Snapshots: A rough tryst in an old wrecked car. A dead cat who "looks like my mom." Young girls practicing to be strippers. A bare-chested kid wearing pink rabbit ears. A dog impaled on a rooftop antenna.
This is the tourist brochure to the tornado-ravaged world of Harmony Korine's Xenia, Ohio, a town as bereft of hope as Dante's ninth circle and a soulless cancer ward of glue-sniffing, drunkenness, child abuse and animal torture. A place where all these exposures of full-frontal ugliness will somehow coalesce into . . . something unified and enlightening? We hope, we wait. To no avail.
Korine, the 23-year-old onetime wunderkind who wrote the screenplay to Larry Clark's "Kids," has been given his own movie to direct. That in itself may be disturbing, but what he has produced is as unsettling and irritating a work as we're likely to see this year.
The reasons aren't all on the screen; many more of them have to do with how and why movies get made, why no one smells disaster until a film gets finished, and how we've gotten to the point where so much depends upon the marketing of smug decadence and spiritual bankruptcy. And "Kids" was a primer compared with "Gummo."
Clark's film, which was largely a voyeuristic indulgence on the part of its director, portrayed a New York City stratum of hedonistic, vacant and sexually predatory teenagers, a sort of diseased "Peanuts" where no adults existed and no overriding conscience ruled. However vaguely implied, there was still a hint of, or wish for, soul.
"Gummo" is a series of exercises in gross-out humor and outright depravity, all of which are nothing but what they say they are: postcards from hell. Korine isn't editorializing. This isn't agitprop cinema. It's button-pushing, pure and simple, made on the cynical assumption that the only way to get our attention is to make a mess.
And so, it's merely childish. "Look at me!" Korine says. And that's it. Just "Look at me!" We look, and to keep our attention, he pushes his two main characters--Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), whose face looks as if it's being reflected in a doorknob, and Tummler (Nick Sutton), whose haircut alone qualifies him as a charter member of White Trash Nation--a little further into the abyss. Of course, in a film where everything is stripped of meaning, the abyss is, too.
There are moments in "Gummo" that are pure hilarity and others that are frighteningly real. Linda Manz, featured 20 years ago in Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven," plays Solomon's mom and does a tap-dancing tribute to her late husband that's too odd not to be infectious. A scene in which a bunch of shirtless local drunks break up a kitchen is so angry and unstable you almost hope it's documentary, because questions of how and why it was staged become a bit too troubling.
The film is being positioned commercially as a movie for teenagers--and knowing how well pointlessness plays these days, they may respond. If nothing else, "Gummo" does challenge perceptions and presumptions: Is the perspective of youth in this country really so devoid of significance, and their existence so septic? These are good questions, although "Gummo" provides neither answer nor solution, nor even thematic cohesion.
When Tod Browning made "Freaks" back in 1932, the point was that community exists even among the most Godforsaken of creatures. With "Gummo," divinity isn't even part of the equation.
* MPAA rating: R for pervasive depiction of antisocial behavior of juveniles, including violence, substance abuse, sexuality and language. Times guidelines: nudity, vulgarity, adult situations.
Jacob Reynolds: Solomon
Nick Sutton: Tummler
Jacob Sewell: Bunny boy
Darby Dougherty: Darby
Chloe Sevigny: Dot
Carisa Bara: Helen
Linda Manz: Solomon's Mom
Max Perlich: Cole
Fine Line Features. A film by Harmony Korine. Writer-director Harmony Korine. Producer Cary Woods. Co-producers Robin O'Hara and Scott Macaulay. Photography Jean Yves Escoffier. Editor Christopher Tellefsen. Production design Dave Doernberg. Costumes Chloe Sevigny. Music Randall Poster. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
* Exclusively at Sunset 5, West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500.