Directed by Harmony Korine
Cast: Jacob Reynolds, Jacob Sewell, Nick Sutton, Chloe Sevigny, Darby Dougherty, Carisa Bara, Linda Manz, Max Perlich, Harmony Korine, Ellen M. Smith.
1997 95 minutes
Rated: (for violence, nudity, and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 29, 1998.
Harmony Korine first made a splash into the film world by writing 1995's raw, critically-acclaimed, "Kids." It was obvious he had a talent for writing, judging from that picture, but could he direct? All doubts of this question were quickly diminished for me after seeing his debut, "Gummo," which was my favorite film of 1997, and one of my top 5 of the decade. It is a film experience like no other, a movie for which the word original was clearly invented for.
"Gummo," breaks all the rules of filmmaking. It mixes all film stocks, as well as occasionally adds documentary-style sequences. It does not have a nicely packaged plot and characters, but instead, is a series of fascinating, invigorating vignettes that form a mosaic of the small, backwoods town of Xenia, Ohio, where a disasterous tornado hit a few years before. The main people we follow, although there are many, many more, include two teenage boys (Jacob Reynolds and Nick Sutton) who kill cats and sell their corpses to a supermarket for money; three sisters (Chloe Sevigny, Darby Dougherty, Carisa Bara), two of which are albino; a lowlife (Max Perlich) who pimps his wife, who has down-syndrome; and a mysterious boy (Jacob Sewell) who wanders the town wearing big, pink bunny ears.
There is not much else that can be said about the "story," because there is none on the surface. One of the greatest delights of "Gummo," is trying to figure out what everything means and what the underlying themes are. Much of what I have described may sound offensive, like the cats being killed, and to some people, I am sure it will be. After all, that is why when originally released, the critics either thought it was a piece of vile trash or a piece of cinematic brilliance (I am in the latter category). Ultimately, some of the best movies are those that aren't afraid to be different, and aren't afraid to take chances, even if it means outraging some audiences.
Another one of the biggest treats of "Gummo," is that you could watch it over and over again, just so to catch all of the different elements. There are so many things going on, and so many layers, that by the film's end, it feels like I actually had taken a trip to Xenia and learned a great deal about its history (even though the film is fictional, and actually filmed in Nashville). There is also a great deal of humor, some of which is very funny and obviously not all of it scripted. One particular scene involving an interview with a real albino woman is hilarious, especially when she says her favorite actor is Patrick Swayze. "I would actually pay money to touch him."
The performances, some of which are by non-actors, all seem extremely natural, for the most part, and many of the scenes are done so perfectly and accurately that it felt like I really was watching a documentary, albeit one that featured quite a few dysfunctional, but always interesting, individuals. Chloe Sevigny, who also had the duty of being costume designer, is one of my favorite actresses (after her winning roles in this, "The Last Days of Disco," and the otherwise mediocre, "Palmetto"), and she acts so differently here that it's like watching a different person. Linda Manz, in her first role since 1980's "Out of the Blue," is memorable and rather touching as a mother who mourns for her dead husband by doing a tap dance in front of a mirror in the basement.
It is difficult to explain "Gummo," since it is so completely innovative and unconventional. Director Korine is truly a genius when it comes to the cinema, and he has said that he made the film not to please anybody, but just to make something that he himself would want to see. And through the countless bizarre and absorbing vignettes, is a message, I think, that is closely related to that of the message in, "Kids," even though it was more accessible in that film. It is a film not about a lot of strange people in a town, but a film about the world in general, and one that has a great deal to say about the loss of childhood innocence.
Saying that, "Gummo," is reminiscent of the mindblowing, controversial, virtuoso 1928 short film, "Un Chien Andalou," by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, which is now considered a classic, is probably the highest compliment I could give it. When that film was released, people were outraged at some of the images featured in it, from dead donkeys rammed into a piano, to a woman's eye being slit open in close-up. It was disturbing, for sure, but what those viewers didn't realize was that Bunuel and Dali wanted to tell the story of a confused man's identity crisis. You just have to look underneath the eccentric, often grotesque surface, to uncover the deep meaning it was trying to say. I have a feeling Korine would easily understand that.
© 1998 by Dustin Putman