Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Getting Away With Anything

It’s too bad that there’s not more of a place for the likes of Stuart Gordon in theaters today. The sort of director who can deliver a lean, mean B-movie which takes pride in the label is disappearing fast, if not almost completely gone. I have fond memories of the likes of Gordon’s RE-ANIMATOR and FORTRESS but his new film STUCK, while not science fiction or even technically a horror film, is at heart a B-movie but also remembers to be more than that. It is loosely inspired by a true incident and well aware of the seriousness of what is occurring, yet at the same time very much at heart a genre piece and one that is very, very darkly funny.

As caregiver Brandi Helper (Mena Suvari) learns of a possible promotion at the retirement home she works in, Tom Bardo (Stephen Rea) has reached the end of his rope. Downsized from his job, evicted from his apartment and unable to find work because the computer at the local employment center has no record of him, he must face the fact that he is truly homeless. That night Brandi goes out to celebrate with her drug-dealer boyfriend (Russell Hornsby) at a local bar while at the same time Tom is kicked out of the park where he is trying to sleep. As he walks down the street with his newly acquired shopping cart, Brandi, still high on booze and the pills she’s been popping all night, smashes into him with her car. Only instead of falling back to the road, Tom smashes into and gets wedged in her windshield. Not knowing what to do, Brandi drives home with him trapped there and, scared that she’ll get caught (and, presumably, lose her promotion), parks her car in the garage where she leaves him there, hoping, expecting, that he will die soon enough. Soon Tom, in agonizing pain, begins to realize that help really isn’t coming and has to figure out how to save himself.

In many ways STUCK is a grimy little thriller about grimy people but it’s also about what sort of society causes people to behave this way, especially when no one seems willing to take any sort of responsibility in their situations. “Why are you doing this to me?” Brandi screams at Tom, who is simply trying to escape from her car, refusing to die like she demands that he do. What exactly this represents about society today could be read any number of ways and it becomes pretty explicit, when Brandi’s boyfriend boyfriend, hearing that she has hit a homeless person with her car (and not a ‘real’ person) brushes it off saying, in effect, that these days, “Anybody can do anything to anyone and get away with it. I mean, look who’s in the White House.” The pulp approach to this inherently serious material is refreshing, considering how drab it could have been played and it also would have been interesting to see how someone like Larry Cohen would have approached the basic idea. But considering its deliberately jarring mixture of tones, from the unexpected opening credit sequence Gordon does such a good job it’s hard to want anyone else to have made this film. Hardly a surprise from the man who made RE-ANIMATOR, there is a lot of blood and gore seen in Rea’s predicament and the movie doesn’t shy away from making it seen as agonizing as possible. It says a lot that one of the most grueling of these scenes results in one of the biggest laughs I’ve had in a theater in a long time. Maybe that just means I’m a pretty sick individual as well.

Suvari is excellent, making for a believable party girl working a normal job in an old-folks home. She seems to be neither an exceptionally good or bad person at first—she pops pills and drinks, but is still presented as good at her job-- then thrust into this situation of her own doing takes her to some unexpected places. Though it may sound like Rea has a nothing role from the description, the amount of humanity he brings to the character which could come off as a cipher from a lesser talent can’t be ignored and some of his less-showy moments are the ones that linger even several days after seeing the movie. Long-time Stuart Gordon fans will want to know that the voice of Jeffrey Combs (Dr. Herbert West himself) is heard on a phone at one point.

This sort of scrappy little movie, maybe directed by the likes of Sam Fuller in another era, is almost never made anymore but that it was not only made now, but turned out so effective, is a thrill to see. STUCK is only 85 minutes long, but within that brief running time is a thriller which not only satisfies its own genre conventions but remembers to put some meat on the bones as well. These days it seems that the bigger the movie the more humanity seems to be drained out of it, but here’s a film that for all its blood, is ultimately about trying to remember how to be human in a world where seemingly no one remembers how to be human. And that in itself is a sort of victory.

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