Unfolding like a microbudget cross between “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” and “The Squid and the Whale,” Peter Vack’s impressively disgusting “Assholes” is the kind of movie that you wish you could unsee, one you have to watch in your peripheral vision because straight-on viewing would be way too nauseating.
It starts off seeming so much more benign. The film might end on a comedic note of Cronenbergian body horror, but it begins by exhuming the desiccated corpse of the mumblecore movement. A scrappy 30-year-old New Yorker who’s parlayed his model good looks and outré sensibilities into a career as the indie film world’s most visible overlooked actor, Vack has starred in so many films about solipsistic young people shouting at each other that it’s natural to assume his directorial debut would be cut from the same cloth. And then we learn that the title is a double entendre.
First things first, all of the characters are indeed assholes, albeit each in their own way. Adam (played by Vack) is definitely an asshole. A manic, privileged addict who introduces himself by whipping his flaccid penis in somebody’s face, Adam is regrettably the closest thing this story has to a moral center. His sister, Adah (Betsey Brown), almost seems to have her shit together by comparison. A sober blonde with miles of coiled anxiety, she opens the film with an extended monologue about how she’s horny, has no love in her life, and is sick of competing with Adam for their parents’ attention.
Finally, there’s Aaron Mark (Jack Dunphy), Adam’s recovering junkie slob of a best friend. Not only is he an asshole, but — and here’s the rub — he’s also obsessed with assholes, in the anatomical sense of the word. It’s not an anal sex thing (although he’s certainly not opposed to the idea), he’s just really into sphincters. And Adah definitely has one. You can see where this is going.
Just kidding — there is no way you can possibly see where this is going. Consider the following more of a warning than a spoiler: Aaron is so excited that Adah is willing to let him go to town on her butthole (and so high on the poppers that they start buying in bulk from a local bodega) that he ignores the giant herpes cold sore on her upper lip. This leads to a close-up shot of Aaron’s genitals that will ruin your life. Have you ever done a google image search for “herpes?” If so, at least you consented to the terror of that experience.
But Vack is just getting warmed up. His movie doesn’t really start firing on all cylinders until [you can just stop reading this review here, if you want] Aaron sticks his fist into Adah’s rectum and [just go outside, it’s a lovely day] frees a life-sized 70-year-old woman from her large intestines. Played by veteran actress Eileen Dietz, this is the hell-demon Mephistopheles (though everyone calls her “Mephi,” for short).
For those of you who are still here, this is probably the part where I should tell you that Vack and Brown are siblings in real life. So in the scene where Adah buries her cold sore-covered nose deep into Aaron’s … actually, you can finish that sentence for yourself. And if you think that’s weird, wait until you see the scenes with Vack and Brown’s actual parents. I’m not here to judge (well, yes and no), and — in theory — it’s great to see Vack make the most of what must be a remarkably open and supportive family. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that anyone other than blood relatives would possess the unconditional love required to help the first-time director bring this film to life.
Which isn’t to detract from Brown’s performance, a spirited turn that displays a commitment to this perverse material that stretches beyond the limits of sisterly love. Or Dunphy’s, for that matter, which is every bit as all-in as that of his co-star. In the film’s mesmeric centerpiece, he leads Brown on a drugged-up whirlwind through Times Square in which the cinematographer desperately tries to keep up with the two actors (both covered in oozy fake pustules) as they terrorize a street cleaner and get kicked out of the AMC 25 movie theater.
But for all of its occasional moments of giddy, anything-goes hedonism, “Assholes” doesn’t do nearly enough to reward the reckless abandon that made it possible. The anarchy is far too tedious and self-satisfied to steal any sense of honesty from its depiction of addicts or the collateral damage they cause, but the hole in the film’s sludge-covered heart is too big for Vack’s debut to sustain itself as an increasingly deranged gross-out comedy. “Assholes” didn’t have to be that deep to make an impression, but there’s no use looking into something that’s so full of shit.
“Assholes” premiered in the Visions section of SXSW 2017. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.