Given a prominent slot at last year's Sundance Film Festival and nominated for the reputable John Cassavetes Award at the upcoming Film Independent Spirit Awards, Bryan Poyser's "Lovers of Hate" is still not fully recognized for its seamless merging of slapstick humor and realistically uneasy situations. The Austin-based writer-director's sophomore feature follows two warring brothers, one a failed writer and the other wildly triumphant at the same profession, destined to bump heads indefinitely. At a certain point, they both start to crack, but it's a slow, disturbing process--often resoundingly funny and cringe-inducing at the same time.
The story begins with several quick vignettes to neatly establish Poyser's grungy universe. Wannabe novelist Rudy (Chris Doubek) works a series of odd jobs while living out the back of his car, which creates the logistical challenge of finding the right place to bathe. He's first seen showering in a car wash at the break of dawn; a few scenes later, during his door-to-door salesman routine, he slips into a stranger's bathroom with the same intention and less success. Unemployed again and shunned by his frustrated ex Diana (Heather Kafka), Rudy has zero direction and nowhere to turn. He seems like he's ready to simply disappear. The bulk of "Lovers of Hate" allows him to live out that fantasy until he's trapped by it.
When Rudy's overly confident brother Paul (filmmaker Alex Karpovsky, who had a supporting role in "Tiny Furniture") drops into town to promote his popular children's fantasy book (which Rudy originally conceived years earlier), the two men briefly pretend to get along, with Rudy convincing Diana to act as though they're still a couple so he can sustain the illusion of contentment. That ruse soon gives way to a much darker one, however, when Paul quietly whisks Diana off to his ritzy Park City condo for a lustful weekend for which Rudy becomes a witness, having slipped into the condo before Paul's arrival to pay his brother a surprise visit. Safely hidden, Rudy decides to keep his presence in the house as secret as the affair itself.
When the full Park City scenario takes shape, "Lovers of Hate" really takes off. For the bulk of the running time, Rudy hides in the shadows, shamelessly eavesdropping on Paul and Diana as they guiltlessly screw and engage in vulgar pillow talk. Often lurking just outside the frame, Rudy takes on a ghostly presence, saying little but hearing all. Comic suspense dominates. (Rudy's reaction when Paul abruptly tells Diana he loves her is priceless.) The mounting possibility that Rudy might get discovered is deepened by the distress he feels from hearing people he knows well speak behind his back.
The visible low budget, farcical behavior and occasional thrills led one journalist to describe "Lovers of Hate" as "'Humpday' meets 'Paranormal Activity,'" which sounds more baffling than anything in this creepy sex story. Never indulging in outright scare tactics or loose improvisation, the movie primarily works like an awkward narrative that plays with perspective. For much of the time, Rudy watches the two-person drama of Paul and Diana in their element, as he comes to terms with the sad world confining him.
Poyser's screenplay provides a terrific showcase for the two male leads, particularly Doubek, whose constant state of disrepair exudes discomfort of Paul Giamatti-level proportions. He's an unseemly object of pity. Paul instinctively preys on Rudy's weaknesses, stealing his ex and his good ideas as though he were saving them from neglect. "I don't know how to deal with having a loser brother," Paul tells Diana, which deepens the psychological dimension of their rift. Over time, the condo begins to represent the claustrophobic dimension of their unending battle. "Bitterness is the enemy of life," Rudy suddenly realizes, in one of his more sincere moments—and there aren't many of them.
Despite the nervous laughs throughout, Poyser takes the premise seriously, eventually leaving humor by the wayside to let the phantom tension between the brothers reach a breaking point. The abrupt, haunting finale manages to achieve a kind of surreal beauty. Both strangely amusing and fundamentally profound, it amounts to a tragic account of sibling rivalry that also celebrates its inevitability as a timeless tradition.
Viewed alongside Poyser's first movie, the raunchy coming-of-age comedy "Dear Pillow," it's clear that his strength lies in an ability to depict honest vulgarity. In revealing the humanity behind sex and other secretive behavior, he observes the tendency of people to act candidly when no one is around to call them on it.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Woefully unavailable on DVD (what's the hold-up?), "Lovers of Hate" is playing for one week at Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub theater for its local premiere. For the time being, audiences outside of New York are out of luck. Hopefully, Poyser has more stories to tell and can find bigger platforms to tell them.
criticWIRE grade: A-