“THE DIRTIES” (Fantastic Fest Movie Review)
The opening salvo off THE MOUNTAIN GOATS recently reissued 2002 low-fi masterwork ALL HAIL WEST TEXAS is a stirring anthem entitled “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” which relates the brief, decidedly outré extreme metal partnership of outcast teenagers/best friends Jeff and Cyrus:
The best ever death metal band out of Denton never settled on a name, but the top three contenders, after weeks of debate, were Satan’s Fingers, and the Killers, and the Hospital Bombers.
Jeff and Cyrus believed in their hearts they were headed for stage lights and leer jets, and fortune and fame, so in script that made prominent use of a pentagram, they stenciled their drumheads and guitars with their names.
This was how Cyrus got sent to the school where they told him he’d never be famous/And this was why Jeff, in the letters he’d write to his friend, helped develop a plan to get even
When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you…
The weight and dire portent encapsulated in that last line forms the harrowing spiritual foundation of THE DIRTIES, a powerful film about two bullied teenage cinephiles who presume a knack for digital filmmaking will prove to be a celluloid escape hatch from painful social obscurity, only to slowly watch it transmogrify into a tomb door.
THE DIRTIES begins in media res amidst a green patch of suburbia. Matt and Owen are shooting sniper scenes for a planned film about an elaborate, cartoonishly violent plot against a band of bullies—dubbed, yes, “The Dirties”—when they encounter two preteen boys planning a picture of their own. Matt, the rowdier, more effervescent of the pair, immediately launches into the equivalent of a pitch session for the kids, giddily extolling the virtues of influences ranging from THE USUAL SUSPECTS (!) to IRREVERSIBLE (!!) while spastically acting out the film’s planned choreography.
“Now who do those kids remind you of?” Matt asks Owen as the younger boys wander off seeming a bit bewildered. “You’re the one with the braces, I’m the smart one who wrote this script. That’s us! You know what we should’ve told them? It gets better!”
“That’s a lie,” Owen replies, laughing. “That’s a huge lie. It gets worse and worse and worse.”
“We should’ve straight-up lied to them. We should’ve told them stop now.”
The joke becomes slightly less amusing when a few minutes later we see the stark, brutal bullying Matt and Owen endure in the hallways of their school—captured, like the rest of the film, via a kind of cinema-vérité-meets-found-footage amalgam. Still, for the better part of the first half of the film, it is possible for the audience to feel as if it is witnessing a more visceral, realistic revenge of the nerds in triumphant real time.
And then a previously encouraging teacher puts the kibosh on the duo’s film project just as Owen begins to experience a modicum of unexpected in-crowd acceptance. Thwarted artistically and increasingly isolated, Matt’s preparations for screen vengeance become harder and harder to discern from plans for a real massacre—e.g., learning to fire a various, very real high-power weaponry; compiling an elaborate kill list; demanding greater, ever-more disturbing declarations of allegiance from Owen.
“Are you hearing this?” Matt says after reading a passage aloud from Dave Cullen’s history COLUMBINE—excited, apparently, to discover similarities between himself and one of the massacre’s perpetrators, Dylan Klebold. “Owen, I could be a psychopath!” (The filmmakers—and perhaps even the characters—are presumably aware that mere months before the Columbine massacre Klebold and Eric Harris shot their own class project revenge fantasy, HITMEN FOR HIRE.)
As it becomes obvious this inexorable slow motion roll toward tragedy will not be averted, THE DIRTIES places its audience in a morally ambiguous and challenging place. Matt and Owen are funny, likeable, and persecuted in fantastically infuriating ways. We’ve come to identify with them, to root for their victory. You yearn for someone to come along and take the Cullen book out of Matt’s hands and give him, say, a pamphlet for a community college summer filmmaking program or some other metaphorical life preserver. You want to see, in short, an ending more along the lines of the end of the aforementioned Mountain Goats song: “The best ever death metal band out of Denton will in time both outpace and outlive you.”
Alas, sometimes we are forced to not only to accept the ugliness inherent in the world, but also to face the dualities and dichotomies of beauty and tarnished potential intertwined into those dark moments that shift destinies.