Review: White of the Eye (1987)

“He offered me homemade peanut-butter. What do you think that means?”

A serial killer is murdering house-wives in a ritualistic fashion across an arid southern city. The top suspect is David Keith’s Paul, a hi-fi stereo installation man who is known for letting the soundscape of a room echo through his head.

White of the Eye quickly pushes aside its serial killer mystery for a blown out, surreal character study of the enigmatic Paul, a man who seems to represent the corruption of American idealism. He’s described as once having dreams, of being the most intelligent man of his town – and now he makes his living selling sound equipment to bored housewives. This is a tale of consumerist possession. His wife, Joan (played by Cathy Moriarty), used to wear her clothes furred and her hair feathered, signifiers of a style long gone – and now she looks like every other woman on the block. The far out hippie spirituality of times past has been replaced with a new, darker kind. Paul is a spiritual man, but he enacts his ritual through the installation of stereos, letting the echoes blast through his skull, having a religious experience by embracing an empty system. And he brings in the old as well, pulling in aspects of Native American religion into his world, embracing a broken form paganistic yuppiedom.

It’s surreal and uncomfortable, lurid and philosophical, melodramatic and horrific – it’s a million things, many of which don’t seem to mesh on paper but come together to something magnificent on film.

Review: Sonny Boy (1989)

“Sonny Boy’s my kid. I made him what he is. And he ain’t no painter.”

A low-rent thief (Brad Dourif) accidentally kidnaps a baby when he steals a car. His boss (Paul L. Smith) and transgendered wife (played by David Carradine with remarkable grace and power, especially considering the type of movie surrounding) decide to raise the child, albeit as a feral instrument of destruction with no tongue. The titular Sonny Boy eventually escapes his twisted family, and his adventures bring unwanted attention upon his family.

On paper, this reads like a grimy Texas Chainsaw Massacre rip-off, but writer Graeme Whifler and director Robert Martin Carroll play it essentially straight, transforming what could be campy horror into surprisingly affecting melodrama. Their secret is sincerity; no matter how horrific or crazy the events depicted, the creators treat them simply as more obstacles to these characters’ happiness. This is a film in which multiple people are murdered via cannon, a film in which Brad Dourif gift’s his recently severed thumb to the boy who bit it off, a film in which a doctor is discredited due to his use of monkey parts – and it is still enormously affecting.

The surprisingly poignant core is helped immeasurably by the performances and score. Everyone here is incredible, especially the aforementioned Carradine and Michael Boston, who brings soul and pain to the mute Sonny Boy. Carlo Cordio (who also scored Troll 2, so I don’t know what’s happening) treats everything with an almost cheesy tragedy, a lilting harmonica that would be ridiculous if it didn’t cut through the insanity so well. And that’s saying nothing of the theme, sung by Carradine himself.

This is a film about devotion and unconditional love. It’s about what it means to love someone because of their flaws, because their flaws are who they are. It’s about being able to see the good in the worst, about finding love in a heart that seemed cold, and about learning to see one’s self as loveable. It’s about love in all forms, in all its power – good and bad.

I’ve been trying to convince myself out of this rating, because it seems kind of crazy, kind of impossible. Sonny Boy, on paper, is not a particularly great movie. Somehow, though, everything comes together in a singular alchemy of exploitation craziness and wistful burden.

There’s something to be said for sincerity.

Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)

*Note, I saw the 70mm roadshow edition.

Quentin Tarantino’s most absolutely nasty, furious, brutal, bitingly political film to date. It’s a tough one. It’s slow, it’s long, and when the shootouts finally come, they are uncomfortable and grotesque.

Everyone here is a bastard, and Tarantino plays a continuous and impressive game of alignment adjustment – subtly shifting not who we like, but who we dislike the least – as we are pushed deeper into Tarantino’s hell.

And Tarantino’s hell is contemporary America. The criminals and lawmen are worse than each other. Racism, homophobia, and misogyny are rampant, and any good that is drawn out of people is either incidental or based on lies.

But here’s the thing. Despite all the nihilism and cynicism present, this is actually an optimistic film. The last scene, which I won’t spoil here, presents an aspiration to be better. Tarantino shows us the desire in each of these people’s hearts to be grand and to be kind and to be good. It’s impossible, this aspiration. The film presents it as so, read by two men who are aware that they do not live up to their ideal’s promise. But they find hope in it, nonetheless. They find hope in this lie, because they desperately want to believe it.

Tarantino believes in humankind’s capacity for evil, yes, and wholeheartedly. Yet, he also believes that, perhaps, they have the capacity to change. In their hearts, their is a desire, maybe a futile one, but a desire nevertheless, for honor and nobility.

Look, this is a slow film. It is a mean, nasty one. It takes almost an hour and a half for a real piece of action to happen. It stars grotesque people hurting each other. It verges on utter nihilism. The gore is not fun, it is horrific and legitimately off putting.

But goddamn it if it isn’t a focused, raging, and somehow poignant statement on humanity. It takes guts for a filmmaker this late in his (very commercial) career to make something this difficult and political. Applause for quality, encore for ambition. His best film.

(P.S. It’s also basically a remake of The Thing, which is amazing.)