USA, 1999. Not Rated. 105 minutes.
Cast: Damon Jones, Dave Oren Ward,
Aimee Chaffin, David Lee Wilson, Dan Weene, Anna Padgett, Elexa Williams,
Angela Jones, Ann Zupa, Brandon Slater, Jason Posey, Chris Jarecki, Terence
|Grade: C+||Review by Carlo|
omewhere out there are follicle-impaired white supremacists with swastika tattoos and ear-marked copies of Mein Kampf. Though many of us have never met one, the idea of an American Nazi evokes a vague image of hardcore hate bands with shaved heads and heavily-fortified quasi-military compounds in Idaho. According to the movies, however, these skinheads are everywhere. In 1998, American History X chronicled one former skinhead's reformation and efforts to prevent his brother from making the same mistakes. Though a stirring, provocative tragedy, it did struggle with believability. Without Edward Norton's tour-de-force as über-skinhead Derek Vinyard anchoring the film, the improbability of the some of the events and character development would have torpedoed the film's effectiveness.
American History X sacrificed realism for the sake of story-telling. In contrast, tiny Indican Pictures' minuscule-budgeted Pariah (whose wider release after a limited run in 1999 was delayed due to the Columbine incident) refuses to make that sacrifice. Unrelentingly, unremittingly violent, Pariah is a hyper-realistic, hard-boiled depiction of rape, murder, and vengeance among a group of young Los Angeles white supremacists. They include ex-con Crew (David Owen Ward), his girlfriend Sissy (Aimee Chaffin), part-time hustler David Lee (David Lee Wilson), junkie Angela (Angela Jones, Bruce Willis' cab driver in Pulp Fiction), heavyset Babe (Ann Zupa), and mentally handicapped Doughboy (Brandon Slater).
During an overly-long twenty minutes of exposition, Pariah establishes the following facts:
• The skinheads are a gang of dangerously violent drunks.
• They are impressively, superlatively stupid.
• Their parents didn't love them enough.
• They make odd fashion choices involving red suspenders.
The gang despises all non-Whites, Jews, immigrants, and homosexuals, but most of all, they despise themselves. It's an old story: they inflict violence on others to validate their own lives. Their self-hatred is further exemplified by Sissy's willingness to stay with an abusive boyfriend, Angela's casual use of her own body as a barterable commodity, Babe's desperate neediness, and David Lee's own gay tendencies. (Wouldn't it be comforting if we could believe that all homophobes were closet homosexuals? In the movies they invariably are.)
Pariah also introduces us to a young interracial couple, doughy Steve (Damon Jones) and pretty Sam (Elexa Williams). Their sappy interactions are the worst scenes in Pariah; Steve is the sort of guy who, moments after parting with his girlfriend at the end of a romantic evening, will stop her to say "I love you" one more time. It's obvious where Pariah is headed with this, but the severity and excruciatingly graphic detail of the skinheads' assault is a shock. Spliced into the scene are even more graphic shots of Crew and Sissy having sex, an effective device that underscores the violent, brutal nature of all the skinheads' interpersonal relationships.
Steve swears to take revenge. He knows exactly who the skinheads are, because, in an example of their extreme idiocy, they use each other's real names during the attack and neglect to wear masks. Several months later, Steve is unrecognizable. Planning to infiltrate the gang, he has shaved his head and accumulated assorted Nazi paraphernalia, including the requisite suspenders. The gang, suspicious of strangers, does not extend a welcoming hand, but man-starved Babe ("Babe, you know, like the movie?") gives Steve an opportunity. Over the next hour, Pariah documents the gang's escalating violence and the compromises Steve makes to avoid blowing his cover. Curiously, there are no law enforcement officers to be found during any of this.
Though not all that transpires is entirely plausible (a slipshod scene in which several former victims gang up on the skinheads is a gratuitous indulgence and quite improbable), Pariah's finest asset is its steadfast realism. It helps that small budgets and low production values always seem to connote authenticity, but the credit must go to the performers. All of them look and sound so much like real people that you won't believe there's an actor among them. Wilson, having honed his skill in playing rapists in Leaving Las Vegas, brings a psychotic intensity to the role of David Lee, who is so hateful that even the other skinheads don't like him. David Owen Ward, who, in a tragic road rage incident eerily reminiscent of Pariah, died of multiple stab wounds in April 1999, is frighteningly effective as Crew, the most charismatic–sort of–member of the gang, and thus its informal leader. The supporting players are all solid. If there is a weak link, it's Jones, who is merely functional, but he's sufficient, as his is not a flashy role.
The real standout is Aimee Chaffin. Of all the characters, Sissy is the most convincingly real, partly because Chaffin is the most genuine, natural actor in the cast. Writer/director Randolph Kret intends the audience to sympathize with Steve, but his extreme actions make it difficult to commiserate with him through the whole movie. Fortunately, Chaffin slowly turns Sissy into a more sympathetic figure so that by the end, you care as much about what happens to Sissy as what happens to Steve.
Despite his obvious agenda, Kret (who based the story on an incident from the life of a friend) allows the camera to observe the story with dispassion. One of the best scenes is a conversation between Sissy and Lex (Anna Padgett) after Crew forces himself on Sissy for sex. Troubled, Sissy inquires if Lex has ever been raped. "You mean by a stranger?" asks Lex, then mentions that her father has fondled her and all of her sisters. "That's nothing," says Sissy, "My dad was fucking me when I was twelve." Their conclusion is that neither of them has ever been raped. The scene is a touch over-written, but the actors' casual nonchalance and Kret's under-direction makes it real.
Unfortunately, "over-written" also characterizes Pariah as a whole. There is so much profanity, hatred, and violence, that there is absolutely no possibility that you can misinterpret Kret's message: racism is ugly and destructive. Not a difficult point to grasp, but just to drive the concept home, Kret helpfully provides a quote from Martin Luther King at the beginning of the movie and closes with a disclaimer stating that nobody involved in the making of the film supports the views depicted therein. Thanks for clearing that up.
Kret remains more interested in his message than his story. Sometimes scenes are so jumbled that you have trouble tracking characters and events, and as things spin further out of control, Kret nearly loses the narrative thread on several occasions. Instead of building to a powerful climax, Pariah disintegrates into a confused, violent muddle. Watching this viscerally ferocious film is like stepping into a boxing ring with the skinheads it portrays. Pariah jabs and jabs, pummels you against the ropes, then rears up to deliver the knockout punch. But though you're standing in the ring wobbly-kneed, helpless, and confused–an easy target–Pariah's coup de grace never quite connects.
Perhaps the lack of closure is part of Kret's point. Perhaps, in a kind of rebuttal to American History X, Kret intentionally doesn't give you much to take away from Pariah other than unbridled repugnance. There are no compelling stories with satisfying endings to be found among these youths–just hatred, turmoil and pointlessness. The vast majority of us–hopefully–does not need to be told that racist skinheads are despicable, which begs the question of why anyone really needs to subject themselves to Pariah. Those who can stomach the violence will find reasons. Though Kret does a poor job of telling it, there is a story struggling to be heard amid the chaos–the story of the Steve's corruption and Sissy's deliverance.
© February 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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