Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Dirties (2013) Film Review
Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall
American school shooting tragedies happen with such morbid frequency that it is surprising that more major films have not dealt head on with the phenomenon - though Gus Van Sant’s 2002 film Elephant is one notable example. Obviously working up such a sensitive real-life topic into a cinematic treatment is a challenge that requires sensitivity and skill in negotiating a minefield of problematic aspects, but given that American cinema today seems able to tackle just about any other topic, including slavery, abuse and incest, it is surprising that director Matt Johnsons’s film The Dirties seems like the first film I have seen in years to feature the planning of the killing of school kids by disaffected fellow pupils as a central plot element. This is not all it does though, as it turns out to be quiet a sly beast, as well as a topical one, especially if approached from a certain angle.
Eschewing Van Sant’s steadicam-based shooting style for the familiar found footage format, The Dirties is centred on two high school pupils - Matt (payed by Johnson) and Owen - who are followed by a camera operator as they go about doing two intertwined things: surviving the daily ritual of bullying and physical assault that seems to be the norm at their identikit American High School, and making a high school project film that allows them to fight back against this bullying. Seemingly a form of catharsis as well as a way of earning module points, when we first see them they are on the verge of completing their magnum opus: a bloody, homage-heavy assassination flick called The Dirties, which sees the two kids decked out as pistol-wielding hit men exacting murderous revenge on their tormentors. Fleshed out with hidden camera footage and snippets from other movies, it is an orgy of movie worship from two geeks who clearly rely on the silver screen to escape from the misery of the everyday.
The camera (operated by a mysterious and silent figure, presumably another pupil) continues to follow them even after their film is screened in class however, and this is where things get darker, slowly but surely edging out the humour the two dorky leads previously brought to proceedings. The tension comes from our increasing realisation that, whilst Owen found the movie revenge project hilarious and a brief escape from his daily torments, Matt is becoming more and more invested in using it as a springboard for a more ambitious project: filming the actual assassination of the school bullies. Matt slowly shifts from joking with Owen about the ridiculousness of the concept, to then scripting it, checking out school maps from the library, and reading up on Columbine and other massacres.
Whether Matt is simply planning some meta act of revenge fantasy through filmmaking alone (like some form of bizarre Herzog), or is actually going to film a real life revenge using real bullets, is not initially clear. One thing he is certain of, though, is that if carried out, his shooting (and the shoot of the shooting) would be unique. Why? What will make this high school shooting unique, he declares, is that: ‘We will only be here for the bad guys’. Thus it will be an act of heroism too, a glorious attempt to tilt the scales back away from the jocks and the assholes that make every day an obstacle course.
Disaffected teenagers and the perils of school have anchored the plots of many an American film, but The Dirties still carves out its own space, largely because it address a wide variety of contemporary issues, has two leads who work well with each other and whose naturalism and likeability draws us in, and because it builds up the dread with effective pacing. This is obviously a film about filmmaking and filmmakers, with cinema for these two kids being a means of rewriting their own destinies, though for Matt it starts veering towards being an enabler of vengeance. But The Dirties is probably not reaching for the obvious and clunky ‘movie violence is bad for you’ moral message. Rather, it seems more concerned with how , in an era where youths are surrounded by recording devices, everyone seems to want to be in their own story. The horrific treatment dished out to Matt at school - and this bullying is a lot more than just a daily shove into a locker - has possibly pushed him so far that this urge to use cinema and its tools to reshape his fate is now unbalancing his moral compass.
What freaks Owen out almost as much as Matt’s continuing planning of the school shooting is his friend’s refusal to step outside of the contours of a film narrative. Owen starts to realise, maybe too late, that Matt is living a movie, not just making one. If The Dirties is critiquing anything, it is not movies or movie making but the dumb simplicity offered by action movie story lines (Matt and Owen’s favourite genre), and the tragic levels of self-centredness that being bullied and abandoned can generate in what on the surface appears to be a likeable youth.
That Matt and Owen don’t seem to fit the stereotype (the trenchcoat wearing school killers with histories of abuse and garages full of internet-order guns) only leaves us more questions. But the last third of the film raises perhaps the biggest question of all. Has the high school movie project actually ended? Is what we are seeing in the last third merely a continuation of Matt and Owen’s original aim: to confront the school bullies with their cameras? Is their original high school film ‘The Dirties’ merely their own film within a film, with the 90 minutes of footage that makes up the film we the audience see their actual completed piece, the ultimate meta treatise on the dangers of school bullying? Certainly given that the camera operator is silent, and seems willing to follow Matt everywhere even when he starts heading into very dangerous terrain, raises this possibility. Whether or not director Johnson was going for this narrative trickery in his approach, I have no idea, but I remain thrilled by the openness of the film to this reading. It certainly made watching The Dirties a richer experience.Reviewed on: 23 Apr 2014
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