Directed by: Matthew Johnson.
Written by: Matthew Johnson & Evan Morgan.
Starring: Matthew Johnson (Matt), Owen Williams (Owen), Krista Madison (Chrissy H.), Brandon Wickens (Jackman), Jay McCarrol (Mr. Bird), Josh Boles (Boozy), Shailene Garnett (Krissy B.), Alen Delain (Alan), Paul Daniel Ayotte (Laren).
Any movie that throws out a line like “It takes place in the same club as Irreversible” within its first minute, is a movie after my own heart. Matthew Johnson’s The Dirties contains many references to movies old and new, obscure and popular, some as explicit as the name dropping of Irreversible, or an extended riff on Being John Malkovich, and some so subtle that they go by without you noticing them (I have no doubt that I missed about as many as I caught). They are part of what makes The Dirties so entertaining and amusing during its running time – and part of what makes it so disturbing as it progresses. Because The Dirties is another school shooting movie, and it does indeed close with disturbing acts of violence, and ends with its protagonist uttering an unforgettable final line – one as haunting as the final line of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) – but in a completely different way.
The movie was written, directed and stars Johnson, playing a character named Matt Johnson. He and his buddy Owen (Owen Williams) are high school film geeks – much of the movie takes place in Matt’s basement, adorned with posters for movies like Pulp Fiction, Requiem for a Dream, Fight Club and Schindler’s List. They are not the popular kids, and get picked on by bullies – who they have dubbed “The Dirties”. For film class, they’re making a movie about two assassins who kill bullies (for those who know about Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, you’ll know they made a similar movie – and that another video we see later in the movie, in which the pair go shooting – pop bottles, watermelons, etc, also recalls one made by Harris and Klebold). When they show the movie to their teacher though, he balks. Too much violence, too much swearing – they’ll need to tone it down. And this is when things start to subtly shift. Matt no longer simply talks about how cool other movies are, but starts to talk about how cool it be to actually do the things they were just pretending to do in their movie. A plot is hatched – Matt and Owen are actually going to pull off a school shooting – but they’re still the good guys, because after all, they’re only going to kill the bad guys.
To film his movie, Johnson took an interesting approach – filming on actual locations, without telling those around them they were making a movie. Amazingly, he got a real high school to let he and Williams “attend” classes for a while, and film the action as long as they didn’t interfere. They staged the bullying scenes without the students around them knowing what was going on – those kids Johnson tells about the club in Irreversible are just random kids they met in the park, etc. More and more filmmakers are doing this – it’s kind of like what Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles did with Bruno and Borat, but Johnson is doing this in a more serious way (as is Jonathan Glazer in Under the Skin – where the scenes with Johansson in her car were filmed the same way). The approach works, as the reactions of those around them is genuine – but also because the performances of Johnson, Williams and the rest of cast fits in perfectly with them. I don’t know if they’re actually good actors or not, but they work in this movie.
The film we watch is the one that Matt Johnson, the character, directs and edits to leave behind – although someone else obviously finishes it. This would be the two cameramen who shoot the movie, that are never explained - according to an interview I read with Johnson, an earlier cut did explain them, but it didn’t work, so it was cut. This way works better than having them explained. Who are they? Why are doing this, and why don’t they tell anyone. The only time Matt addresses one of the cameramen is when we see him working on the end credits (which is a host of movie references all on its own), telling him he’ll have to add it later. This makes The Dirties even more disturbing.
All of this probably makes The Dirties sound like a stunt – and yet while watching the movie, I didn’t think of the method of shooting, because I got wrapped up in the story and the characters. Matt is the character who drives the action of the movie – he’s the idea man, he’s the one making all the movie references (if Williams even gets half of them, he doesn’t show it), and as he grows darker, so does the movie. The film is about how Johnson lives so completely inside the movies, that the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred – to him, actually shooting The Dirties is not very different for pretending to shoot them. Matt directs everything in the movie to the increasing annoyance of Owen, who doesn’t think Matt is actually talking to him anymore, but instead constantly acting. Everything they do, everywhere they go, they do is because Matt thinks it will look good in the movie. Owen has his own journey in the movie as well – he starts the movie depressed and love sick, so he goes along with Matt’s ideas at first. But as the movie progresses, and he starts to develop a friendship – which may turn into something more – with the girl he’s had a crush on for years, he starts to pull away from Matt – what once seemed hopeless, no longer does, and Owen has a change of heart. By this time though, Matt is too far down the rabbit hole.
There has been no shortage of school shooting movies made since Columbine all the way in 1999. Hell, in 2009, I did an entire piece on them (http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.ca/2009/04/school-shootings-in-movies.html). For me, The Dirties ranks just below Elephant as the best of its kind yet made. It is a clever, funny film for much of its running time – film buffs like me will have a blast catching all the clever references – and it also succeeds in making Matt into a likable character – a lovable outsider that those of us obsessed with film can relate to. And that is also what makes the finale so disturbing – as Matt shifts from likable outsider, into a monster, and just how thin the line between the two actually is. This is not a movie that blames anything for school shootings – it has no solutions for the problem. Although there are bullies in the film, The Dirties doesn’t come close to making excuses for Matt, or placing the blame on them like so many movies and novels have done since Columbine, seeing the shooters as victims who snapped (see this other post by me about novels about school shootings for examples of this http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.ca/2009/05/books-reviews-novels-about-school.html). The Dirties is deeper, and more complex than that. For a movie made with little money, by unknowns, The Dirties is a surprisingly confident, complex film.