Clean

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Clean
"The action, when it comes, is introduced with an impact that will make you drop your popcorn, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat for what follows."

Adrien Brody’s first venture into screenwriting – co-written with director Paul Solet – Clean is a film more about mood that action, though it packs in its share of that. Dialogue is minimal. Despite half of it being hidden behind a large, bushy beard, Brody does most of the work with his face, whilst the production design carries the rest. It’s a film about loss and healing, about an effort to escape from crushing forms of masculinity, even though it treads a path well used by macho heroes in the past and is unapologetic about its portrayal of violence.

The opening monologue will immediately remind viewers of Taxi Driver, though the emotional take-away may be rather different. It’s followed by a scene in which Brody’s downtrodden garbage man, known simply as Clean, visits an addiction support group. There, the guy doing the talking is reflecting on his experience with drugs. From the voiceover, we discover that Clean’s problem is an addiction to violence. Having hit rock bottom after the loss of a daughter whom we see in flashbacks, he is trying to rebuild his life in a new way, to be humble and useful and, above all, to stay out of trouble. That’s a whole lot easier if one only cares about oneself.

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The void left by the lost child is filled up with all sorts of things. Clean does small favours for people and animals. He feeds a stray dog who evidently knows him. He retrieves potentially valuable items from other people’s bins, fixes them up and sells them, and he has built a reputation as a fair and reliable trader. He also looks after an orphaned teenager (Chandler DuPont), being cared for by her grandmother, whom he sees on his regular route. The grandmother (Michelle Wilson) is adamant that they don’t need anybody to save them, but she recognises that behind his kindness is a deep seated need to matter to somebody, and she is not unsympathetic.

This used to be a nice neighbourhood, she tells him. Everywhere we look, there is decay, barely concealed by a blanket of snow. It’s clear that the decay is social as well as material, and that’s not an easy environment for a teenager to grow up in. As the kid resists Clean’s warnings, quite reasonably pointing out that he’s not her father, the dangers around her, combined with Clean’s struggle to control his aggressive urges, pave the way towards a violent reckoning.

With twinkling lights around its crumbling buildings, this is another of those gritty action thrillers destined for alternative Christmas film status. Very much in the Seventies tradition, it spends a good hour building up tension before really letting rip. The action, when it comes, is introduced with an impact that will make you drop your popcorn, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat for what follows. As he proved in Predators, Brody is as capable of turning in a good fight scene as he is of building character. He and Solet worked together previously on Bullet Head and have an instinctive understanding of one another’s methods which really pays off.

There’s a strong message here about fatherhood and its role in social cohesion, yet the film never oversteps the mark because its characters get called out when they do. Rather than celebrating loners, it explores loneliness and the effect of day to day hostility and grief on a central character who has little real support. It’s a simple story delivered with style.

Reviewed on: 04 Jul 2022
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Tormented by a past life, garbage man Clean attempts a life of quiet redemption. But when his good intentions mark him a target of a local crime boss, Clean is forced to reconcile with the violence of his past.


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