Thursday, November 17, 2011

End of Their World: BELLFLOWER

Aside from those rare brilliant directorial debuts, first features these days tend to fit into one of two modes: the mumbling relationship film or the scrappy horror flick. Evan Glodell’s Bellflower is both low-budget options in one, an aimless, mumbling romance with a thick layer of dread and dirt slathered over the lens. When Bellflower opens, with random flashes of ambiguous trauma run in reverse, followed by a souped-up black car with the word “Medusa” scrawled across the side in rough white paint rumbling towards the camera in slow-motion, it seems to be announcing its position as a film of style and confidence.

What follows, though, is a slow sapping of my interest and sympathies. The film concerns two friends (Glodell and Tyler Dawson) who moved to California from Wisconsin just because it seemed like something cool to do. Now they spend their time barely making ends meet, using what little they have on preparing for the inevitable apocalypse. The growling car of the opening is one of their contraptions that they hopefully feel will help them rule the forthcoming post-apocalyptic wasteland. They hope to one day build some flamethrowers to add to their arsenal.

But these guys aren’t just preparing for a Mad-Max-style society; they also like the ladies. So, the film turns out to be devoted most primarily to a couple of women (Jessie Wiseman and Rebekah Brandes) who unfortunately get involved in the guys' lives. There’s a Meet Cute at a dive bar over a plate of grasshoppers that leads to a slow courtship between Glodell and Wiseman that leads to nothing but hurt. The characters are on a course to inevitable calamity, with their eyes on the end of the world but blind to the trajectories that take them towards their own end. It’s a film about personal Armageddon in which good and evil is muddied until only a brown ugly stew is left behind.

There are perfectly fine concepts here, but the film is assaultive and meandering. It’s wild-eyed and navel-gazing, crisp and grungy, preposterous and monotonous. I could never shake the feeling that the characters were written, that the situations were created. I never once fell for the fiction that feels performed rather than lived, invented rather than felt. This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but the film is more than merely fictional. It feels false. The emotions are affectations. The characters are pawns. The events of the plot are arbitrary, seemingly occurring for no good reason other than that’s what Glodell wanted to happen. Maybe he thought different moments would look cool, upset the audience, or fill up the run time? I’m glad he wasn’t content to make a safe movie but, like the purposely ugly look, with grit smeared across Joel Hodge’s otherwise pristine digital photography, it feels unhinged just for the sake of it.

It’s clear that Evan Glodell has the energy and skill of a driven and talented director. That energy and skill has just happened to coalesce into a movie that didn’t work for me. I’m reminded of a line that Roger Ebert wrote about Quentin Tarantino at the time of his debut with Reservoir Dogs. Allow me to reuse and adapt Ebert’s phrasing here. Now that we know Evan Glodell can make a movie like Bellflower, it’s time for him to move on and make a better one.

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