Saturday, October 30, 2010

#95: The Ugly (Scott Reynolds, 1997)

This disappointing debut feature from New Zealand writer/director Scott Reynolds presents a dilemma for me as a writer: I have a lot of specific things to say about the aspects of the film I disliked, but its virtues are a bit more amorphous and abstract. I will try not to beat up on Reynolds too much because he's attempting something interesting with the serial killer storyline, and I'll try to describe just what he's doing that works without getting too vague or fluffy. Let's begin by beating him up.
The Ugly takes place in a bizarre insane asylum in rural New Zealand housing prolific serial killer Simon Cartwright (Paolo Rotondo). Unlike most killers, he has no pattern for choosing his victims. He kills them by slicing their throats with a straight razor, but the weapon is the only constant. His victims are men and women, children and adults, friends and relatives and strangers. He doesn't rape, torture, or beat his victims, and he doesn't keep souvenirs. He's a mystery man. To use sophisticated psychological terminology, what is the cut of this guy's jib? Cartwright has been declared legally insane. Six years later, he decides he wants a second opinion, and requests famed and controversial psychologist Dr. Karen Schumaker (Rebecca Hobbs) for his reevaluation. This angers his current psychologist, Dr. Marlowe (Roy Ward), the head of the institution and a man who resembles a walking penis. He ensures that his only two employees, a couple of knuckle-walking goons (one of whom dresses exclusively in a sleeveless vest with no shirt underneath), regularly abuse Cartwright and attempt to intimidate Schumaker. He is what is known in the psychology biz as a dick. The rest of the film takes place in the two days in which Schumaker evaluates Cartwright, alternating between flashbacks to Cartwright's life before and during the murders, dream and fantasy sequences, and the present.

After a promising first fifteen minutes, the film unfortunately becomes a bit of a slog with some bright spots. Some of the blame can be placed on the miscast leads, Rotondo and Hobbs. I never accepted Rotondo as a serial killer. He lacks menace and intensity, and he's just physically wrong for the role. This may sound like a contradiction, but he's both too much and not enough of a pretty boy to convince as an indiscriminate killing machine. Maybe if the movie worked with Rotondo's almost-but-not-quite-teen-idol looks, something interesting would have developed, but painting him as a mysterious and threatening presence is a stretch. At least Rotondo is a fairly subtle actor. Hobbs chews scenery like she needs to compress every role she's ever had into one character. It doesn't help that the film's idea of psychotherapy is evil manipulation on the one hand (Marlowe) and yelling, confrontation, and high drama on the other (Schumaker). When Hobbs angrily throws all her papers on the floor with a sweeping gesture of her arms as she screams at Cartwright, I checked out. That is some ri-goddamn-diculous professional methodology. I think we're beyond the highly unorthodox at this point. "But she gets results!" you may offer in counterpoint. "Stupid results," I might reply.
Another problem with the movie is an overabundance of dream and fantasy sequences that borders on self-parody. On multiple occasions, the film devolves into the following sequence of events: Oh my god, that just happened! No, it was just a dream. Or was it? Yes, it was. No, it wasn't! Oh my god, yes it was! Or was it? No. Yes. Or, maybe... I sometimes wondered if I were watching a New Zealand version of an interminable Saturday Night Live skit.
Reynolds sometimes mistrusts his own admirable visual skill with abrupt switches to rapid jump cuts, shaky cams, and intrusive zooms in and out with an accompanying deep-focus/out-of-focus image. When he stays out of his own way and avoids over-stylization, he has a nice eye and the film is visually powerful. To his credit, he trusts himself more often than he feels the need to hyperbolically overzazz his imagery, music-video style, but when he punches up the visuals, the film becomes unnecessarily jarring and distracting.

My last criticism may be a little unfair since I'm slamming the film for what it isn't rather than what it is, but I found the overly serious tone oppressive. The Ugly tries too hard to be a serious art film but can't really pull it off. The movie's understanding of psychotherapy, serial killers, and mental asylums is too movie-cliched to reveal any new ways of seeing these subjects. A dose of exploitation or campy fun or a beheading or two would have been welcome, especially since the film's one moment of humor really worked. That moment involves penis-shaped Dr. Marlowe's secret one-way-glassed room with theater seats and piped-in classical music where he spies on Schumaker's sessions. Marlow is a balding, incredibly thin man with neatly trimmed sideburns and a soul-patch, and he's fond of wearing ascots. While he watches the session, he glares evilly and chomps on hard candy. The only thing missing is an aged cat or small dog for him to stroke while he formulates his evil plans.

Time to stop bashing Reynolds. Here's what he does right. His aforementioned visual skills are formidable when he's not bogged down in over-stylization. He has a nice eye for detail and shot composition, and the film's cinematography has that pleasing grit and grain often found in American films of the 1970s and Australian and New Zealand films of the 1970s-1990s. The black blood coming from the victims in the flashbacks and dreams is a nice little stylish touch that makes things seem not quite right without going overboard while also providing a payoff in the final scene. The asylum and Marlow's office are well designed, strong visual presences. The art director deserves some kudos for doing a lot with a little. The flashback sequences to the killer's childhood are handled in a straightforward, compelling way, ably performed by a strong cast. The mother gets some of the blame, as usual, but many actual serial killers had fucked-up mothers, so I can let this slide. Finally, the ghostly physical manifestations of the voices the killer hears are nicely handled. These apparitions are creepy and unsettling, and Reynolds uses them just enough without overusing them. I wish I liked this movie better, because Reynolds has some talent. Unfortunately, I can't work up much enthusiasm for The Ugly.

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