Swallowing the Elephant
At the end of the day, all movies are the same, a collection of images and sounds edited together to elicit an emotional response. But there’s a world’s worth of difference between Top Gun and The Elephant Man, between Predator and Salaam Bombay, between Thor and Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. There’s cinema, and then there’s cinema.
To grossly simplify things, I think there are three levels of film viewing. The first level is strictly about entertainment, and there’s not a thing in the world wrong with that. The second level is a willingness to view films that aren’t simply fun. Viewers are seeking out challenging dramas and foreign films, all in the name of complexity. The third level is all about complexity, though. That’s where art films and experimental cinema lives.
The odds of you hitting that third level are not great, right? I hear you, and after a long week of attempting to be productive, the odds of me gathering the family around the TV to watch Mother! are vanishingly small. Nothing against Mother!, as it’s a film I admire that’s made with no small degree of intelligence and skill. The thing is, watching a film like that is work. It requires concentration and a willingness to roll with whatever the film throws at you. You don’t get to walk away after half an hour. To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, you buy the ticket and take the ride.
Taking that ride also requires taking a risk. A big one. Too often, I’ve only been willing to dip my pinky toe* into the intimidating pool of arthouse film. And yet, to paraphrase comedian Christopher Titus, it’s time for me to stop being a wussy. So let’s take a look-see at Friend of the World and see how this particular sojourn plays out.
It’s bad enough that experimental filmmaker Diane Keaton (Alexandra Slade) is named Diane Keaton.** Perhaps worse is the fact that the world is ending, and so far, it’s going poorly. She discovers the door to a bunker, discovers a few dozen corpses, and discovers that her hopes of survival seem to be fading away. Maybe she caught a lucky break by getting knocked out?
When Diane awakens, she finds herself inside the bunker. Keeping her company is the garrulous General Gore (Nick Young), a military officer who fancies himself to be a brilliant propaganda officer. Do the two of them team up, overcome their differences, and do what they can to ensure their survival and the survival of others? They do not.
“Ah hah!” I can hear you saying. “What we have here is a classic red state/blue state conflict, in which petty partisan differences continue through the twilight of humanity, and we as audience members are left to shake our heads at their folly.” You know something? The idea of a post-apocalyptic drama where the last two people on Earth are bitterly at odds politically, particularly when most of those political beliefs no longer matter, would make for a fascinating film. This film isn’t that.
Instead, they talk. For a while, anyway. Gore mocks Diane. He plays her snippets of speeches on a tape player as they make their way through a series of underground corridors. He injects her with…something, and the only thing I know for sure that this injection does is cause a bunch of wild-ass hallucinations. Is Eva (Kathryn Schott), the love of Diane’s life, really there? Are there really zombies? Is it all just a black and absurd joke?
There’s a vast world of difference between someone clearly talented doing work that you don’t quite connect with, and someone who irrevocably has their head up their ass. I haven’t seen a ton of experimental cinema, but I’ve seen just enough to know the difference between the two. Director Brian Patrick Butler is firmly in the former camp. He’s a clever and innovative filmmaker who seemed to have a budget of around ninety dollars, and still made a good-looking black and white film that drips with atmospheric dread. Butler also has a gift for creating surreal imagery and knowing just the right moment to spring it on the audience. As I watched Friend of the World, I kept thinking of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Butler’s film feels like Romero and David Lynch had a beautiful and terrifying baby.
Butler wrote the screenplay as well, and it’s here where I ran into problems. The main issue I had with Butler’s script is that his characters don’t talk to each other, they talk at each other. Paragraphs of dialogue declaring their philosophical beliefs and sneering at each other. Perhaps that’s the point, and perhaps I’m too much of a numbskull to get it? There are definite shades of Samuel Beckett’s dark absurdism here, along with echoes of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical probing. While Butler is clearly a thoughtful writer, I never felt like Gore and Diane were two fully realized characters.
The cast comes down to a two-hander between Nick Young as Gore and Alexandra Slade as Diane. Both do solid work, and I liked that each of them seems to be coming at their characters from opposite directions. Young goes big as Gore, really big, and his performance comes from the outside in. His voice booms, his eyes bug out, his gut juts into Diane’s personal space, but once in a while, there’s a trace of naked fear in his eyes. Slade has the quieter role. Her subtlety is a good match for Gore’s bombast, and I enjoyed watching her process the increasing madness around her until it becomes too much.
After I finished watching Friend of the World, I joked to my wife that Butler just got knocked off the shortlist to direct Shang-Chi 2. I suspect his sensibilities don’t lie in the world of four-quadrant blockbusters. Friend of the World is a strange little art film made with intelligence and wit. I hope Butler never goes commercial, but I’m very curious about what he could do with a serious budget.
*As we can all agree, the most useless of toes.
**When I’m elected President, there will be a federal agency designed to stop parents from ruining the lives of their children by naming them incorrectly.