Holy shit, people HATE this film. I just got off the IMDb, where I read the reviews of this from hip critics in The Onion, the Village Voice, Salon, and etc., and they’re all quite contemptuous of this, each of them sniffing in favor of Requiem for a Dream, the “far superior film” about drug abuse that also features frenetic editing to simulate drug trips. This one also features “stunt casting” in which many of the fine actors are “wasted.” And once more, I feel like the majority of them are completely missing the point.
We open in this gross drug house, where Jason Schwartzman as Ross comes by to buy some meth. Present is John Leguizamo as Spider Mike, Mena Suvari as Cookie, Patrick Fugit as Frisbee, and Brittany Murphy as Nikki. The house is nasty with filth and clothes strewn everywhere, flypaper hanging from the ceiling. This scene mainly functions to introduce the characters and the style of the film, which is filled with lots of tiny edits [they apparently average one per second] and sudden close-ups of twitching teeth or an eyeball. Anyway, Nikki tells Ross that she can hook Ross up with her boyfriend, Mickey Rourke as The Cook, who creates meth in his hotel room. He drives her over there, gets some dope, snorts it—and then suddenly the movie slows way down for the credits as we have some quiet acoustic music [Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins] and hypnotic shots of driving around the suburban streets.
Ross goes to a strip club, where he starts to hallucinate in short animated bits. The stripper recognizes that he has drugs and goes home with him, where they do some and screw. Afterward, he gets a call from The Cook, because Nikki’s dog is sick and Ross must take him to the vet [Nikki introduced Ross to The Cook by saying “He has a car”]. Ross has the stripper handcuffed to the bed, and rather than let her go, he merely tears off duct tape and puts it over her eyes and mouth. One of the reviews said that Ross wasn’t sadistic, just misguided, but I think he shows his sadism when he says “Here, it’s your favorite song” and puts a death metal song at blaring volume on repeat while he is gone. Then the movie itself shows its sadism by having the CD start to skip when Ross slams the door—meaning the stripper will have to listen to the same eighth of a second of music infinitely repeating at high volume for hours, at least. By the way, Ross has a nosy neighbor next door in Deborah Harry, who unfortunately still can’t act.
Ross takes Nikki and the dog [which is dyed green] to the vet. It seems to us like there is nothing at all wrong with the dog. When Ross returns her, The Cook pulls a gun on him for making a pass at her [which he didn’t], then demands that Ross drive him on errands for the rest of the day. Throughout the movie, Ross leaves messages for his girlfriend Amy, who has pretty much given up on him, but wants the $400 he owes her. At a convenience store, a rival dealer is giving the women behind the counter some guff, slapping her, when The Cook bashes him in the face with a six-pack of beer, then kicks him repeatedly on the ground. Ross stays out all night, returns home in the morning, but is immediately called away again, and leaves the stripper tied up a second day.
SPOILERS > > >
So in here we've been noticing this reality TV show in which cameras follow cops called BUST, and then you see two cops [on meth themselves] sitting outside Frisbee's trailer, and you start to think "I bet someone in this movie is going to get busted on that show." Then you see the presentation of Frisbee's mother as an obese woman with an unattended Cheeto lying on her stomach, calling for Frisbee to bring her something to eat, and it's around then that you start to realize that there's this whole satiric, comedic distance this movie is trying to engage in. Frisbee and mother get busted, and there is more cop parody as the detectives interrogate them, getting info on Spider Mike and his holdout.
Meanwhile Ross is still driving The Cook around, at one point to a porn shop, where the satire continues as The Cook makes a big speech about porn in front of an American flag background. Soon after he calls a prostitute to come by while Nikki is still there, which causes her to freak out and break up with him--although they make it perfectly clear that she would stay if he made the slightest effort. Which he doesn't. They call Ross again to take her to the bus station. The Cook's lab explodes, he walks to the porn shop, where he is busted, but gets immediately bailed out by an L.A. gay guy involved in getting him materials to create more drug. To say this gay person is stereotypical would be an achievement in understatement, but by now [this is actually the end of the movie, we're going totally out of order] the movie has established that certain elements will be so out-there parodic that you recognize it as a knowing wink.
Meanwhile, Frisbee has ratted on Spider Mike and co., and after a whole scene I won't even go into [a fresh turd is seen], they get busted. This is earlier in the film, and is the moment you know this satiric element isn't just your imagination, because when the cops go in for the bust, the movie suddenly turns into a [very witty] parody of the opening of a Starsky & Hutch-type cop show. Meanwhile, Ross comes home to discover the stripper gone and his apartment trashed. The stripper has been saved by Deborah Harry as the woman next door, who turns out to be a lesbian. We later see the two of them together at the convenience store, where Harry repeats exactly the scene where The Cook beat up the other dealer--and at this moment we have a crucial understanding about this film, which we'll get back to once we're outside the spoilers.
Ross and Nikki drive all night, while their highs are getting very edgy and agitated. I was getting very tense during this scene, because you expect them to crash at any moment, but they don't. He drops her off at her bus to Nevada [after picking up the dog--no word on where she got the money for either], and he tells her how he really likes her and what an amazing talk they had all night. She tells him the same, and you really feel that, at least in their minds, they had a very meaningful conversation and forged a deep connection.
Now Ross has to drive The Cook out to L.A. There he sees his ex-girlfriend, who arrives in a parody of a romantic comedy, with time apparently stopped around her. She immediately sees that he's still an addict, and dumps him. He drives The Cook out of town, and on the way The Cook tells him a story of seeing his mother drowning puppies, saying to him: "I'm just killing what I can't take care of. I wish I could do that to you." And at this moment I thought a GREAT ending to this movie would be The Cook leaving the sleeping Ross on the side of the road and stealing his car--but it was not meant to be. They go out to an abandoned lot with a small trailer that The Cook enters with all his chemicals. As Ross sleeps in the foreground, the trailer explodes in slow motion. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
I really liked it, and I have to say I like it more and more the more it sits with me. The crucial insight that I mentioned in the spoilers occurs when we see Deborah Harry repeat the scene in which The Cook beats up the dealer. Harry and her ladyfriend are in a relationship, and when that happened it occurred to me that Ross and The Cook--who enacted the same scene earlier--are also in a kind of relationship, and that's when it occurred to me that sure this movie focuses on drugs, but what it's really about is this warped friendship and demented mentorship that develops between Ross and The Cook. They're two drifting souls, only The Cook is quite manly and confident and knows how to handle himself, while Ross is wimpy and drifting, and in fascinated awe of him. There are not obvious lessons learned [thank God], it's just a nice portrait of this unusual friendship that lasted for a short time.
So I forgot which review I read that casually dismissed this by saying that Requiem for a Dream is the "vastly superior film," but ultimately while I agree that Requiem may be a vastly better FILM, in terms of film school-approved techniques and expected "quality" direction and big, explicit messages that everyone can get, this film is the vastly superior WORK OF ART. Because it's big and complex and beautiful and moving in its way but doesn't come with an obvious interpretation or singular message that everyone can agree on. Requiem is easier to walk away from feeling like you've seen a "quality" film because it's big and obvious, wearing its thoughts right on its sleeve. This film is more loose and harder to sum up in a 5-word artistic statement, and thus it's easy to walk out feeling like it's a disjointed mess.
But what this movie gets that Requiem didn't is the reason WHY people do drugs--because they make you feel amazing and you can have some pretty wonderful experiences on them. This comes through when Ross and Nikki drive through the night, talking about nothing or talking over each other, but in the morning feel a close bond and wonder at the amazing conversation they had. That we know they didn't talk about anything meaningful and will forget the "bond" they shared in ten minutes only DEEPENS the ways to view their relationship. I should also say that Shwartzman and Murphy are wonderful in their roles--it's great to see Schwartzman in a lead role where he doesn't get to hide behind extreme mannerisms [Rushmore], and as far as the critic who says his talent is "wasted" here--I'm not sure we saw the same film. This film was also the first and only time I felt like it's a shame Brittany Murphy died so young, as her Nikki is a full-fledged character who doesn't seem like an actress acting, but a truly desperate person trying to smile and just get through it as long as she can.
So there you go, a really nicely-done film that puts itself out there without a pat message [aside from the expected "Drugs are generally bad"], and as a result allows itself to be several conflicted and complicated things all at once. I came out of Requiem for a Dream thinking it was really good, and haven't thought about it since. This film is haunting and beautiful and I expect it to be with me for a while.
Yes, especially if you like movies about the trashy drug users and their degradations!