Monday, September 04, 2006

A Bit Of The Old Ultraviolence

During my long period of unemployment I got to catch up on two movies that I'd been meaning to watch for some time: The Devil's Rejects and Oldboy.

The Devil's Rejects surprised me a little bit by just how disturbing it was. I still haven't seen its prequel (House of 1000 Corpses) and I was expecting something a lot goofier, more in tune with director Rob Zombie's cheesy industrial metal band. However the titular group of psychopaths engage in some pretty nasty behaviour, and in particular the extended torture and kidnapping scene in the middle of the movie was pretty twisted.

Zombie's movie is very ambitious, but in the end it left me unsatisfied. The story is a nice and elegant allegory to current world affairs, but it lacks depth and insight, and the violence, while some of the nastiest I've ever seen on the screen, only offends in the shallowest manner, especially when compared to Oldboy.

The violence in Oldboy is very infrequent, especially when compared to The Devil's Rejects' non-stop gore-o-rama, but the two or three mutilation scenes are so gutwrenchingly disturbing that even I, he who likes to spring viewings of Mr. Hands onto unsuspecting visitors to my house, found them difficult to stomach. I'll express the reason behind the difference in my response to the movies by way of an analogy to black metal. Opeth have been the best musical discovery I've made so far this year and while they can loosely be described as a black metal band the growly, thrashy parts of their songs are balanced out by plenty of acoustic, melodic, moody or otherwise restrained passages. This means that when they launch into a heavy part it feels a whole lot more heavy than the music of say Cryptopsy, who undermine the incredibly brutal assault of their music by kicking every song off at maximum power and never dialling it down for even a second. In the same way, The Devil's Rejects' non-stop gore is unaffecting because we've (or at least I've) been exposed to so many gory movies that meaningless violence is no big deal no matter how disgusting it is. On the other hand Oldboy's few moments of genuine violence are disturbing because they occur in a much more realistic setting, and because it takes place in a much more meaningful narrative.

SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to ruin the end of Oldboy for you now, so if you haven't seen it, go away and watch it right now and then come back.

Oldboy is a very clever movie. For most of it's length it is a mostly straightforward revenge flick, as our protagonist (played by Min-sik Choi) tries to track down the man who imprisoned him for fifteen years (and also tries to learn the reason why he did so), looking (in what must have been a deliberate decision) more or less exactly like a Korean Charles Bronson. However by the end the genre conventions are completely reversed, it is the antagonist who ultimately gets his revenge on Choi, and once having achieved it, promptly kills himself, as there is nothing left for him to live for. Choi's character, robbed of his own revenge, must live with the horrible things that he has done and that have been done to him, but he still gets to live. And in the final scene he seems to have found, in a very twisted way, some kind of peace.

The climax of the movie, in which the protagonist is begging his nemesis for mercy and has been completely broken to the point of cutting out his own tongue, is an incredibly good example of how to use violence effectively in a movie. It's shocking, unexpected and blunt nature is grotesque enough, but the real reason it works is because of the story and characters that have caused it to come about. It's one of the most powerful scenes I've seen in a movie for a long time and it will stay with me for far longer than the rapes and eviscerations in The Devil's Rejects.


Joel said...

I saw House of 1000 Corpes. Sounds similar to the sequel, lots of gore and violence and mutilation but in the end it was a particularly pointless movie. The only person that escapes ends up being picked up by the psychopaths again at the end. Yay for movies that inspire futility.

Old Boy was cool. Particularly the fight scene in the corridor. I agree that it uses much more effectively too. Anything to do with the removal of teeth and/or tongue is for some reason particular cringe inducing.

Jon said...

I can't speak for 1000 Corpses but The Devil's Rejects wasn't pointless so much as a bit too slick and postmodern for its own good.

Joel said...

Well, 1000 corpses is pretty goofy and beyond the violence it is hard to take some of the characters seriously. It appeared fake and like it was trying to make up for that fact with excessive violence.

Still pretty disturbing though.

Jon said...

That sounds more like what I expected Devil's Rejects to be. Some good stupid disgusting fun...