Video Drone, by Patrick Felton
Whenever a film does not work for me, it can often be helpful for me to reflect on one’s own ideals for what a film can and should be and compare them to those of the film in question. Even with this rule of thumb, occasionally there comes along a film so truly awful that no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything nice to say about it.
Gut, the first feature from the single-named filmmaker Elias, is one such movie.
I make this assertion not out of cynical jab towards a small independent film that is unlikely to reach enough eyeballs to justify any passion either way. Indeed anytime a film made on such minimal means there is a temptation to give the filmmakers a pass for technical or story flaws.
However, I genuinely can’t understand why anyone would want watch Gut let alone make it. It is not just that the premise is hackneyed and cynical. Its not just that it exploits graphic violence against women in pursuit of thrills is morally reprehensible. Its not just that the film clearly has no context for the real world. What makes Gut so truly awful is that it commits all of the aforementioned mistakes while at the same time failing to be even remotely entertaining.
The plot of Gut centers on family man Tom’s relationship with his co-worker Dan. Tom is depressed and dissatisfied until Dan exposes him to an alleged snuff film, with which Tom becomes increasingly obsessed.
The film itself seems to have no idea on how human beings actually interact in the real world. Portrayals of the main characters interacting in their office workplace seem to ape David Lynch by way of a Sonic value meal Ad. Whether this was an intentional tonal decision or not, the result is deeply alienating and creates a barrier between the film and the audience.
This first-act tonal problem is epitomized by the performance of Nicholas Wilder as Dan. Having seen Wilder perform to great effect in previously in the award winning short film The Paradim Shift, its not clear exactly what the intent of this performance is. The character initially seems to exist only as a device to reveal main character Tom’s dissatisfaction with life and work. (Its only 3 minutes into the film when Dan literally asks him “what’s with you lately”) Wilder often seems to be overcompensating for a lack of believable dialogue with broad child-like characterizations. The result is at best theatrical and at worst non-humanoid. Wilder’s overly passionate delivery of even the most implausible and mundane lines creates a strange incongruity with daytime television veteran Jason Vail’s vacant televisual performance as Tom. Its only as Dan becomes less verbal and more reactionary that Wilder is given a chance to truly show his considerable chops with a more than obvious second act plot reveal.
Even with Wilder seeming to shoehorn enthusiasm into the frame, the film itself feels void of energy. Obsession has never been more boring as it is in Gut. Alternating between needlessly endless scenes of workplace tedium, brooding home life scenes and expositional diner conversations. Most shots feel at least 5 seconds too long. Numerous shouts of the tedium of Tom’s day play out with a droning horror underscore and dull and slow pacing. Gut’s idea of mood seems to be long shots of people looking pensive, ticking clocks, and gratuitous insert shots. Awkward, unfunny Attempts at comic relief fall flat including casual humor at the expense of Dan’s visually disabled postal worker.
Then comes the gutting. Whereas everything else in the film seems to lack any sense of artistic intention, these methodical long unbroken takes of a nameless man videotaping himself serrating a woman’s midriff seem to relish and linger on the acts of upsetting violence with unrestrained admiration. This is clearly a fetishistic portrayal of snuff film, torture porn at its worst. Montages of the acts of violence intercut with Tom pleasuring himself only further reveal the dark core at the heart of the films artistic intent.
Perhaps what’s so frustrating about this is that the film seems to want it both ways. In true Hayes Code fashion, Tom’s arc seems blueprinted on the sort of moralizing false condemnation that is often used to justify exploitation. Tom will occasionally weep or brood in the shower over how the films have taken over his life. As the film progresses, the plot begins to echo more and more from better films including Videodrome and 8MM. The film so desperately wants to make the point that such violence corrupts, thus proving the film doesn’t approve of its own acts.
However, when considering the lack of even the remotest of artistic achievement in the rest of the film’s sequences, this argument is easily cut down. The scenes of sadistic violence, always against women, are so lovingly shot with ample and relentless focus on the victim’s most sexualized features that it becomes hard to imagine a manner in which the violence isn’t meant to titillate. Moreover, the film goes out of its way to parallel and echo the shots of the gutting in more overt sexual encounters between Tom and his wife. When the rest of the film is so artless and void of any sense of energy, its hard to imagine that every scene is just a formality until the next gutting.
It is almost as if this film exists solely to allow the camera to linger on these shots of a knife slowly gutting the midriff of a female victim. Under this narrowest of objectives perhaps the film initially succeeds. However, as the film refuses to give the audience anything else in the narrative to hold onto, even these scenes begin to prove tedious and gutless.