What if Kevin James was cast as a neo-Nazi? That’s one of the many uninspired questions that Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s gruesome “Becky” answers in a movie driven by an increasingly boring set of narrative dares. Others include: What if the protagonist was a teenage girl so angry she could actually kill? What if there was a MacGuffin that was literally a key that didn’t open anything? Even as the movie stumbles into a few compelling moments, it’s far too concerned with shoveling on empty shocks. The pair’s earlier film, “Cooties,” suffered from similar issues, attempting to build a thin idea (what if a zombie pandemic only turned little kids into monsters?) but at least it yielded more entertaining results.
“Becky” is as grim and gruesome as any horror movie in recent memory, but that alone can’t save this gross-out thriller. Still, the story opens with promise, through candy-colored title cards and fast cuts between Becky (the wonderful Lulu Wilson) and a cadre of criminals in the midst of a prison escape. Clearly, these worlds will collide in a premise that has plenty of pop: Regular old Becky, bored with high school and later with her straight-edge dad (Joel McHale), is being pitted against some real baddies, but her teen disaffection just might save her.
And that’s not a bad idea on the face of it. The bluntness with which her adversaries are presented — Kevin James, playing against type as the group’s ring leader, sports a giant swastika tattoo on his bald head, all the better to economically deliver that this guy is bad news — implies that “Becky” might be able to have some tongue-in-cheek fun with its plot. Once the violence gets rolling, however, the film devolves into one cheap violent stunt after another, most of them centered around maimed body parts and Becky’s gleaming smile. Can you believe it? A teenage girl who can kill? Nuts!
Becky’s life is already iffy long before the neo-Nazi convicts arrive: Her beloved mother is dead (we’re reminded of this through repeated cloying flashbacks), her dad is about to marry a new woman (Amanda Brugel), and the only beings she really seems to like are the family’s rescue pups (Dora and Diego, a nod to “Dora the Explorer” we won’t even attempt to unpack). When Becky is forced into a meet-your-new-family weekend at their out-of-the-way lake house, she’s already righteously pissed off enough. And then the neo-Nazis show up.
The role is ostensibly James’ first foray into dramatic territory, but there’s little depth to his Dominick, a gruff, revolting baddie apparently built to only be destroyed by Becky’s rage. (The film’s directors had better luck casting against type with their previous film, “Bushwick,” which gave star Dave Bautista something different to dig into.) The film’s script, from Nick Morris, Ruckus Skye, and Lane Skye, crafts an explanation for why Dominick and his crew (including some of the most flaccid henchmen after dreamed up, for better and worse) crash the lake house, something about an important key that is such an overt MacGuffin it nearly ends up not being a MacGuffin. After some general torture, the vicious murder of an animal, and one well-placed bullet, Becky’s transition to fully radicalized murderer is complete.
That’s not a terrible concept for a movie, but it’s certainly one that’s been used repeatedly in this space before: a revenge thriller that hinges on an abused woman’s rage? Everything from “Carrie” to “Hard Candy” and “Jennifer’s Body” got there first, and “Becky” doesn’t attempt to do anything new with the idea. It doesn’t help that Becky vacillates between bad choices (she tends to run toward the bad guys at all the wrong moments) and eye-popping craftsmanship (just look at what she can maim with a bunch of pencils and some craft tape!), as long as she’s going nuts, that seems to satisfy the filmmakers’ needs.
Still, Becky’s rage comes from a righteous place, the product of a script that takes great pains to dismantle everything dear to her and make her believe she’s alone in her struggle. Even when those narrative choices let her down quite often, Wilson is something of a revelation here, finding dimension and emotion in even the most underwritten of scenes. “Becky” doesn’t seem eager to grapple with the implications of turning a kid into a murderer, but Wilson’s performance hints that there is more going on underneath.
Gorehounds at least might have some fun with what “Becky” throws out during its most gruesome kills, kicking off with Becky’s first big tussle with inflicting violence, which is as vivid and stomach-churning as it gets. It doesn’t at all jibe with the early sense that the film might have some fun — this is very much a no-fun zone — but it does help to set expectations for a final hour that amounts to a bloody, broken, horrifying hell.
Eventually, it becomes an endurance test to see just how eager you are to see it end with the most basic of wish-fulfillment (Nazi death, and vengeance against Kevin James’ very bad beard). Even with that promise lingering over the battered final act, there’s not enough to endure just for the shock of it. Becky, and her audience, deserve something with a bit more fire.
Quiver Distribution and Redbox Entertainment will release “Becky” on VOD on Friday, June 5.