Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Am I Not Pretty Enough?": a discussion about The Loved Ones

In a California Dreaming restaurant in Columbia SC, I ate lunch with W, a 21 year old film major at USC, as we talked about Sean Byrne's The Loved Ones over sweet iced tea, San Francisco shrimp, and Dreaming's special salad (which includes lots of bacon, Hormel ham, and a croissant).

FD: Did you like the movie?

W: Oh yeah, very much so.

FD: Shot in Melbourne, Victoria and originally released in 2009, the film is decidedly not for children. What did you like about it?

W: I like how the director Sean Byrne established a very unique tone for a horror film.

FD: How?

W: It's both sick and funny, and often those things don't go together very well. It's also very scary and bananas, with excellent character development.

FD: Examples?

W: Brent (Xavier Samuel) is a broken teenager.  In the opening scene in which we see Brent and his dad converse in the family car, a zombified, bloody creature appears on the road, causing Brent to crash into a tree and kill his father.

FD: I like the way Brent lives so close to death due to his guilt over his father, and the way he flirts with suicide by dangling off of a rock wall, but then his story transforms into one where he wants to survive.

W: That climbing up the cliff is a metaphor for survival too.  It's not a normal climbing wall. It's like an adrenaline moment when he almost lets go.

FD: But isn't he flirting with suicide?

W: I don't think so.  The whole point of that scene is to prove to himself that he's worthy of something. It's a rebellious teenage thing to do.

FD: The movie cleverly sets up these moody morbid characters (Brent and Mia (Jessica McNamee)) who affect a Goth style, but they don't want to be as close to death as their look suggests.

W: The film takes a realistic approach to how a teenager would react to a traumatic event.

FD: I also liked the early high school scene where Byrne emphasizes the slow motion entrance of Mia with heavy metal music just before Lola (Robin McLeavy) abruptly appears to ask Brent to the prom. Lola's hardly noticeable at that point.  It seems like bait and switch in terms of film technique.

W: The whole movie is a bait and switch.

FD: How?

W: In terms of tone and subject matter. The cliched scene by the lockers leads you to assume that this movie will be a comedy about love and romance.  Lola suffers Brent's rejection, and he's polite about saying no, but he already has a girlfriend Holly (Victoria Thaine).  There's a sense of normalcy about the whole scene. Later, the director will rip the rug under you and the violence is that much more shocking as a result.

FD: Soon enough, prom night begins. Stoned Brent gets kidnapped (with what appears to be chloroform) by Lola's daddy (John Brompton) on top of the cliff face.  Meanwhile, Brent's friend Jamie (Richard Wilson) has a prom date with Mia.  The film cuts back and forth between those two storylines that go in completely different directions. What did you think of the story structure?

W: Clever in two ways.  You need a counterbalance for Brent's horror scenes.  When you cut to the comedy of Jamie and Mia's date, that's a reprieve from a stifling situation. It also builds suspense. In The 39 Steps, Richard Hanney's about to crack the mystery of the spy organization in the concert hall, but instead of just focusing on him, Hitchcock cuts to the British bobbies and their concerns with sealing off the theater. Similarly, in The Loved Ones, you want to see Brent get out of the situation, and the cross-cutting keeps interrupting that.

FD: I find it odd that the Joe storyline proves so relatively banal, like a grunge variation on Sixteen Candles (1984).

W: Byrne ties that storyline in with the main theme of the film--teenage grief--once you learn why Mia wears black. Byrne also finds ways to mislead the viewer to think that you are in one storyline (by cutting to a disco ball, for instance), but actually you aren't. In one really effective moment in the movie, you see Lola's father do various awful things to Brent.  The father then leaves his house with a grin on his face, and we know that Mia and Jamie have driven to a secluded area to make out.  "Daddy" walks in slow motion in such a way that you think that he's about the bust the couple, but Byrne has used slick cross-cutting to mislead you. You don't want the story lines to mesh that way, but he keeps hinting that they will.

FD: Let's talk about Lola.  Her characterization begins modestly, but then she steals the movie with her sickly, homemade mock prom where she's always queen.

W: A friend of mine had his doubts about the film until he got to the montage of Lola's room with Kasey Chambers singing "Pretty Enough."  That's when he said yes, this movie's very good.

FD: Why?

W: The song goes "Am I not pretty enough?  Is my heart too broken?  Do I cry too much? Am I too outspoken? Do I make you laugh? Should I try it harder? Why do you see right through me?" It's all about being the invisible one in the room. We know that this movie will turn to horror, yet Byrne takes the time to show us Lola's room.  She has dolls, but they're all in these weird suggestive positions, and she has a scrapbook, with an infantile picture of a castle, dismembered pictures of boy's torsos, and a photo of Brent with a red dot on his forehead. Everything's pink. It's funny, because the scene seems very cheesy and teeniebopperish, yet it prepares you for the more grotesque stuff about to happen soon enough.

FD: It makes sense in a way, that romantic obsessions would lead to cutting hearts in the loved one with a fork.

W: Naturally.

FD: Although I would think that if you love someone, you wouldn't want to do that.

W: It's not about loving.  It's about unrequited love and rejection.  She's living a revenge fantasy.

FD: It left me wondering if Australians have a thing for power tools, like drills.

W: (smiles)  Every horror film needs a unique weapon.  Like in The Cabin in the Woods, the weapon is a bear trap.  The Loved Ones employs a drill. Lola wants live out this revenge fantasy, but she also has this controlling relationship with her father.  This relationship makes the film scarier because it seems realistic. Because she's so spoiled, she gets want she wants.

FD: Isn't the dad the real sociopathic killer?

W: No. There are scenes that hint that she controls everything. The family eats chicken at the mock prom party in their living room.  She asks Brent, "Is this finger-licking good?" and she sticks her finger in his mouth, and says "Show me." Later, Lola and her father break a wishbone where she says "Make a wish, daddy!"  He gets the bigger part of the wishbone, and he looks crestfallen, saying "My wish was for you anyway."  And she says, "My wish is for you too." He's the doting father taken to a horrific extreme.

FD: Byrne is careful to help us understand her character, even though she's an amazingly vicious monster, a princess of horror.

W: Yes, there's this great shot where we first see from Brent's perspective what's going on when he wakes up from the chloroform. You see the disco ball, the prom sign ("End of School Dance"), the father sitting across the way at the table, and then Lola's face creeps in on the left, looking back at him. And then the camera pans to the right and we see this zombified older woman with a hole in her forehead.  The scene is both very familiar (sitting at the family dinner table), but then there's these weird details (a syringe full of blue liquid and lobotomized Bright Eyes).

FD: What's to separate this scene from the torture porn of the Saw films?

W: We have a charismatic antagonist, who is kind of likable and completely different. And we have a protagonist (Brent) whom we can emotionally comprehend. The torture doesn't seem gratuitous. Saw films get more fetishistic with each new more elaborate violent set-up, but here the violence still serves to tell a story.

FD: What horror film influences do you see?

W: The Descent, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Pretty in Pink, Misery, and Carrie.

FD: Any last thoughts?

W: This weekend, we have The House At The End of the Street in the cineplex, but who cares?  These generic stupid weekly horror films can't compete with this. I've rarely felt so many emotions when watching a horror film as I did with The Loved Ones.

FD: Anything else?

W: Don't mess with Lola.

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