Movie critics are supposed to be impartial. That’s the common wisdom, anyway. They’re supposed to descend from their ivory towers, tuck themselves into their chinchilla-furred seats within a perfectly calibrated surround sound screening room, and receive each morsel of cinematic goodness with an equal degree of informed curiosity.
That’s what’s supposed to happen. The reality is, if you follow any kind of critic or movie dork, there will inevitably be certain kinds of genres/filmmakers/actors that they…um…don’t care for! For example, a critic I read who writes for a major publication despises superhero movies. When they were confronted by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a movie that’s either a masterpiece or will do until a masterpiece arrives, it was as if this critic gave it a positive review through gritted teeth.
For me, it’s surrealistic art films.* Loopty-loop dialogue, impressionistic camera angles, and characterization from the far side of human experience drives me goddamn batty. Understand that particular dislike is a me problem, and as such, when I review something in that ballpark, I have to pump the brakes on the rage typing. So it was with the new film Everything Will Be Fine in the End, an indie film made with no small degree of skill and creativity.
We’re introduced to a Los Angeles that feels like it’s one of the nine circles of Hell.** A place teeming with cruelty, where we sense that violence can break out at any moment. It’s in that hellscape we meet Tom (Ken Forsgren). He’s lost his ludicrously adorable dog, Leo. Along with helping Tom to become more active, Leo fills a void in Tom’s life, and he’s desperate to get his furry pal back.
Spoiler alert, it’s probably not gonna happen. That’s because George (Elsa Kennedy) has stolen Leo. George is a young woman who has transformed the concept of indolence into both a brand and lifestyle. She’s deep into poverty, deep into a society that feels meaningless and spirals out of control. So she does the only thing that makes sense, which is to do as little as possible.
George is the leader of her friend group, which includes Kai (Steven Michael Martin) and Renka (Cheska Zaide). They skateboard through the seedier parts of L.A. while seeking out the odd odd job. You can’t begrudge them, because when there’s no future, what’s the point in planning for the future, anyway?
Things get worse, as they must, with the arrival of Buzz (Kent Harper). The story he tells is that he’s a private investigator, that he’s murdered two trespassers, that he’s a malevolent agent of chaos. George owes him money. He decides he’ll take Leo. Are his intentions toward the poor pooch negative? We certainly hope not! Similarly, do George and her posse have negative intentions toward germaphobe Julia (Holly Rockwell), the woman whom George occasionally “house cleans” for? We hope not, but I don’t love her chances!
One of the joys of independent film is discovering a filmmaker with a voice. Someone who’s made a film so particular only they could have made it in that way. That’s precisely what director Joe Bartone has done. Everything Will Be Fine in the End is a film that I profoundly did not enjoy. I didn’t have a good time with it, nor do I want to watch it again. But that’s absolutely a me problem, and not a problem with the art Bartone has created.
You can think of lots of films that embody the ethos of “style over substance.” That’s not the case here. With a smart combination of editing, shot composition, and music choices, Bartone’s feature debut feels like the kind of thing Hunter S. Thompson or Alex Cox would inject into their veins. There’s a kind of rippling chaos throughout the film, a sense that at any moment, things could go very bad very fast.*** It’s all deliberately controlled, and you never get the sense that Bartone is in danger of things going off the rails.
As the screenwriter, Bartone’s characters don’t really sound like people you’d encounter in day to day life. The same goes for Quentin Tarantino, Diablo Cody, and Kevin Smith. Like them, Bartone is a specific writer with specific aims. From his Greek chorus narrator Isaiah (Turen Robinson) to the id-driven George, Bartone’s characters comment on desperation. Desperation over their seemingly pointless existences, desperation over an impulsive murder, desperation over the raging lunatic who will either save them or destroy them.
Speaking of raging lunatics, let’s take a moment to talk about performances in general and one in particular. I very much liked Elsa Kennedy’s work as George, despite kind of despising her character. George is, first and foremost, an opportunist. If she sees an opportunity to use trauma, sex appeal, or what seems to be genuine affection toward a dog to get what she wants, she’ll do it. Kennedy plays George as someone so dialed into her survival instinct, it’s tough for her to establish connections with anyone. She has good rapport with Steven Michael Martin as Kai. Martin plays Kai as someone who has no business being on the streets. Kai has the soul of an artist, if not the talent. He should be spending his days in an artist’s colony instead of foraging in dumpsters. Then there’s Kent Harper as the chaos tsunami Buzz. Is Buzz evil? Maybe? Harper’s performance is smart, fearless, and genuinely dangerous. Buzz is a vortex of unfocused rage. Physical, mental, emotional, it’s all the same to him. Sooner or later around him, someone is going to get hurt.
There’s no way on God’s green earth that I see myself revisiting Everything Will Be Fine in the End. 48-year-old me doesn’t respond to that kind of art very well. 25-year-old me would have eaten this film up with a spoon and begged for seconds. It has nothing to do with maturity, it’s more about your tolerance for controlled chaos. I might not have enjoyed this film, but I’m intensely interested to see what Joe Bartone does next.
*I also have lots of trouble with faith-based features. War Room was a very tough sit for me.
**Moreso than usual.
***Ever been in a situation with an addict where you feel like things could spiral out of control? That’s what large parts of this film feel like, and I mean that in a good way.