THE DIRTIES – Fantastic Fest Review
“It’s good to trust someone and not trust someone at the same time.”
Do you ever find yourself wondering what Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ sense of humor was like? While they were constantly bullied and kicked around, forced to sink into their own world of video games and metal, what kind of jokes did they tell each other? And furthermore, what if you were you able to see into their private domain via a fly-on-the-wall camera — would you as a audience member be able to laugh along with them as they planned the massacre at Columbine High School?
These are the questions posed by The Dirties, a school shooting comedy from Canadian writer/director/star Matt Johnson. But while the size of Johnson’s cojones have to be admired for even attempting to tackle such a controversial and timely topic, his audacity is hamstrung by head-scratching formal decisions. Opting to turn the movie into a found footage “mockumentary”, where a crew of filmmakers (another friend? — it’s never really explained) follow he and co-star Owen Williams around as they attempt to make a movie for one of their classes, The Dirties feels like a great concept undone by cinematic gimmickry. Had Johnson chosen to make his movie using more traditional methods, the young filmmaker might have churned out one of this decade’s more socially important masterpieces. Instead, what we get is a middling mix of audacious tomfoolery that never feels like properly executed cinema.
Identification with the two leads (here playing characters named Matt and Owen) shouldn’t be a problem for anyone sitting in a festival audience (though introducing this movie to the mainstream might be a bit of a tougher sell). Both are high-school aged movie dorks, directing their own film for a class project. Matt is energetic and foul-mouthed, with a spastic sense of wit and the ability to quote Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible or Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich at the drop of a hat (a recurring Malkovich gag involving cross-dressing reveals the film’s odd, slightly juvenile sexual politics). Owen, on the other hand, is quiet, shy and good looking, nursing an insatiable crush on one of the school’s prettiest girls since the third grade. They’re your typical loners, obsessed with movies and music (Johnson aptly works in pop tunes to score their daily lives) and, to an unhealthy extent, each other.
In their own film (movie within a movie?), Matt and Owen play cops of some sort, out to mow down local crime leaders ‘The Dirties’ (a name they’ve given the constantly tormenting jocks that doubles as both films’ titles). Using hidden camera techniques and editing tricks to ensure they always “get the shot” (they prompt a popular girl to say a phrase in class for this sole purpose), they’re actually pretty clever cinematic tricksters who have learned just as much from Jackass as they have from The Dark Knight. But as their persecution at the hands of ‘The Dirties’ seems to have no end in sight, Matt becomes convinced that, for the explosive finale of their film, they really ought to use live ammo.
To be fair, The Dirties is a fairly poignant study of the way young film fans find it hard to differentiate between mindless artistic theft and the integration of influence into personal creation. Like most cinema fans picking up the camera for the first time, Matt and Owen’s film is merely a series of on-the-nose references and cliches — a failure to understand that in order for an homage to work, it has to be filtered through the writer/director’s own personal story and perspective. During the ‘rough cut’, when Matt and Owen gun down various nemeses, they scream dialogue from The Usual Suspects while pulling the triggers on plastic firearms. This sly commentary adds a disarming amount of self-awareness, something that’s needed in order for the audience to follow down The Dirties’ extremely dark path.
For a topic that’s been omnipresent in our culture for far too long, it seems like artists are only now starting to find it within themselves to address school shootings cinematically (the latest season premiere of Sons of Anarchy being another recent example). Before The Dirties, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant was probably the best known example of the movies replicating classroom massacres. And while attentive viewers will be able to draw parallels between Matt and Owen and the doomed perpitrators in Van Sant’s exemplary, experimental take, the two films couldn’t be more formally different. Where Elephant is a gauzy piece of acutely arranged cinema, The Dirties is slapdash and caustic. Both keep their audience at arm’s length, but instead of using actual technique to do so, The Dirties relies on humor to keep the audience’s collective gut from turning over once they realize where Johnson’s narrative is inevitably headed.
For a movie I’ve given two and a half stars to (one of the many reasons I can’t stand applying any kind of arbitrary numerical ‘grade’ to cinema), I’ve spent a lot of this review praising Johnson’s character work. To be honest, I could probably spend quite a few more ‘graphs extolling the virtues of both lead performances (they really are the textbook definition of “lived-in”) and dissecting the thematic density of The Dirties. It’s simply the formal inelegance that’s stuck in my craw. The “found footage” aspect just seems unnecessary, as opting for even a quick zoom filled, Duplass-inspired ‘indie’ style probably would’ve been more palatable (and still allowed the naturalistic acting to be just as acceptable). But much like the identically monikered character he portrays, Johnson seems to have very little understanding of how form informs the finished product as a whole. In the end, the found footage aspect of The Dirties lends the picture a crassness that undercuts all of the finely observed angst, leaving the film feeling like an overcooked stab at relevancy as opposed to being the first masterwork to address one of the worst societal ills of the past two decades.