Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival. RLJE Films releases the film in theaters and on VOD and digital on Friday, November 18.
“Most happy songs are actually sad as fuck, and people are just too stupid to get it,” a music producer opines in the midst of another late-night recording session, sleepily insisting that Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” sounds like it was written by someone with a gun to their head. The moment is a total non-sequitur, typical of a film that doesn’t follow a plot so much as it sifts through a psychic pall, and also typical of a filmmaker whose woozily impressionistic (yet wildly unsubtle) character sketches have long been fascinated by the forced smiles that stretch across modern American life.
In “Dark Night,” Tim Sutton used the 2012 massacre at a Colorado multiplex as the backdrop for a languid meditation on the relationship between real and imagined violence in a country whose gun problem has made them one and the same. In “Taurus” — a sort of “Last Days” for the age of Soundcloud rap — Sutton applies a similarly novocained approach to the relationship between idol worship and blood sacrifices in a country whose celebrity culture has made it so that anyone deified by our love is also damned for accepting it. That dynamic is one the film’s star and inspiration understands all too well, and one that its writer-director may not understand quite well enough.
With “Taurus,” Sutton casts musician and tabloid fixture Colson Baker (aka Machine Gun Kelly) as a parallel universe version of himself: A wildly popular rap-rocker named Cole whose emergent mega-fame has loosened what little grasp of personal agency this beautiful and spindly 31-year-old drug addict once had left. In real life, Baker has been able to pull himself back from the brink, forge an identity on his own terms, and survive everything from a brutal cameo in “Jackass Forever” to a winsome lead performance in Cameron Crowe’s “Roadies” along the way (the latter as dangerous to his bad boy image as the former was to his body). The character he plays here might not be quite so lucky.
Why has one been able to claw his way out of the darkness while the other appears to keep spiraling down? Only Baker could speak to the more ineffable differences between Machine Gun Kelly and the alter-ego he embodies in this strung-out portrait of an artist (they share much of the same music, many of the same biographical details, and all of the same ink), but there are a few reasons why “Taurus” never feels like someone merely playing an earlier version of themselves. For one thing, Cole has a mop of blond hair to hide behind, and uses it to be more sullen and withdrawn than Baker himself has ever been. For another, Cole has already broken up with Megan Fox — massively impactful in a one-shot cameo — by the time he hits rock bottom, while Baker didn’t start dating her until he was already well on his way up to the top of the world.
But the biggest difference between Colson and his “Taurus” character is that one of them lives in the real world, and the other has the grim misfortune of being trapped in a Tim Sutton movie, where his suffering will inevitably get smudged into an ambiguous Rorschach test for some kind of national trauma. That much is clear from the opening scene, which starts not with Cole, but with a random kid in the suburbs of Los Angeles who finds his parents’ gun and — faster than you can say “Vox Lux” — uses it to murder them both while they watch Netflix in their living room.
What does that double homicide have to do with the volatile rock star who lives in the Hollywood Hills above? Across the week that we spend watching Cole as he floats between studios and strip clubs in search of solid ground, the killings will become just one of the many different things that bleed onto him from beyond the limits of his control.
And “Taurus,” more than anything else, is a portrait of someone who’s lost track of what is or is not in his power to change. The most obvious thing that Cole retains the capacity to influence is his music, even if everyone around him is completely at its mercy (including an up-and-coming pop star named Lena, played by MGK collaborator Naomi Wild, who’s summoned out of her bath in the middle of the night to lay down some vocals on Cole’s latest track). It’s only through his art that Cole has the ability to express why he feels like a passenger in his own life, and Sutton’s numb style allows the film to become an affecting conduit for that closed circuit existence.
Cole’s tug-of-war with substance addiction — along with his public struggle to be a god and a pariah at the same time — makes it all but impossible for him to recognize what’s in his grasp (one memorable scene finds Cole nodding off during a livestream as the flood of comments alternates between “come to Rome!” and “you’re a pedo”). Cole likes to think of himself as an asshole, but that seems like an easy out for someone who’s legitimately lost sight of the fact that he can be more present for his young daughter, or that he doesn’t have to abuse his assistant’s unconditional love (she’s played by a raw and excellent Maddie Hassan). Cole externalizes his emotions however he can, and if “Taurus” can be said to have a plot at all, it’s one that begins when a call girl nicks the quartz that Cole uses as a repository for all of his good energy. He’s upset that he can’t find the missing rock, but he’s also dangerously liberated by its loss.
Baker has always been an engaging screen presence, but he’s never been more hypnotic than he is here; the basic concept of “Taurus” requires Cole to reverse through his image and body with the borrowed responsibility of driving a rental car, and the end result is so rooted in personal truth that watching it can feel like rubbernecking at a wreck in progress. That authenticity burns brightest amid the film’s smaller details (e.g. those livestream comments, the way that Cole starts muttering about Sam Cooke during a noxious sit down with his corporate sponsors), but loses a little of its luster when Sutton tries to fan the flames.
The subplot about the killer kid isn’t strong enough to shoulder the dread that “Taurus” dumps onto it, and several of the other devices that Sutton uses to get inside Cole’s head (e.g. an “Annette”-like bit where Cole airs his grievances during an imagined stand-up comedy set) grind the specifics of Baker’s experience into a more generic depiction of a troubled artist. There are moments in which “Taurus” manages to split the difference (an unscripted radio interview peaks with Cole likening himself to a Mayan sacrifice, buried alive by the same people who exalted him), but the warts-and-all honesty that Baker brings to the table doesn’t prevent Sutton from repackaging his story as a simple cautionary tale about an industry — and a society — that will fatten people up just to eat them alive. At least it’s a tale that Baker lived to tell, and refused to let anyone else tell for him.
“Taurus” premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival.
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