Reviewed by: David Graham

Harmony Korine’s first film and declaration of intent was scandalous upon release for its incendiary content; what’s scandalous now is that it still goes unappreciated for its heart. Korine doesn’t merely offer us up sideshow Southerners for amusement. His ‘characters’ are as deeply uncomfortable to viewers as they are sympathetic. Where other directors might have us endure a retarded girl’s prostitution, Korine shows us a heartbreakingly pathetic encounter between wounded children which may or may not end in sex – this is beside the point. He is searching for hope in the most abject misery, the tornado-ravaged deep South a powerful metaphor for the modern condition.

The film begins from inside a cage, as bunny-boy – our silent chorus - stands over a busy freeway, pissing, spitting and generally kicking out against his situation. From there, it takes us on a whirlwind tour through backwater Xenia, Ohio (actually Korine’s home, Nashville), stopping in on its various unsavoury denizens, primarily cat-killing teenagers Solomon and Tummler. America prides itself on liberty, but in reality gives its people, especially its poorest, only an illusion of freedom and choice. This is hilariously and pitifully illustrated when the boys take their feline bounty for payment (tellingly, this is to a black man, who in turn sells it to the Chinese restaurant); asked whether they would like to be paid by the cat or by the pound, they reply ‘It don’t matter’, and are given $13 for 13 cats.

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The boys are painfully aware of the futility of their situation, and their casual acceptance of this goes a long way toward making them likeable as characters and forgivable in their misanthropic tendencies. The people of the film are left desperately seeking release and escape through perversion and transgression; Korine finds a compassion for their plight that few modern artists can match without resorting to irony. Take the scene where the boys break into their cat-killing rival’s house to trash it; their discoveries of his personal situation – which in many other stories would have led to increased destruction – lead to sympathy and understanding, culminating in perhaps the film’s most shocking and heartbreaking moment, so sensitively handled that it can’t help but move.

Perhaps Korine’s fall from grace and erratic output after this magnum opus can be attributed to his frustration that his film was so misunderstood. Some critics have passionately championed the film, and Werner Herzog was so amazed (in particular by a strip of bacon sellotaped to the bathroom wall – the film’s mise-en-scene alone, natural and otherwise, warrants essays) that he went on to act in Korine’s next two pictures (the lesser but no-less-interesting Julien Donkey-Boy and Mister Lonely). Perhaps the necessarily nasty streak Korine wove through his Kids script pre-empted critics’ reactions to Gummo as nihilistic, voyeuristic garbage. But Korine is a director far removed from Larry Clark; he finds beauty in our detritus where Clark mostly finds seediness. Korine seeks to capture a lost innocence, whether it is through his use of old video images or the film’s whispered narration from the world-weary Solomon. As Solomon's mother chastises him for lifting makeshift weights (handfuls of cutlery sellotaped together), warning him it’ll stunt his growth, it’s all too clear that the real damage has already been done, and it’s psychological. He is an old soul in a child’s body, who has endured a lifetime of aimless apathy and become numb before time.

Sexuality, sobriety, morality – they are all vague notions that no-one has any real understanding of (Solomon’s initial reluctance to kill a ‘house-cat’ is mirrored and contrasted by a rival’s unflinchingly brutal methods). Life is formless; it continues rain or shine, highlighted by the climactic scenes of bunny boy and the girls (Carisa Glucksman from Kids and Korine’s then-girlfriend and muse, Chloe Sevigny, who was also credited for the wonderful costumes) joyfully kissing in a swimming pool bombarded by raindrops, while the boys fire endless impotent rounds into the carcass of their cat, as untroubled as the cat is by the showers pelting them in turn. Gummo rewards repeated viewings like little else; there is so much to be gleaned from every vignette and even more from the film as a whole. Korine’s disjointed editing style and disdain for traditional narrative (although his films are basically linear) may initially be challenging, but it fits perfectly with the themes of his script (and yes, it is mostly scripted). The final images provoke the audience as if to say, ‘You wanted to see this? Are you happy now?’ Happy, no, but touched and excited, yes.

Reviewed on: 10 Oct 2010
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Bored teenagers wander round their suburban neighbourhood.
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Director: Harmony Korine

Writer: Harmony Korine

Starring: Jacob Sewell, Nick Sutton, Lara Tosh, Jacob Reynolds, Darby Dougherty, Chloë Sevigny

Year: 1997

Runtime: 89 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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