Before we begin, please take a minute to read Lukas Kendall’s article, What Happens When You Make An NC-17 Film.
Film is a powerfully subversive format. It climbs into your soft tissues, stirring hormones and ideas. Amos Vogel, writing in the 1974 classic Film As A Subversive Art, wrote that “short of closing one’s eyes – in cinema, a difficult and unprecedented act – there is no defence against it”. However, as noted by Kendall, closing one’s eyes in the cinema isn’t the problem; simply getting it in front of your eyes at all is the greater difficulty. Lucky Bastard has engaged itself in a cultural war, one with a frontline that is mired in the sucking mud of ‘rules of art’, ‘good taste’ and ‘acceptable content’.
Returning to Vogel, in the preface to the 2005 edition, he described the primary antagonist against who all works of subversive cinema would come into conflict:
Contemporary America – a late capitalist colossus, owned by large corporations while parading as a democracy and dominated by rabid commercialism and consumerism – is attempting to dominate the world via transnationals, Hollywood cinema and television, the export of American cultural ‘values,’ the Disneyficationg of the globe … Our fate seems to be the homogenization of culture: an universal levelling down, an anesthetizing, pernicious blandness.
Kendall’s and Vogel’s statements are mirrors reflecting an emptiness governed by the media elite, who decide what, when and how we view our ‘stories’. Lucky Bastard, though far from a great work of art, is engaging with difficult fields of reality that do not fit into a neat, safe little pill for easy ingestion. Even if it presents nothing especially new, it has a moral compass that refuses simple labels of exploitation.
It is apparent upon viewing that there is intelligence at work in the construction of Lucky Bastard. It is reasonably well thought out, scenes and characters have intention and meaning, and are ultimately working towards a point that isn’t just sex and death. The found footage conceit is well-managed, aided through filming in a ‘reality TV’ house with multiple built-in cameras. It is here that the true heart of the film becomes clear. The wide coverage allowed by this gives the filmmakers multiple opportunities to portray graphic and gratuitous violence and yet these shots are generally avoided, preferring a more suggestive shot and keeping the violent destruction partially off-screen.
Titillation is not paramount. The most enjoyable parts of the film are where it addresses the world of porn in a documentary manner, revealing the traditionally off-camera discussions of the daily ins and outs, the high and lows, and the tricks of the trade. Porn is represented as an alienating experience, isolating and without positive outcomes. This is not represented as a porn specific reality, as the drab everyday work environment nature of the experience generates a pluralistic experience that could stand for any exploitative work place. This is an ugly world, but it is no more ugly than any shit job where people are forced into situations they’d rather not be in.
Lucky Bastard belongs less to the porn-horror sub-genre of Gutterballs, A Serbian Film, or Snuff Movie, than it does to a far more ambiguous sub-genre of films relating to workplace violence. This is a film about taking back control by violence, a cultural pre-occupation that is ingrained in masculine DNA. However, Lucky Bastards ability to make meaning of the explosive destruction wrought by unleashed repression is muted by its formal construction. The found footage format, though cheaply efficient, suffers from an inflexibility that could destroy the greatest of filmmakers.
Lucky Bastard loses its drive towards the end, which is partially its own fault. It makes the absurd and fatal error of undermining its narrative thrust by opening with a scene that reveals how it will end. This is a terrible trick that cinema has picked up from TV, where it is used as a norm instead of as an exception, and it really needs to stop. It can be used effectively, but oh so rarely is. It collides head-on with the found footage to sap the tension out of the film. This is probably due to first-time director Robert Nathan, who has previously worked as a producer on a plethora of TV shows, including a long history on Law & Order.
Fortunately the film is well constructed for the most part, well written, and, perhaps most surprisingly, very well acted. There are a few familiar faces here for those who enjoy their character actors, including Don McManus (The Shawshank Redemption, Magnolia) Betsy Rue (My Bloody Valentine 3D, Halloween II) and Catherine Annette (who is less well-known but has enough straight-to-video horror films up her sleeve and acquits herself well enough that I’m sure we’ll hear more of her). In addition, the characters are likeable and human, which is an unfortunate rarity in low-budget modern horror.
Due to its inclusion in the ratings and censorship debate, Lucky Bastard has developed a dimension beyond that of simply being entertainment. It is to its testament that it survives being forced into a framework that encourages the viewer to consider in minute detail its artistic intention and questions of cultural responsibility. It is not going to set the world on fire; on its own it would probably flash by, remembered as a competent, workman-like cross-genre experiment. There is nothing wrong with that, and this film should certainly not be punished for engaging with an area considered problematic. It is far too easy to throw a stone in a video store and hit a film which is morally reprehensible in its deployment of sex and violence. I do not consider this film to be one of those.
By Ben Buckingham