Even in this day and age where DVD has brought so much to your doorstep, when countless streaming services allow you to screen the most challenging fare, one cannot neglect the feeling of sitting in a theater with others and sharing a communal shock. New York City is where you'd go to see an experimental, confrontational piece of anti-cinema, and 2008's nightmarish "Exhausted," making its American debut at the Gastropub reRun Theater tonight, absolutely fts the bill. You'll have many film experiences this year, but none may be quite so unforgettable.
"Exhausted," shot on hyper-grainy Super 8 footage, begins in the middle of a thick marshland, as a bundled-up woman braves the hissing wind to bury…something. A whistle sounds in the distance, as a man enters the picture, in a thick jacket, with a disapproving visage. The two of them are soon having a poker-faced mud fight, slinging wet chunks of ground at each other before collapsing in a heap. We don't know if their wrestling is coming from a playful place, or if one party is genuinely angry at the other. We never know.
This unnamed couple is revealed to be a duo living alone. Though the man claims they've only met ten months ago, he's been using her to operate a steady business, pimping her out to strangers in their ratty, rundown apartment. Empty plastic plates line the floor, as he welcomes these strangers into his home, putting on some light opera music and forcing the johns to wear a gimp mask as they do the deed with his often catatonic wife. Almost anything goes, as he lazily slurps noodles in the other room, casually watching bestiality on his tiny television screen.
There's not much context to "Exhausted," but it creates a world so convincingly impoverished and upsetting that one could surmise this was a post-apocalyptic film. The two spend the day moving through the town's smokestacks, putting up fliers showcasing her talents, as he rewards his charge with string cheese. The few other cast members we see are thirtysomething-aged men, most likely finished from a day of risible handiwork, thrilled for a new way to blow their cash in a town that seemingly sports a small nuclear power plant, and empty marshlands that stretch beyond eyesight.
The unnamed wife, who is mute, aims to get away from her abusive, uncaring husband (?), but all roads eventually lead back to him. His relationship with her is oddly affectionate, as he, at first, shows no outward sexual attention towards her, which, combined with the rough-housing, suggests a deeply twisted brother-sister connection. He also follows these casual interactions with repeated beatings and physical abuse. The fact that she hits back doesn't bode well for him.
"Exhausted" provokes with images, though it can't truly do so with ideas. The film's prominent motif involves the always-active smokestacks which she can't seem to avoid, particularly when running for her life. Though she knows she won't find much luck elsewhere in this low income area – even with a steady stream of customers, she and hubby take short cuts, counting change and budgeting for essentials, even as she persistently complains about stomach pains. Nothing our leads do, including her escape, seems like something that they haven't both re-enacted thousands of times before.
"Exhausted," a relentlessly ugly picture that has played to boos and walkouts at festivals, will prove divisive even if you have made it to the gonzo, John-Waters-meets-Takashi-Miike ending. The psychosexual tension gets blown far out of proportion in a film that feels built to prey on your normal instincts, as "Exhausted" tests your empathy with its perplexing final moments. Perhaps that's for the best. Despite the linear narrative, the deep grays, grainy handheld footage and outlandish sexual violence, the movie feels like a nightmare you absolutely refuse to watch again. [C+]