Wednesday, April 18, 2012


Bruiser (2000)
Dir. George A. Romero
Starring Jason Flemyng, Peter Stormare, Leslie Hope, Tom Atkins

    Let’s start things off on a negative note. BRUISER isn’t really a very good film at all, and it’s a significant step backwards from Romero’s previous film, the enjoyable DARK HALF. It looks cheap, much of it is poorly staged, the acting is mostly pretty bad, its central themes are muddled, and it features some embarrassingly bad creative decisions which undermine most of what it’s trying to do. But, it’s worth looking at because aside from its myriad of obvious and embarrassing flaws, it has two major strengths. First, it continues to explore the basic theme of controlling our antisocial impulses which Romero had previously examined in MONKEY SHINES: AN EXPERIMENT IN GOD DAMN FEAR, and THE DARK HALF. Second, it has a really great horror premise which it fails to completely ruin, despite the pretty thorough bungling that it goes through.

    Let’s look at where Romero is in his career at this point. MONKEY SHINES (1988) looked like a turning point for him, getting his big studio break after nearly two decades of challenging independent filmmaking made him a recognizable name. But it was a big flop, the studio basically recut it against his will, failed to promote it properly, and then ceased to exist shortly after its debut. Then, his Dario Argento collaboration TWO EVIL EYES also failed at the box office (debuting in 17th place with a final take is reported at $349,000. Yes, thousand.) Finally, he has what looks like a sure win with an Academy Award Winner starring in a Stephen King Adaptation, which most people agree is pretty good and even makes a little money. And what happens? Seven years before he can even get another film made, and even then he has to go and find Canal+ producers in France to get it actually funded and distributed. So he’s done exactly what you’re supposed to do, played the game, did his best, and now it’s 2000 and he’s exactly back where he fucking started, making cheapie independent movies with foreign capital.

So perhaps it’s little coincidence that this is exactly the predicament BRUISER’s protagonist finds himself in. Henry Creedlow (Jason Flemyng) is shy, unassuming guy who follows the rules, doesn’t make a fuss, and quietly does his job. And what does he get for his efforts? He’s living in a permanently unfinished house in the creepy suburban sprawl which he can’t afford with his bored, bitchy wife, while failing to get any credit from his outrageous, coke snorting-model-molesting-party-animal boss (Peter Stormare) who also happens to be fucking Henry’s real love, the equally unfulfilled Rosemary (Leslie Hope). Oh, and he has a douchey “best friend” who manages his finances and tells him not to worry about the details when he muses that it seems like his money should be going further. So he gets nothing but abuse at home, nothing but frustration at work, his best friend is obviously stealing from him, and finally, when compelled to go to Peter Stormare’s party, he gets to find out his wife is also having an affair with his boss. So both the ladies in his life are getting into this guy. This may have something to do with the fact that he has the awesome name Milo Styles and is Peter Stormare in full-on wild and crazy guy mode, which makes it somewhat understandable but you still got to feel for the poor bastard. 

 Also at the party: Rosemary (Miles’ nominal wife) has the guests mold creepy expressionless plaster masks and then decorate them to symbolize the person who created them. Great party, lady. I mean, we all remember the classic creepy mask-making scene from ANIMAL HOUSE, right? Just as much fun here. Anyway, Henry is too shy to do it, but he’s fascinated by the masks (in fact, he has more reaction to them than to his wife blowing his boss not five feet away).

    The next day, Henry awakens to discover he’s wearing the mask. Well, not wearing it, exactly. It’s attached to his face, or has replaced his face. Looking into the mirror, he sees only this expressionless plaster facade. And once he realizes that this is his new face, it doesn’t even take an hour before he’s committed his first murder.

    So it’s a great horror premise, especially for Romero, because it makes literal the upsetting psychological truth that de-individualizing allows people to do things they would never do if they had to look at themselves or knew other people could look at them. It’s why the Klan wears those hoods. It’s why executioners used to wear shrouds. It’s why internet message boards are filled with horrifying debasements of humanity. Why people are so rude on the telephone. Why Cobra Commander is such a dick. This has been scientifically studied at some length, and it’s a phenomenon which is measurable and repeatable. Several truly upsetting studies were done back in the 50s, when you could do these sort of things in the name of science. 

    So not only does Flemyng now look creepy as all get out, he’s free to act without an identity. You can argue that the mask frees him of his individuality and his humanity, or you can argue that he was such a blank already that the mask merely externalized the emptiness which already consumed him (I think the film leans more to the latter) but either way it’s an exciting metaphor that should have been an easy home run. I mean, so far we’ve seen Romero depict men who were horrified to find out their darker desires were being acted out against their will. Now we have the added wrinkle that this protagonist is actually doing it himself -- he’s taken his loss of identity as free reign to act out all his most antisocial fantasies and get revenge against pretty much the whole world. He IS the Dark Half. He’s his own helper monkey. Rather than resisting his urges to lash out at the world, he leaps for them at the first opportunity. All it takes is giving up his face and his soul.

I mean, what a great horror premise, right? And especially great for Romero, who (as we’ve seen) loves these highly literalized metaphors. Freed of the need to justify his actions to a human being, the first thing he does is savagely murder the cleaning lady who was bitching about the occupants of the house in Spanish. Where Romero used to seem to think most people would resist their violent urges, here we see just how quickly Henry’s savagery comes out and consumes him once he’s given an opportunity, and how fast any kind of empathy or moderation recedes. The minute he stops holding back, his violence just explodes outwards and he becomes, basically, Jason -- a masked psycho indiscriminately chopping up anyone he feels wronged him in some way. It fits right in with DARK HALF and MONKEY SHINES’ overwhelming paranoia of letting bad thoughts slip into the real world.

Except that Romero doesn’t play it quite like that. He takes what is clearly a horror concept of a guy becoming a monster and shoots it like it’s some kind of empowerment experience*. Suddenly Henry is able to stand up for himself, to right the wrongs that were done to him by everyone in his life. Henry’s enemies are such awful assholes themselves that it basically becomes a revenge fantasy, where you get to cheer for Henry blowing away the cheating wife, the thieving best friend, etc. Romero even has a Greedo-shot-first moment where Bestie goes for his gun, to make it all nice and legal. Stand your ground, faceless rage machine-- no moral ambiguity to get in the way of our fun.

But any enjoyment you might be able to get from a well-executed revenge fantasy is completely demolished by the fact that this is all Henry’s fault anyway. Yes, people have been taking advantage of him, treating him like shit, whatever. But I don’t buy his whiny victim routine. He could have left his bitch wife any time, could have told his friend to let him see his finances, could have told his boss he wants a raise. But he never did. Instead he said nothing, sat there day after day in the middle of the miserable, empty life he built for himself, and decided it was everyone else’s fault. And now we’re supposed to root for him to murder everyone who ever hurt his feelings? You’ve got only yourself to blame, you putty-faced prick. 

All this climaxes in his least satisfying but admittedly most colorful murder, where he attends a giant costumed warehouse Misfits rave/show (where he blends in because he’s wearing a mask) and uses one of the lasers from their laser light show to shoot a hole in the skull of Peter Stormare, who is at the time suspended over the crowd in some sort of drug-fueled sex harness. It’s not quite as cool as it sounds, because it’s kind of poorly staged, but it’s still a winningly ridiculous setup. Problem is, he’s already killed wifey and best friend, and now he’s going after his boss, who doesn’t really have any personal problem with Henry. You’re saving this guy for last? All he did was ignore him at work, I don’t think he personally cares enough about Henry to even be mean to him. I mean, he may be a coke-snorting-model-banging-wife-swapping-misogynist-nutball-Russian-porno-kingpin, but that actually makes him at least 6 adjectives more interesting than silent, resentful Henry. Who are you gonna root for, the hilarious and outrageous asshole, or the guy who’s going on a murder rampage because his feelings got hurt? It’s like if Jim hacked Stifler to death at the end of AMERICAN PIE and we were supposed to find it satisfying and cathartic. And Jim is about a hundred times more likeable than Henry.     

Part of the problem is Flemyng, who is an actor I usually love but who was terribly wrong for this part. Flemyng’s superpower is the sly, witty, underdog charm which is always simmering just below the surface, spilling out his eyes and lingering on the clipped end of his jangling british cadence. Here, unfortunately, he’s playing a consummately unwitty, awkward blank slate, eyes hidden behind an expressionless mask, and with a somewhat labored American accent to boot. Romero was smart to cast an great underdog, but then we never get to see anything redeeming or interesting about Henry before his big murderous conversion. Which in my opinion makes him not so much an underdog as a boring loser. We’re not gonna root for the guy just because his life sucks. You’ve gotta have something going for you that we like. Self-actualizing doesn’t just mean lashing out at things that upset you; it means actually cultivating the things that are worth standing up for. Romero doesn’t seem to quite get that. 

It’s not too hard to imagine why. Romero had to be in such a frustrating place at this point in his career that maybe just the very act of lashing out seemed empowering. He’d been an underdog from the start, working diligently, staying positive, imagining it would pay off. And it never quite did, or at least not in the way he might have hoped, where he’d have more financial freedom and more opportunity to direct. After all that time, how are you going to convince yourself to keep up the optimism? It’s natural to feel some resentment. You spend too much time --like the protagonists from MONKEY SHINES of THE DARK HALF-- carefully controlling your thoughts and worrying about what might happen if you gave in to your darker impulses, and eventually you’re gonna go nuts and simply explode. So even though BRUISER explores the same theme, it’s almost a repudiation of the self-denial subtext those films put forward. But unless you just spent 30 years making serious, imaginative horror films only to find yourself right back where you started, you’re not gonna identify with this creep Henry very much. It might feel liberating to Romero to finally show a guy snapping and just going with it, but from an objective perspective there’s just no way to side with this asshole. Romero should have starred in it himself and had his faceless avatar hack up a bunch of movie studio execs -- that, I might have been able to cheer for. 

Since BRUISER (which, by the way, refers to the name of the Maxim-esque mens’ magazine Henry and Milo work for) Romero hasn’t exactly slacked off, but he hasn’t returned to this curious theme of self-control which runs through his work from 1988 to 2000. He did the pretty respectable LAND OF THE DEAD, which revisits the political and social allegories from the earlier DEAD films, but DIARY and SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD are even sloppier and less coherent than BRUISER. So in some ways, this one feels like the end of the line for Romero, and his admission that he, like Henry, has pretty much given up trying to make it work. In one of the few scenes in the film which feel like something approximating humanity, Henry tells his long-time unrequited love that it’s too late for him, but she should break her own miserable cycle and live a happy life. Maybe in a way that’s Romero telling future indie filmmakers to not try the frustrating path he went down, but instead to follow their own dreams to a more rewarding future. If this cycle of films at all represents Romero’s own inner struggle for peace, I sincerely hope he found it. He’s a unique guy and, flaws and all, no one else could have made the particular movies he did. I’ll always hold out hope that he’ll make one more great one** but even if he doesn’t I hope he doesn’t feel like Henry, living unnoticed in his half-finished dream house. 

You’re a good man, George Romero. Even when you’re not of the living dead.

*IMDB confirms this was his intention: According to George A. Romero and his wife Christine Forest on the DVD commentary on DAWN OF THE DEAD, the distributors of Bruiser (2000) sold it as a Romero horror film (example of that is the poster with the gashes on the white face). Both Romero and Forest felt that it wasn't just a horror film but more of a story of a man who is going through difficulties in his life. The fate of selling [sic] this movie as a horror film was this movie ended up going to video instead of theaters. 

**Also to be inducted into the “I hope they’ll make one more great one!” hall of fame: John Carpenter, Wes Craven, John McTiernan, Walter Hill, Dario Argento, Kevin Smith.

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