hottie stripper girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord) into robbing one of her johns (of $68,000 - hence the title), that line of relative decorum is obliterated fairly early on, but... 

I can't say more, for to spoil even one twist or turn on this wild ride is to lessen its blunt force impact. Suffice it to say, for we fans of strong assertive women (those who score along the Hawks-Meyer GF spectrum rather than the 'strong-willed mother-type' Ford-Spielberg curve), this bonanza of badassery is--especially in the time of plunging markets and collapsing governments--something we desperately need. Why wait for a normal woman to be brutalized before turning savage? That, to me, is sexist, inferring a woman needs a man's cruelty to light her inner bomb's fuse. 

From hence forth let mentally remembering the numerical combination of your client's safe suffice as a sufficient excuse for unleashing your inner shredding and devouring maenad upon him. McCord is so turned on by his death throes it looks almost like she's inhaling his departing soul like a hit off the crack pipe.

Liza with her weird brother Dwayne (Sam Eidson)


When I was around five years-old, I was--for a brief and intense few weeks--obsessed with the dubbed Japanese anime cartoon SPEED RACER. It wasn't because I loved it but because it was the only thing on, every day after school like clockwork. I watched it, but I hated the good guy, 'Speed', and hated his stupid monkey and mustachioed sidekick and their ridiculous Pizza guy striped caps. I found it unfair that the way-cooler bad guys (always in  black shades) never won a single goddamned race. I was too young to know the game was fixed. I kept sticking around because I figured just once the cool guys in black just had to get lucky.

Every day I'd await it on afternoon TV, sure that this one time the guys in black would win. My fury mounted as the weeks passed. 

Finally my mom, sensing my mounting frustration, explained the terrible truth - the good guy always won. The game was rigged. I felt sick to my stomach and never watched SPEED RACER again. 

I mention that memory to explain the euphoria that overtook me--and audiences around the world--25 or so years later, when the murderous outlaws of True Romance, Bound, The Last Seduction, Natural Born Killers, and Pulp Fiction started winning. Surviving past the credits used to be all but impossible for gangsters and murderers --it was a given they'd be shot to pieces or hauled off in chains. Beloved 80s-early 90s crime characters like Scarface, Baldwin in Miami Blues, Thelma and Louise, and Walken's King of New York had all had to die at the end - even though it was clear the cool directors hated this pre-ordained (by ancient censorial codes) necessity. In the early 90s, old ideas of moral code collapsed at the feet of Tarantino, Rodriguez, Stone, Dahl, Armitage, and Tony Scott. It was a victory not only for crime but for the haters of cliche. That killers always pay for their crimes was a rule made by preachy moralists who think audiences are too stupid to get that this is all just a movie, that 'rooting' for bad guys will make us go out and commit crimes - monkey see, monkey do. Showing cool gangsters living past the credits, reaping the rewards of their crimes, implied good faith in audience reactions. It's that same faith hat's paradoxically inherent in the low bar sense of morality we find in 68 Kill.

We don't get that vibe so much anymore, the feeling of cinematic killing as a kind of liberation from moral conscription --we're too crushed up in PC remorse. All our big screen killers tend to be pedophile shadow people now. Cinematic criminal sexuality is no longer 'fun' --it's a two-way prison, where a victim of childhood abuse grows up to abuse children. Crime has lost its sexy bubble gun snap. Sinematic violence is now 'felt' with a sickening bone-break chill rather than as a pop culture splash page. We had Spring Breakers a few years back, and occasionally a Tarantino film, but where can badass alpha bitch psycho monster hotties go to unfurl their random violent urge flags these days, I mean really unfurl them, not in some half-assed tough day at the office meltdown but genuine homicidal merriment? 

There was a villainess in Wonder Woman --all scarred up and ready to go--but then comes the cop-out: she turns out to be just a love-starved, disfigured chemist gone awry. Where are the Kali archetypes? Where is the Red Queen? Where is the Catwoman who revels in her diabolism the way Julie Newmar used to, rather than Anne Hathaway versions. the types that set about morosely stealing just to help her sister, or exonerate her record, or help some blind nephew go to Juilliard? Where are the Bridget Gregorys, the Tura Satanas? The Angels of Death?

Don't sweat it, man -- they're here.

Played by AnnaLynne McCord, main psycho stripper/killer Liza is a super confident, cash-hungry predator with a wild lion's mane of hair and a live-for-today attitude that's all the better for being underplayed rather than hammed up. She savors the death rattles of her victims rather innocently but seems to actually care about Chip, to forgive him his trespasses, to look forward to taking him out for a wild flight from Dodge with a stolen bankroll and maybe finally use the "L" word back at him. In her uninhibitedly sexual and violent way she could be who either Vanessa Hudgens or Ashley Benson from Spring Breakers grow into if they drop out of college and move inland to continue their life of sex and violent crime, becoming more and more nympho-homicidal, each taking in a cute lost puppy boyfriends who idealize them as perfect angels. Evoking the composed beauty of the femme fatales in The Last Seduction, GirlyGun Crazy (or more recently, Amber Heard in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and Machete Kills), with the stripper-gone-legitimately-wild carnality of one of the go-go dancing drag stripper threesome in Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill!, Liza is a keeper you'll want to bring home to terrorize mom with, or at least savor her every line of dialogue over multiple viewings.

And she's only one of a whole parade of amok, strong female alpha bitches to come: freed hostage Violet (Alisha Boe) lures Chip into a playful team sing-a-long to "Pop Pop / Pop Music", and later Sheila Vand (the lead in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) takes over as the psychotic emo chick Monica, the cooler-than-thou deadpan gravel-voiced punk alpha bitch ringleader of a small meth and prostitution and whatever else pays the dealer and landlord gang of trailer-dwelling nutcases, including great turns by Hallie Grace Bradley, who dryly impels Chip to go down on her in back of the convenience store in exchange for information on his missing car, and Lucy Faust as an expertly cackling young tweaker called Skinny. 

Vand's Monica is so good with that low register druggy southern drawl it's like she talks and moves via an inner green slime-soaked slinky tied to a high voltage electric hum. She alone would make the film a must. And like every other girl in the film, she can't resist messing with Chip's squaresville puppydog mind. 

We may roll our eyes at Chip's idealizing cluelessness, may wonder how he can take so many golf club swings to the head but still keep most of his teeth and all his eye socket structural integrity, but--and this is a hard thing to pull off--we still like old Chip because we see through his beaming eyes how golden and irresistible Liza's skin glows in in the morning light as she sleeps; how the sun filters through the colors of their head shop tapestry curtain blanket and brightens every hidden purple in her hair and kimono; how even her teeth and gleaming are her teeth (1). We feel his rage and confusion, too, because we know what it's like to be so suggestible (or I do, at any rate), but--unlike other fall guys Chip's been compared to, like whiny Jeff Daniels in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild or smarmy Griffin Dunne in Scorseses's After Hours or Peter Berg's hick with a too-good-for-this-town pretensions in Last Seduction--we don't consider his squeamishness to be cowardice or a lack of adventuresome spirit but the work of a crisis within his sweet nature--conscience grinding gears with his smitten rapture. He means well, but every new tattooed girl casting him a come-hither look is just another ounce of sweet kryptonite. Lovestruck by nearly every set of female eyes he sees, the only thing saving him from the latest femme fatale is the next, even deadlier one, waiting around the next bend.

That's why it's so important that 68 Kill (terrible name, great movie) came out the same year as Wonder Woman, The Beguiled, Lady Bird, and The Love Witch. It's like 1994 all over again but with the focus square on the women. Now the women don't have to even be sociopaths to conquer the terrain. Now they do it so surefootedly it's like all of feminism up to now have been as little effeminate 'eh-heh' cough.

Those films are all made by women though, whereas --like Rob Zombie before him--Kill's writer-director Haaga grew up in a trashy trailer park, and it shows, not in a bad way, but in a way that captures the scuzzy low-fi vividness of the scene, only unlike Zombie, he does it without our eyes ever feeling soiled by grim misogyny and torture porn. Haaga got his start writing stuff (and I use the word loosely) like Citizen Toxie, so you know he knows how to deliver thrills far outside the morality-taste spectrum that so blandifies his fellows (Zombie included - where the murdering white trash have thin little nonsmoker suburban voices and perfect dental work and the violence scans as mean-spirited misanthropy rather than breezy black comic fun).  68 Kill might be violent and trashy but it has a summery feel that says 'oh, lighten up Scott Tobias! (2) 

We're not in "reality' while watching movies. We're through the grindhouse mirror spectrum, where the colors are a little more vibrant (it looks like it was shot on actual 35mm film with popping colors and super rich flesh tones).  The score, by Frank Ilfman and James Griffiths, uses all sorts of twangy guitars and rumbling synths it evokes all the right past motifs: some dashes of guitar echo swamp haze, and a sense of love and joyful innocence continually revived and re-drowned in the saw mill molasses sea.

Either way,  if a trailer park in every neighborhood in the coming disaster-stricken country of ours means more crime movies like 68 Kill. I can only trust the fourth wave will recognize the strength behind its crudity rather than get so pious it drowns the neighborhood with the bathwater. To paraphrase Nigel Tuffnel, when a man sexually abuses a woman, that's sexist, when a woman does it to a man - that's social justice. Maybe that's not being honest about real female personae, but this is the movies, man. It's just drag. If we can't let our hair down here, we're going to go bald from stress. We used to be adults...we can be both NPR listeners and as aggressive and combative as the red state chimera. Sometimes, well, sometimes, if you're a real American, and maybe a liberal but not a total beta cuck, you got to look at your right wing Arizona-dwelling kid brother's gun collection over Xmas and, instead of rolling your eyes and waving pictures of dead schoolchildren, feel the heat of the cool, the thrill of the target range recoil. You gotta look at your bro and say, damn right, brother, damn right. After all, a lot of shit's gone down but we're still here. If America's gonna get it together we gotta learn how to enjoy each others' outlets. A little PCP-laced oregano, an AR-14, and thou. 

Whatever testy little snipes you may have about the right wing lunatic fringe, at least they know who they really are --they're killers. We in the blue states close our eyes to the abbattoir even as we grab the grass-fed fillet mignon. To quote German freelance terrorist Wulfgar Reinhardt (Rutger Hauer - 1981's Nighthawks), "we're not heroes, we're victims! " The white heterosexual man will not share his toys, he'd rather break 'em. So let's break him first, for he is the hypnotized toy of any Fox wily enough to shake a tail feather-covered snake rattle.

Further Reading:
Catty-Cool Susan Cabot

NOTES: with Rob Zombie's similarly comic-grotesque Devil's Rejects, the big give-away that these are actors, not real trailer trash, is their perfect teeth; but I think I speak for everyone when I say, thank heaven Rob let that detail go unfixed
2. If you check out RT or wheveer, a blurb from him pops up calling it nearly a de facto remake of After Hours [that] keeps the hostility and loses the self-deprecation, which turns it into an example of misogyny rather than an examination of it.  But Scott, your implying Scorsese's film isn't misogynist, which is absurd. Go look amongst thy Scorsese discs for a real live alpha bitch and see how far ya get. PS- Sharon Stone in Casino don't count (loud does not equal strong). But the ladies of Hagga-ville? I'm more worried about the fate of their drugs. Those poor suckers never had a chance.

1 comment:

  1. "Why wait for a woman to be harassed and abused enough that she finally pulls a gun or a knife and goes on a vengeance spree? That, to me, is sexist, inferring a woman needs a man's cruelty to light her inner bomb's fuse. " YESSSSSSS


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