Another hyped one, this time from Sundance. Two friends are obsessed with Mad Max. They build a flame thrower and basically drink and burn their way through life until they meet a few women and everything starts to fall apart.
A word that’s commonly been used to describe Bellflower is “anarchic.” It certainly isn’t optimistic, and if fire and aimlessness are somehow equivalent to anarchy, then that description is spot-on. There’s more to dislike than to like, however, in the film. For one, the acting is pretty bad throughout. Leads Woodrow (writer/director Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are not only subpar actors, but their characters are extremely annoying, even when they are losing everything. It’s hard to have any anchor of sympathy in that way. The female leads – Milly (Jessie Wiseman), Woodrow’s girlfriend who cheats on him and begins the downward spiral and Courtney (Rebekah Brandes) who inexplicably becomes infatuated with Woodrow after he and Milly break up – are much more talented, but their talents are wasted on characters whose emotions are told only from a heartbroken, adolescent, drunk male perspective.
The fascination with fire in here begins strongly. An odd, but maybe appropriate comparison point for the first act might be the recent Son of Rambow, which brought two people together via a mutual love of said Sly Stallone action flick. Aiden and Woodrow and both obsessed with Mad Max and the first 30 minutes or so of Bellflower play like sometimes annoying, but oddly touching homage. Here are two young men (where they get all of this money to build machines without ever working is beyond me) who want so badly to regain childhood that they’re still playing with toy cars and guns. The problem is that they never progress beyond that stage and instead of the pyrotechnics of the film mirroring the crazed state into which they slide it simply becomes more and more ridiculous to the point where these guys feel like one-dimensional characters: boys stuck in men’s bodies. The rest becomes background. Another comparison point (and another better film) is Miguel Arteta’s Chuck and Buck, which also uses two old friends, reimagines their childhood situations in an adult scenario, but raises the stakes and turns sexual expectations on its head.
There are some very good things in Bellflower though. The sound design and the way the camera anticipates it is quite good. The sound design, both diegetic and non-diegetic, and when diegetic often exaggerated, is a roaring, wooshing, grinding cacophony that pushes Aiden and Woodrow’s world beyond reality. Some of the camera moves – a pan to empty windows after a dramatic moment – are nice personifications of an altered mindset and add a moment of calm to the chaos. The cinematography, much talked about as it is technically derived from a camera specifically manufactured by Glodell for this production – yields sun-drenched, burned, saturated images. The shifting, twitching focus adds to the feel.
Narratively there is also some good. This is (or could be) a really interesting interpretation of a breakup. At its heart that’s what Bellflower wants to be. Man and woman break up. World collapses. And it comes close at times, but ultimately succumbs to its more violent ideas that detract from that part of the narrative. Glodell relies too heavily on his own acting skills and his own attraction, both of which fail too miserably to take him seriously. When Courtney randomly sneaks into his bed and they begin an affair (behind Aiden’s back), I don’t buy the attraction one bit. Maybe this has something to do with time jumps. There’s a huge time jump – or at least it feels huge – in Milly and Woodrow’s relationship, where Courtney is largely absent. By the time things come to fruition I find myself more asking what happened in that time gap than why things happened as they did onscreen.
The non-linear structure, especially at the end, where, by returning to a shot of the box of Milly’s things and the second time through never replaying all of the crazy nonsense that happens subsequently (to give a few hints: murder or devastating injury by baseball bat, a tattooed beard, and a suicide), Glodell seems to hypothesize that all of those events were in Woodrow’s head. But why? Does that make him crazier? Are the stakes somehow raised if he imagines all of this? And if they aren’t in his head, why replay it? Simply so we can hear Aiden’s ending speech, which implies that they were planning to leave? Do either of these situations make it anymore difficult (or easy, for that matter) to accept the crazy events that transpire? This is the exact same problem I have with the end of Noe’s Irreversible, whereby revealing the pregnancy doesn’t make everything prior any worse, but simply cheapens it – the director feels the need to add more when it’s unnecessary – beating a dead horse.
There’s another ridiculous plot point to bring up. This one has a SPOILER:
When Courtney and Woodrow start sleeping together her bag falls off his bed and a gun falls out. She implies that it’s loaded. He asks her why she has it and she never answers. Now if I’m a movie-goer, a screenwriter, a producer, etc, if I see a gun for the first and only time in a film it sets off all sorts of alarm bells. What’s going to happen with the gun? Is Woodrow somehow going to ironically use it on Courtney (the irony being that it’s hers)? Is Aiden going to find Woodrow with Courtney and use it on Woodrow? In short, this gun is clearly being set up right here as a plot device. How is it going to conclude it’s narrative usefulness?
Here’s how: when Woodrow storms out of Milly’s after sort of raping her he screams at Courtney that he won’t leave with her as she was expecting. He walks away and the camera tracks in front of him, framing Courtney behind him. She pulls out the gun and shoots herself in the head. The camera continues and we never see her again.
Really? So we set up the gun so that Courtney can use it on herself in a suicide that not only implies an obsession with an annoying character, but also raises the misogynist stakes to a whole new level? There’s no irony, no logic, no nothing to the gun. When it’s first introduced it’s basically saying, ‘here audience. Courtney carries this around with her in the event that she might need to kill herself.’ It’s not like she’s being stalked, like she lives in a dangerous neighborhood, like she’s a vigilante by night, etc. There is absolutely no narrative reason for her to be carrying a gun other than the cheap suicide that ensues at the end. And the fact that Glodell’s camera concentrates only on himself and relegates Courtney’s death to literal background is a slap in the face to her character.