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Friday, 8 February 2013

Gut (2012)

Director: Elias
Stars: Jason Vail, Nicholas Wilder, Sarah Schoofs and Angie Bullaro

For a film with a short, punchy title and which begins with a bloody man doing something violent to someone offscreen, Gut is a surprisingly psychological picture. Perhaps the pointer is that it's written and directed by someone with only one name, so there's presumably going to be an arty tone. It's not your traditional art film, that's for sure, but it's far from the visceral experience you might expect from the subject matter and title. It looks deceptively normal, capably shot but with little of the visual flair that you might associate with art films. What it has is a leisurely pace that stubbornly refuses to speed up as the freaky stuff enters the plot, accompanied by a minimalist and echoingly repetitive soundtrack. Both fail to impress initially but stake out a place in our brain nonetheless to hauntingly command our attention. The tension certainly builds consistently and considerably from subtleties and the pace and score both have a lot to do with that.

The biggest problem the film has in its early stages isn't in what it does or in what it doesn't do, but in the fact that it has to do it. It's all about boredom, you see, and it's a really difficult trick to make boredom interesting on film without it not being about boredom any more. The story unfolds in the office, in a diner, at home, with none of these places shown in a remotely interesting light. Life is clearly boring for Tom Nelson, the only thing in it that carries any spice being Dan Jones, his best friend and co-worker. He does mildly wild things like staging a mock suicide and reanimation as a zombie from his desk, when sticking post-it notes on his nipples loses its charm. You'd think that Tom would be happy to have a wildcard like Dan to share an office with but perhaps he's just known him too long. They've been best friends since they were kids and it's entirely obvious that they've been drifting apart for a long time.

While Dan lives in the past, watching home video shot years ago, Tom has grown up and moved on. Either it's a Pixar movie with his wife and daughter or it's yet another run through Return of the Living Dead III with Dan. Both have lost their appeal. He sees the choices that he has but he doesn't like any of them. The passion has evaporated. Even sex with his cute wife, Lily, is boring. He can't eat. He can't sleep. He can't get it up. He's stuck in routines, going through the motions to the degree that it's ritualistic. We see the same places over and over again: the office for work, the diner for lunch, home for dinner. Back home we see the dining table, the shower and the bed, transitional places in between where fun things are supposed to happen. Only Katie, his daughter, hints at life, playing with dogs in the park, but Tom doesn't join in. He has no impetus. Well, not until Lily lets slip to Dan that they're planning to move and Dan decides to woo his friend back.
How he does so is through something new, something edgy, something better than horror movies. It's a DVD of footage he ordered from 'some underground vid site' that is basically effects porn in the Flowers of Flesh and Blood vein: snuff without the death, or so they think. It has a man's hand, a stylish knife and an incision, little more. It's passionate rather than entirely clinical though, the hand slipping inside the body through the wound as if it's a loving act. Tom pretends not to care, even to be turned off by it, but he goes home to discover that his apparent impotence problem has gone. He just thinks about the video, and the clearly symbolic aspect to that gory penetration, and that's pretty much all that it takes. And so on it goes, becoming an addiction. Tom wants Dan to get rid of it, but he comes round to watch the next DVD anyway. We don't even see that one, just the two of them watching it together over and over. And then it begins to infect his dreams.

I found Gut a sort of infectious film too, though it didn't take over my dreams and my life the way it does these characters. I found the buildup fascinating, all the more so for watching it again and realising just how well constructed it is. The whole film is slow and deliberate, admirably refusing to play the gimmicky modern editing game. There are few cuts and the long scenes tend to unfold by being embedded onto our eyeballs so that there's a lingering image of them even after they're gone. In this it reminds of, say, a Bergman movie, another reason we can't help but look for depth and substance. Of course, it doesn't say as much. There's no Sven Nykvist phrasing the poetry of the piece. The main actors, Jason Vail, Nicholas Wilder and Sarah Schoofs, are capable and clearly committed to the picture but they're hardly in the Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand and Bibi Andersson class. It's very hard for an actor to tell us something meaningful while doing nothing.
I've only seen Vail before, though in a part so thoroughly different I didn't recognise him. Here we see a lot of him, in both meanings of that phrase. I presume the frequent shower scenes and butt shots go beyond highlighting routine to lay himself bare as the protagonist of the film and to show contrast between the physical and the mental, the outside and the inside. Yet in Whom God Helps, a striking short film, he played the angel of death, heavily made up and barking short commands in Latin. To highlight his diversity, his big rôle was in Asylum's Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies, given that he'd appeared in the trailer for Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, the book. Wilder has the character to Vail's moodiness. He's like a nerdy version of Christian Slater, with thick eyebrows and a strong half grin and he provides the surface to most scenes. Schoofs is very passive, forced for the most part to allow both the story and her screen husband to overshadow her.

Where the picture disappointed me was in its failure to capitalise on how strongly it had built up the story. While we're quickly given a clear and straightforward direction, it's overlaid with a few neat levels of ambiguity. Tom is so fed up with his life that he plans to move, prompting his best friend to try to win him back to the good old days. At this point, the snuff footage is meaningless in itself. It's just a MacGuffin for Tom and Dan to evolve around and their changes are fascinating to watch, both positive and negative. Yet as the plot takes a more personal turn and the footage with it, that evolution is lessened. For a while we remain absorbed with questions. Is Dan insane? Is Tom schizophrenic? How is this footage really affecting them? Do either of them have any real involvement with it beyond the voyeuristic level? The film does a solid job of prompting us to ask these questions but then it decides to quickly and simply finish out without fuss. The end.

Gut is working the festival circuit right now, which is perhaps the best place for it. Surely it's more likely that slow, thoughtful material like this will find an audience at film festivals than at RedBox or Netflix. So far it's been selected to 24 festivals, from Atlanta to Zagreb, and won seven awards, including Best Feature at the New York City Horror Film Festival, where it also won for its special effects, which are both effectively visceral but somehow erotically charged. Interestingly, though, it isn't making the cut everywhere. I first saw it as a festival submission, but it wasn't selected for that festival or for a second that I'm involved with. It is playing locally this weekend at a third, the Bloody Hero Film Festival at the Phoenix Center for the Arts, but I do wonder why those who ought to like it most, like myself, don't always. I think it's because as a festival selection, it's not a film to walk out of or a film to slate afterwards. It's a film to enjoy but then move onto the next theatre.

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