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Brain-damaged and violent (and kinda gross-looking): “Bellflower”

December 27, 2013

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As the studios continue to smother us with crappy sequels, crappy remakes, crappy Adam Sandler movies, and inevitable Transformers sequels, it’s only natural to want to root for the scrappy independent filmmaker who meticulously crafts his little film out of tin foil and crazy glue, on a shoestring budget. It’s exciting to see singular vision that’s not been corrupted by studio interference and focus-grouped into oatmeal. Evan Glodell’s 2011 movie Bellflower has just such a pedigree attached to it. In addition to writing, directing, and starring in it, Glodell also modified his own cameras and built the film’s central effect—a battle wagon for an apocalyptic wasteland. Now that is talent to spare. Alas, it gives me no joy to say that Bellflower is no Primer. It’s grim, ugly, and tedious—a mumblecore Taxi Driver that leaves you hoping against hope that the next scene will feature an LAPD SWAT team blowing the door and ending the film in a merciful hail of gunfire.

Bellflower follows the timeless plotline of boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-slips-into-psychotic-fugue-state-and-maybe-perpetrates-horrible-violent-retribution. The title comes from a city in Los Angeles county where two 20-something transplants from Wisconsin have settled. Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) have been friends since childhood, when they were heavily influenced by The Road Warrior to such an extent that the only long-term goal they seem to have is to build an armored, flame-spewing battle wagon to use in the wasteland. Rather than wanting to be taciturn Max, however, they idolize the hulking, be-hockeymasked villain of the piece, Lord Humongous (though, really, when your choices of role model are A) Future Apocalyptic Warlord and B) Mel Gibson, it’s kinda hard to pick a horse).

Still a better role model than R. Kelly.

Still a better role model than R. Kelly.

Things kick into gear when Woodrow meets Millie (Jessie Wiseman) at a dive bar so grungy it’d be condemned in Tijuana while they’re competing in a cricket-eating contest for a grand prize of 50 bucks. The way all great romances do. Woodrow and Millie are instantly attracted, and connect over their shared inability to complete a coherent sentence. After a mega-date, when Woodrow takes her to another dive bar (in Texas), they fall into a relationship.

Unfortunately, this bliss doesn’t last, as Millie loses interest fast—a fact that finally becomes clear to Woodrow when he walks in on her getting absolutely plowed by her roommate Mike. Woodrow speeds off on his motorcycle, blows a stop sign, and promptly gets splattered on the hood of an oncoming car.

Released from the hospital some time later, we learn that he’s actually been pretty badly injured, with a skull-fracture and brain-swelling. Bruised emotionally and physically, Woodrow begins a downward spiral into obsession and destruction.

Oh, and Aiden has built a flamethrower for their wasteland adventures. So, yeah, now Woodrow has a broken heart, brain damage and a flamethrower. So that’s not going anyplace good.

The NRA just did a little happy dance...

The NRA just did a little happy dance…

He begins a relationship with Millie’s best friend Courtney (Rebekah Brandes), despite the fact Aiden was crushing on her. He torches Millie’s stuff in her backyard with the flamethrower (you know, introduce a flamethrower in the first act…), and generally kicks off a cycle of violence and retribution between him and Millie and Mike.

Things hit a suitably apocalyptic climax after Millie has him kidnapped and tattooed with a mustache and beard (I don’t know, just go with it), and in revenge, Woodrow quasi-rapes Millie, and stabs her a  few times. Understandably upset by this, Courtney blows her brains out. Yep, everything’s gone to shit. No cops get called, though, despite numerous acts of violence and home-invasion in broad daylight.

Except it may not have. We flash back to the second act, and find that everything after the accident might have just been a fevered fantasy in Woodrow’s (probably damaged) brain. But while this ending doesn’t end with flamethrower action, it’s no less grim as Woodrow and Aiden grapple with the fact that they have cruddy lives, live in a dingy apartment, and have basically no social network. Aiden holds out the option of hitting the road with a trunk full of equipment and drugs, stopping off at hole-in-the-wall bars and blowing people’s minds with their souped-up deathmobile. These are hard protagonists to like.

The first thing you need to understand about Bellflower is that everything about it is unpleasant. Glodell may have built some pretty nifty cameras, but he films everything in a palate of infected-pus yellow and keeps his lenses grime-spattered to emphasize the squalor of these people’s lives. After about twenty minutes it just becomes oppressive.

It's like someone filmed a migraine...

It’s like someone filmed a migraine…

These are also really, really fucking annoying characters. I have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about them. Aiden and Woodrow begin the movie agreeably enough, but hard to get behind. They’re a pair of stunted adolescents with no interests beyond a plan they cooked up as children. I can’t tell if they have jobs—we never seen them working, but they gotta be affording the rent and their car projects somehow. Maybe their parents are supporting them. I know I’d sure pay to keep them out of my home.

Millie and Courtney are interchangeably trashy blondes, with seemingly no real scruples. We never get a sense of why Millie loses interest in Woodrow, only one scene of her regarding him with disgust before she’s caught with Mike. Now, we’ve known since the beginning of the film that she has a male roommate, but the nature of their relationship—when it became sexual if it wasn’t from the outset—is left unknown. Courtney, for her part, is little more than a plot point with a bad perm.

And I gotta admit that I’m just not a fan of mumblecore. Listening to overly-sensitive 20-somethings carry on conversations composed mostly of “dude” and “fuck” and galumphing laughter between shit-eating grins just makes me want to scream “Use your words, Forrest, before I pistol-whip you!”

Wait...does it turn you to stone? Medusa didn't breathe fire...I don't get this.

Wait…does it turn you to stone? Medusa didn’t breathe fire…I don’t get this.

Ultimately, though, this is a movie right out of the Taxi Driver playbook of frustrated male entitlement (hint: the flamethrower is a penis). Not only has that idea been mined pretty much dry (see my “Angry White Male Roundup” post), but it’s hard to be sympathetic to a couple of young, white males whose problems stem from the fact that they’re stunted, slacker dumbasses.

It’s not as if the movie doesn’t share their worldview. Millie is little more than a two-timing bitch, and Courtney doesn’t seem to care who she sleeps with. They don’t have jobs or inner lives or designs beyond screwing over Woodrow.  If, say, we saw Millie growing tired of Woodrow’s juvenile fantasies while she struggles to finish her degree or something, we’d get a nice three-dimensional view of these people, but Glodell isn’t interested in that.

In the end, the movie’s themes are summed up in the male-fantasy scenario articulated by Aiden when he explains why Woodrow needs to become Lord Humongous—he takes his women, subjugates them, and they love him for it, he doesn’t ask about their feelings, if it was good for them etc (basically, they want to be Goreans). Woodrow and Aiden are too stunted and unformed to interact like mature adults, so they choose to pursue an identity rooted in adolescent power fantasies.  I’m not sure the movie realizes how pathetic that is.

Here’s hoping Glodell’s next film is a little more mature.

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