The first thing you need to understand about the protagonist of Alissa Nutting’s wildly unsettling and wonderfully written 2013 novel “Tampa” is that she’s a monster. While Celeste Price — accurately described as “smoldering” in the book’s official synopsis — is physically stunning (and damn does she work for it), her emotional and psychological landscape is so diseased that whatever cinematic project springs forth from the material will likely look and feel more like a film about bloodthirsty vampires or Frankenstein’s creation or the abominable snowman or something similarly driven by lust and rage than any sort of dramatic offering about overcoming life’s harsh realities.
No one overcomes anything in “Tampa.” No one gets over anything.
“Tampa,” despite a premise that seems tailor-made to be turned into a prestige feature (perhaps in the vein of “Precious”?) or at least a Lifetime-ready movie of the week (think “Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?”) will work best — and most true to its viscously wrought source material — if it bucks both of those ideas. At its heart, it’s a story about ugly desires and the very bad people who have them. It’s a story about anti-heroes and horrible wanting and so many terrible, terrible things that you can scarcely believe they’ve been put on a page.
It’s the perfect film for Harmony Korine.
When the project was first announced last week, with Korine telling a Miami crowd that he is in the process of adapting the book for the screen (and may also direct it), I compared it a bit to Hannah Fiddell’s “A Teacher,” another film that follows a female high school teacher who engages in sexual relationship with a teenage student. While Fiddell’s film is more concerned with the emotional implications of the relationship — star Lindsay Burdge infuses her Diana with so much deep yearning and rich emotion that it’s genuinely easy to sympathize with her, before being routinely snapped back to the reality of the situation — Nutting’s novel traffics in the physical desires of her characters, especially the vividly drawn Celeste.
Celeste’s sexual desires are unquenchable and she preys upon her students, including the foremost object of her desires, a 14-year-old named Jack Patrick, with the kind of precision you’d expect from a predator. Celeste’s entire life is oriented around getting what she wants, and she goes to extreme lengths to make it possible for her to routinely ensnare and rape (and, yes, it’s rape, no matter how “hot” Celeste may be and no matter how often stories of older women chasing younger men are branded “sexy”) her students. Within the pages of “Tampa,” Celeste’s fixation drives her to wild ends — including sort of dating Jack’s own father, all the better to keep him both very close and very far away — to get what she wants.
Nutting’s book is basically a deep dive into a diseased mind, and to translate its story to the big — or, possibly small, as Korine has mentioned that he might do something with HBO for the project — screen requires a filmmaker who is unbound by typical notions related to “likable characters” or “character arcs” or “satisfying endings.” Without giving too much away (and, trust me, there are enough twists and turns and jawdropping shockers to keep eve the most spoiler-phobic readers very happy), it’s safe to say that Celeste doesn’t really learn anything by the time the book concludes, and she’s more driven than ever to feed her desires. Celeste is never likable (frankly, most of the characters in the book are not likable, even the ones we sympathize with, though each one is carefully and believably drawn), she does not follow a traditional character arc (it’s hard to even deem her a “protagonist,” really, as we’re so used to the word implying personal growth) and the ending of the story is more scary than anything else.
Korine has routinely used these kind of subversive characters and storytelling tropes to craft his own films: From the girls of “Spring Breakers” (and James Franco’s scene-stealing Alien, of course) to the kids of both “Kids” and “Gummo” to the elderly pranksters of “Trash Humpers,” Korine has never met or made an anti-hero he didn’t adore and even his most mainstream film, the still deeply experimental “Mister Lonely,” is unbound by traditional storytelling ideas.
While a film like “A Teacher” requires a sensitive touch — and it’s hard to imagine that the film would be so striking and thought-provoking if it wasn’t guided by the steady hand of Fiddell, a director who happens to also be a woman — “Tampa” is a blunt, merciless thing that demands a filmmaker who revels in this kind of wasteland and who is able to make terrible behavior and worse decisions scan as artful and even, perhaps more boldly, entertaining.
And that’s the real trick of “Tampa,” for as disgusting as it is, Nutting’s book is excellently written and moves like a freight train. It’s nearly impossible to put down. How best then to translate that to the screen? With the wicked chops of Korine, who likely won’t balk at a page and will happily render even its most eye-popping moments all the more shocking.
It’s a monster movie, and no one knows modern monsters — real monster, real people monsters — quite like Korine.