Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

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, and Rodriguez--there are bounds not to be crossed. 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. For a hard-working squaresville lovestruck septic man Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler), roped by crazy hottie girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord) into robbing one of her johns (of $68,000), it comes fairly early on, but... wait. 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-Russ Meyer carnal spectrum rather than the 'strong-willed mother' 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 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. Yes, let merely seeing the combination when your john opens the safe suffice as a sufficient excuse for unleashing your inner maenad.

Liza with her weird brother Dwayne (Sam Eidson)

When I was around four or five, I was briefly obsessed with the cartoon SPEED RACER, not because I loved it but because I hated the good guy, 'Speed', and hated his stupid monkey and sidekick and the ridiculous striped caps. I always thought it so unfair that the cooler bad guys (always in cool black shades) never won a single goddamned race. Every day I'd await it on afternoon TV, sure that this one time the bad guys would win. Weeks spread into months, and my frustration grew. Finally my mom explained the terrible truth. I felt sick to my stomach about how foolish I had been. It was fixed.

I mention that to explain the euphoria that overtook audiences, 25 or so years later, when the outlaws of True Romance, Bound, The Last Seduction, Natural Born Killers,, Pulp Fiction all were surviving past the credits, often with their masterful crimes going rewarded. Beloved 80s-early 90s crime characters like Al's Scarface, Baldwin in Miami Blues, Thelma and Louise, and Walken's King of New York no longer had to die at the end. It's not just that crime was paying, it was that the schmucks on the other side of the thin blue line were losing. It was a victory not only for crime but for the haters of cliche, and for a certain kind of blind obedience to 'rules' that says we in the audience are too stupid to get that this is all just a movie, that 'rooting' for bad guys will make us bad. There's a respect for the audience inherent in the low bar sense of morality we find in 68 Kill, it's the same kind of respect that allowed Don Rickles to insult audiences for half a century. He trusted you felt the love in his heart, that it was a joke, that you weren't going to shoot him in the parking lot.

We don't get that vibe so much anymore - we're too crushed up in PC remorse--all our big screen killers tend to be pedophile shadow people, gender a prison that destroys across generations-- it's depressing. Crime has lost its sexy bubble gun snap. 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? Where can an actress really breathe larger-than-life malevolence? There was a villainess in Wonder Woman but she's just a love-starved, disfigured French chemist gone awry. Where is the Kali archetype? The Red Queen? Where is the Catwoman who revels in her diabolism the way Julie Newmar used to, rather than morosely doing what she does to help her sister, or exonerate her record, or help some blind nephew go to Juilliard or something. Where are the Bridget Gregorys, the Tura Satanas? We've been needing some since the 90s.

Finally, they're here.

Played with eyes wild by AnnaLynne McCord, Liza is a super confident, cash-hungry predator with a wild lion's mane and wild psycho attitude that's all the better for being underplayed rather than hammed up. She savors the death rattles of her victims rather innocently (Chip's boss notes he saw her pull a knife on a guy after a lap dance for not leaving her a tip) but seems to actually care about him, 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. 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, taking in cute lost puppy boyfriends who lack the spine to stand up for themselves. 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: the hostage Violet (Alisha Boe) who 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) 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 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], 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 his cluelessness, may wonder how he can take so many golf club swings to the head but still keep most of his teeth and eye sockets, but it's because despite our jaded grindhouse attitude, we feel his wide-eyed agog rapture for Liza, how golden and irresistible her skin is in the morning light as she sleeps, sun sifting through the colors of their head shop tapestry curtain; even her teeth are gleaming perfect (1); feel his rage and confusion, ever out of his depth and suggestible, but unlike other fall guys Chip's been compared to, like Jeff Daniels in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, whimpering to get back to his normal banal life, or the intolerably smarmy Griffin Dunne in Scorseses's After Hours we don't consider his squeamishness cowardice but a mix of human conscience grinding gears with his smitten rapture over Liza. He's the part usually played by a good, strong working woman in a Warren William pre-code.  Happy as can be with his (literal) shit job, since it means coming home to Liza every night. But once compelled onto this midnight soujurn, he works up courage by the ounce through a furious winding up pitch style revving. He may run and may try to fight for humane interests, but he's also never in control. Every girl another ounce of sweet kryptonite. Love struck by nearly every set of female eyes (or other parts) he sees, the only thing saving him from the last femme fatale is the 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 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 third wave 'ehheh' cough. 68 Kill is like the dirty kick undercurrent to all that. Like Rob Zombie, writer-director Haaga grew up in a trailer park, and it shows, not in a bad way, but in a way that captures the scuzzy low-fi vividness of the scene without our eyes feeling soiled and weary. 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, and despite its incalculable darkness 68 Kill has a fun summery feel that says oh, lighten up Scott Tobias! (2) We're not in 'reality.' 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 to evoke both the sunny Robert Rodriguez / True Romance past and the industrial future -it's not the most original thing in the world, but it evokes all the right past motifs: some dashes of guitar echo swamp haze, and a sense of love and joyful innocence ever fit to be drowned in a murderous industrial saw mill 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. For remember: to paraphrase Nigel Tuffnel, when a man sexually abuses a woman, that's sexist, when a woman does it to a man - that's awesome. Maybe that's not being honest about real female personae, but this is the movies, man.  It's just drag. We can let our hair down here. We used to be adults...

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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