Thursday 26 June 2014

The Dirties (Canada 2013: Dir Matt Johnson)

We truly live in meta times. Canadian movie The Dirties is the product of director/producer/co-writer Matt Johnson (who also plays the 'lead' in the film), whose inspiration seems not only to be the real life high school shooting incidents of recent times, but equally importantly cinema itself (or more precisely the process of making film, where scenes can be cued and reviewed at will for endless and isolated exploration, and key lines of dialogue can be played again and again until they assume some kind of truth). The Dirties is constructed, not seamlessly, but with the various parts knocking together, tethered by movie references, memories of Columbine style reportage, slacker comedy set scenes, and an almost random indie band soundtrack. It's a film that, like its lead character, is created and defined while we watch it being pieced together, and where the underlying truth of what we're seeing is only fully realised in the film's final few minutes.

The Dirties centres around two film obsessed high school students, Matt and Owen, who because of their 'otherness' are subjected to relentless bullying by a gang called The Dirties. Matt and Owen's physical response to the actions of the gang is for the most part completely passive, but they vent their frustration with their predicament by creating a film called 'The Dirties', which shows them seeking violent revenge on the gang, mediated almost entirely via scenes from Hollywood films like The Usual Suspects (1995) and Pulp Fiction (1994). In this there is also a direct comparison to Joshua Oppenheimer's devastating The Act of Killing (2012). That their film is pieced together within the film we're watching, showing an imagined response to bulllying contrasting with their real handling of the issue, is the heart of The Dirties, as Matt grows to realise via the film he's making, that the real way to escape his miserable situation is for life to imitate art.

The film pulls off the cinematic trick of showing the audience the human side of Matt and Owen, eliciting our sympathy with their plight and our anger at their treatment, feelings which remain with us even in the film's closing scenes. Matt in particular is a true oddball and the real bullying target. His obsession with revenge alienates him from Owen while at the same time making him an increasingly fascinating character for viewers. The film they produce and show to their disinterested class is an odd unfocused mess, if amusingly made (there's a nod to the Steve Martin vehicle Bowfinger (1999) in a moment where they surreptitiously film one of their female classmates voicing a line of dialogue that they need for a scene). The ambitions of their film show how far apart they are from the rest of the school in terms of artistic vision, but the inability of both class and teacher to understand what's on screen only seems to exacerbate the bullying.

The increasing darkness and seeming inevitability of the film's final section is brilliantly nuanced in a scene where Matt, viewed rendering the closing credit sequence of his movie (which of course become the end titles of the film we're watching), turns to the camera and explains that, because of what he's about to do, someone else will need to finish the edit - they do by the way, and the closing credits are brilliant. That Matt only finally seems strong with a gun in his hand, walking the corridors of his school with a motivation which only he and the viewing audience understand, is arguably The Dirties most meta and devastating moment.

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