King of the Ants

King (of the ants) for a day
★★★
☆
Released: 
2003
Director: 
Stuart Gordon
Starring: 
Chris McKenna, Kari Wuhrer, George Wendt, Daniel Baldwin
The Setup: 
Guy is drawn into murder plot, gets revenge
Discussion: 

This movie has always intrigued me, but I confess that's because I thought it was about giant ants, or small killer ants, or some sort of marauding ant. It's not. It's a neo-noir revenge picture, but it got such good reviews on IMDb and it's directed by Stuart Gordon, of Re-Animator fame, so I thought what the hell.

We meet Sean, our hero, played by Chris McKenna, who is cuuuuute. He is a shiftless L.A. house painter who lives in a crappy apartment and is just squeaking by. He meets George Wendt as Duke, an electrician, who says he may have some off-the-books work for Sean. He introduces him to Daniel Baldwin as Ray, vaguely frightening gangster. Ray asks him to follow this guy Eric, played by an uncredited Ron Livingston. Sean follows him, and sees his lovely wife, played by the beautiful and charming Kari Wuhrer, who is like a bonus Ashley Judd. Sean is not the most inconspicuous follower, yet still he isn't caught.

Then Ray asks Sean to murder Eric, and take some information he has. Sean agrees to do it for thirteen thousand dollars. He goes to the house, gets invited in, and then follows a nicely awkward murder that is uncomfortable for Sean, and us. But then Ray or Duke aren't returning Sean's calls, and when he finally meets Ray, he says he's not going to pay, and furthermore Sean needs to get out of town. Sean refuses, and gets beaten up. He gives the stolen files to his friend George for safekeeping, then is picked up by Ray, Duke, and two other thugs, taken to a shack outside a house under construction, and beaten up. When he still refuses to leave, they kidnap him and keep him in the shack, with the intention of beating him until he is so brain-damaged he'd be useless as a witness. Rather tenuous plan, no? I thought so, too.

SPOILERS > > >
Now begins a long sequence in which Sean is beaten repeatedly over the course of several days, which comes with many hallucinations. It's pretty good just for being audacious and extreme, and featuring many freaky visions. The whole thing is undermined, however, by the flimsiness of the shack, sunlight streaming in between its boards, looking like Sean could get out anytime he gave the wall a good kick. But he never does, and finally he gets rescued by George, who kicks him out when he seems ungrateful. Sean soon ends up in the homeless shelter... where Kari works.

She takes a liking to him and, when he's stayed so long he has to be kicked out, she takes him into her home. They make a nice little surrogate family, with Kari's daughter, and soon romance is blossoming. But then she remembers him following her husband, and finds the files he has stolen, and realizes who is. That night, she attacks him, and in defending himself, gives her a little tiny bump against a wall, which somehow is enough to kill her. So you have Sean who withstands repeated and serious cranial trauma, but is fine, and Kari, who gets a minor bump on the head, and drops dead. Yep, that's the movie.

Then Sean goes back to the abandoned house, and lures the thugs out with him. He handily dispatches Duke, perhaps a bit too quickly and handily for as bad as Duke treated him. Then he maims the other two, with one of them (who was less active, but still involved, in the torture) asking why, and Sean replying "Does there have to be a reason?" Ummm, well how about the days of repeated torture, with intent to permanently damage? Does anyone remember that? That doesn't count, or come into play here? Does THAT have anything to do with it? Then he dumps gasoline all over Baldwin and lights him on fire. Then he blows up the house and walks away, the frame freezes, and that's the end.
< < < SPOILERS END

That treatment of the ending, sadly, makes the entire film seem less than what it is, which already is pretty slight. If we had a little coda, or something that highlights the other aspects of the film--Sean's change of character, how he loved and lost and gave up so much--the whole thing might have felt more significant, but as it is, it just becomes a neo-noir revenge story, and one that is not particularly well baked. Sean's falling in with this group is contrived, his following a guy on his bike for days and not being noticed is contrived, his agreeing to murder the guy, the villain's plan to induce just the right amount of brain damage via golf club, Sean's falling into the care of the victim's wife... all of it falls apart with the slightest prod. This, it seems, was adapted from a novel, and it seems the writer wanted to have a noirish revenge story without much thought to weaving in all the character and plot intricacies that make those stories, when done well, resonant with realism. Compare this to After Dark, My Sweet, and this comes off as a surface-level imitator.

Still, there are certain idiosyncrasies, whether they come from the film or novel, and these are what make the film seem intriguing. One is Sean's strange masochism, and the way he'll stand up to, and eventually volunteer for, punishment, which gives his character a strange kind of strength. Maybe that's also why it seems reductive for him to just be played off as a straight-up revenge hero by the end. None of that would work without the persona and openness McKenna is able to bring to the role. The other thing that makes it work are the hallucinations, and the weirdness Gordon lets unfold, which goes a long way toward making the whole film seem a little homemade and individual. In fact, this movie makes a strength of seeming low-budget, as it gives that sense that the rules are off an genuinely unexpected things might happen.

So, it was okay, reasonably good-natured and generous-spirited, goes to dark, interesting places, and has charming actors that take one through a lot of the proceedings. It could have been much better with a stronger, more interesting story and tighter plot, but it also could have been much worse, and finds unexpected ways to make it compelling. Still, if I had it all to do over again, I would have watched something else.

Should you watch it: 

If you want, although the are any number of better movies out there.