The found footage conceit, like 3D, has been mostly used as a gimmick to enhance the realism of a particular genre (mostly genre fare like horror flicks or teen comedies). The spookiness of, say, a haunted house, is amplified by the gritty, handheld textures that the format provides, offering an effective, low budget alternative to the kind of glossy Hollywood aesthetic. With “The Dirties,” a new film that essentially attempts to be the “Scream” of school shooting movies, its filmmakers have tried to use the genre to get inside the head of a pair of budding psychopaths and comment on the way culture corrupts you. Or something.
As the movie begins, we’re introduced to Matt (director/co-writer Matthew Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams), two kids that are filming a movie for a school project called “The Dirties.” Their movie is named for a gang of bullies that routinely beats up the pair, but for some reason their project features them playing cops who infiltrate a high school and is stocked with moments the teens have stolen from other movies (such as “Trainspotting” and “The Usual Suspects“). When they screen an early cut of the movie for a sympathetic teacher, you can’t help but be taken aback, not by the violent, profanity-strewn content, but by the flabbergasting lack of creativity.
Somewhat dejected (unsurprisingly, a movie made about the bullies in their school intensifies them getting picked on), the pair begin to plan something far darker: an actual school shooting. Even as things become more ominous, the film maintains its jokey, you-are-there conceit, which sometimes makes things even more dreadful (quoting “The Royal Tenenbaums” while plotting a mass murder is pretty eerie).
As the possibility of danger increases, so does the movie’s own meta-textuality. At one point Matt, who is clearly more interested in “only killing the bad guys,” reads from Dave Cullen‘s definitive account of the “Columbine” massacre. Reading a passage about what it means to be a psychopath, he asks aloud to Owen, “Does this sound like me?” These are kids absorbed by popular culture, with many scenes set in a kind of media-based rumpus room at Matt’s house, the walls lined with comic books, movie posters, and Magic cards, with a sophisticated editing bay tucked in the corner.
But it’s these lofty sociopolitical implications that get the movie in trouble. What, exactly, is it trying to say about the effects of popular culture on a young mind? Owen certainly seems warped but is far from the homicidal killer that Matt is. And yet he seems to enjoy, with the same amount of brio, similar pop culture indulgences. “The Dirties” only examines these kids through their love affair with movies, with almost nothing paid to their home life (although, from the looks of Matt’s home, he at the very least seems financially secure). It seems something of a disservice to ground their personalities so heavily in pop culture while giving little attention to anything else, like the pundits who, post-Columbine, blamed violent video games and “The Matrix” for the tragedy.
One of the fundamental problems that has dogged the found footage genre is that the reason for someone being there and filming everything is rarely, if ever, reasonably explained. Why, for instance, during a cataclysmic event like the ones that unfold in “Cloverfield,” would some yutz still be taking video? (“Paranormal Activity,” at least initially, smartly addressed this as a series of home security cameras.) Not only is this never addressed during “The Dirties,” but some of the angles and point-of-views seem, if not implausible, downright impossible. Also, there are moments when Matt addresses the unseen cameraman, who we never meet and who doesn’t seem to have a personality or voice. In a way, this nebulously defined phantom is just as implicit in the eventual shooting (and, yes, it does happen, quite disturbingly) as the two leads. You’d think, at some point, the cameraman would have stopped to say something, or maybe turned the footage over to the police.
The unseen cameraman is a very glaring example of how muddled “The Dirties” is. Why, exactly, the movie has taken on the found footage format is just as unclear as what it’s trying to say about popular culture and youth. If there was some explicit point it was trying to make, that point is lost, amongst shaky handheld camerawork and iffy audio. Why, exactly, the movie ends where it does (and who is supposed to have edited the movie together) are also elements that the filmmakers probably hoped would tantalize and incite discussion but really they just annoy and perplex.
Which isn’t to say that “The Dirties” doesn’t work completely. Because the movie still does possess a strange kind of power, even if it doesn’t know what to do with it. Oftentimes the self-referential rabbit hole goes impressively deep, like a moment when one of the characters wears a T-shirt, adorned with the silhouette of a bull, that was also seen in Gus Van Sant‘s Cannes-winning school shooting drama “Elephant.” And the film does create occasional moments of genuine dread, as we watch these kids descend into darkness, especially since the film is coming out so close to the Sandy Hook tragedy of last year. Even though a handful of films have been made about the subject, school shootings remain a topic that is electrifyingly taboo, even if the movies themselves don’t carry the same voltage.
Ultimately, it’s hard to recommend “The Dirties” as anything more than an attempt at saying something about the way that school shootings can be born from a mix of social pressure and cultural influence, it’s just that the message, like the filmmaking, seems fuzzy and unfocused. This could have been a great film, and even in its limp final state is oddly effective, but it’s no where near the movie that it wants to be, or thinks it is. Maybe the found footage aesthetic should be exclusively employed for scary stories and movies where teens become superheroes. [C-]