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Stuck (2007)

February 9, 2009

It is difficult for me to write about Stuart Gordon’s Stuck without also ranting about the state of London cinema distribution.  However, I shall curtail my habitual rant on the subject by merely pointing out that Stuck is, much like Durabont’s The Mist (2007) and Friedkin’s Bug (2006), a genuinely impressive piece of genre film-making that was cruelly stripped from cinema screens just as it began to generate some decent word-of-mouth and thereby find its audience.  Although best known for successfully joining up separate Lovecraft stories in order to create Dagon (2001), Stuck shows that Gordon is also adept with contemporary horror.  By ‘contemporary horror’ I mean horror films such as Bug, Wolf Creek (2005) or Eden Lake (2008).  Horror films that are stripped of fantastical elements and which, instead of dealing with their different issues through metaphor, deals with them in a synecdochic manner by having certain characters stand in for trends in human nature or contemporary culture that the director and writers wish to address.  Despite the apparent nihilism of its cynicism and violence, Stuck is actually a deeply moral film.  Beneath the brutal gore-filled images and the (admittedly ill-judged and self-defeating) black comedy, the film speaks not only of the worst in humanity, but also the best.

The film begins by elegantly introducing us to two surprisingly similar characters before setting them on a collision course.

Brandi (Mena Suvari) is a nurse in an old people’s home.  We know this because, in a genuinely shocking scene, the film shows us Brandi dealing with an old man who has shit the bed.  We warm to Brandi immediately as despite having one of the worst jobs imaginable, she does it with a smile and seems to genuinely care about the old people in her care.  When the possibility of a promotion is dangled in front of her, it seems only right that she agree to work on her day off and that she go out to celebrate with her friend Tanya (Rukiya Bernard) and her shady boyfriend Rashid (Russell Hornsby).

Thomas Bardo (Stephen Rea) is similarly sympathetic.  In the process of being thrown out of his slum apartment, he lost his job years previously but never recovered (he carries around a photo of himself at work as a means of clinging on to the past).  Without money, without a place to sleep and with no prospects after a computer error sends him to the back of the line at the job centre, Bardo tries to sleep in the park before being moved on by the police.

As Bardo is making his way to a homeless shelter, a drunk and high Brandi crashes into him, breaking his leg and sending him head-first through the windscreen in the process.  Horrified at what has happened but reticent to take the man to hospital for fear of being prosecuted for drunk driving, Brandi decides to drive home and put the car – complete with Bardo, still stuck through the windscreen – in the garage.  When she tries to raise the issue with Rashid, he tells her not to worry and plies her with more pills before the two finish the evening in bed.

If I have devoted more than four hundred words of this review to a plot synopsis of the film’s opening twenty minutes, it is because these twenty minutes ultimately ground the film and set up what comes after the accident.  Both characters (whose names are suspiciously similar and highlighted repeatedly throughout the film) are good, moral people with the best intentions in the world.  Bardo simply wants to find work and Brandi just wants to get on with her career.  However, what comes to define these characters is not their apparent moral worthiness but rather the decisions they make when faced by a series of moral quandaries.  Indeed, the collision course the film sets Brandi and Bardo on is entirely determined by the results of decisions made not just by them but by the people around them :

* Should the employee of the job centre kick Bardo to the back of the line because of a computer error?

* Should Brandi agree to come in on her day off?

* Should Bardo’s landlord allow him to take his interview clothes out of the apartment before evicting him?

These actions determine not only what kind of world we live in, but also what kind of people we really are.  Existence precedes essence, the film seems to argue as people’s good intentions are relentlessly undermined by their failure to make the right moral choices.

Much like Bardo, Brandi is a caring and moral person but despite this she makes the wrong decisions, choosing to put her desire for a good evening and then her promotion ahead of the needs of a man she injured by deciding to drive drunk.  However, what is most chilling about Brandi is not her willingness to sacrifice everything for the purposes of expediency, or her descent into increasingly surreal and grotesque forms of violence, but her absolute refusal to bear responsibility for anything that has happened to her.  “Why are you doing this to me?” she asks before knocking out the horrifically injured and moaning Bardo.  “You did it!  You did all of it!” she screams whilst dousing the helpless man with gasoline in preparation for setting him alight.  She refuses to accept her responsibility but the film has shown us quite  explicitly that everything that happens is the result of decisions she made.  Had any of Brandi’s decisions gone the other way then the events of Stuck might never have occurred.  The ultimate moral character of the two central characters is confirmed when, having gained the upper hand, Bardo refuses to take revenge, a decision that Brandi uses as an opportunity to attack him again.  Bardo’s willingness to forgive shows humanity at its best.  Brandi’s attempt to pull a gun on the man who just spared her shows us at our worst.

For a film that involves a man slowly pushing a pen into another man’s eye, Stuck is surprisingly complex.  Far from being black and white in its treatment of moral issues, the film admits that there is a lot of grey in the story of Bardo and Brandi.  The film strongly implies that Bardo’s homelessness is his own fault and one of Bardo’s first on-screen actions is to rip off a man who trusted him.  Similarly, Brandi’s refusal to accept the blame is not as ridiculous as its first appears as having Bardo cross the road just as she drove down it was a result of pure chance and besides, had the tables been turned then it is by no means certain that Bardo would have acted any differently to her.  It is significant that the only intentional death in the film is caused by Bardo.

The film itself is flawlessly paced and lasts a disciplined 85 minutes without a shot or a scene out of place or surplus to requirements.  In an age of flabby and ‘epic’ film-making, Gordon’s parsimony and focus are a breath of fresh air.  Visually, the film is as gritty as you would expect given the subject matter.  Despite the contemporary setting, the film’s sets and costumes speak of a degree of poverty more familiar to productions from the 1970s and 80s.  It is also intensely claustrophobic, full of interior shots, close-ups and very little else.  This scale not only captures the ever-shrinking horizons of the characters’ worlds but also the lack of place engendered by Bardo being hit by a car and carried off to places unknown.  Additionally, because Bardo and Brandi are not ‘of’ any particular place they feel much more universal in their significance.

The performances are also remarkably strong.  Having left her teen comedy years behind, Suvari has clearly decided to forge a career for herself as a proper actress and she does very well in a complex role that demands that she engender sympathy in some scenes before shedding it like dead skin in others.  Rea has a good deal less to work with but is perfectly cast.  The world-weary features he used so wonderfully in The Crying Game (1991) are here put to use to engender an incredible sense of bruised humanity.  However, the performance of Hornsby is where it all starts to go wrong.  Initially introduced as a shady drug dealer, Rashid is then re-invented as a kind of comedy character.  Forever cursing the injustice of his girlfriend’s demands and desperately trying to win back her approval when caught in bed with another woman.  The performance itself is fine, Hornsby shows a talent for comedy that works well with his imposing demeanour, but one has to wonder why Gordon required him to play his part for laughs.

Stuck’s tendency to present some scenes as comedic is an understandable attempt at crowd-pleasing and sugaring the pill of what would otherwise be an absolutely merciless piece of film-making.  Unfortunately, this sugaring undeniably undermines what is ultimately some very serious subject matter and an exploration of what are dark and twisted corners of the human psyche.  Had Stuck been played straight (and Rashid not been written as a comic character) then I suspect that the film would come to be spoken of in the same breath as the likes of Irreversible (2002) and Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom (1975) as an exemplar of dark and brutal cinema.  However, instead of walking the line between mainstream drama and horror and emphasising the unpleasantness of the film’s violence, Gordon decides to remain true to his genre roots and plays up the violence’s more surreal characteristics.  Mercifully, though it comes dangerously close, Stuck never quite tips over into being cartoonish.  The gory scenes are horrific to watch despite the comedy spin placed on them by the director and the dark and realistic tone of the opening acts provides a form of inertia that counter-acts the zaniness that appears later on.

Despite a few bad creative decisions, Stuck is a thought-provoking film with incredible moral complexity as well as some genuinely inspired cinematography.  I wish that films like this came out every week.

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