Stuck

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The story was strangely fascinating for people who

follow weird-news sources like Romenesko’s Obscure Store and Reading

Room: a woman driving at night had struck a homeless pedestrian with

such force that he tumbled headlong over the hood of the car and

straight through the windshield so that his body slumped across the

dashboard, impaled on the shattered glass underneath it. Amazingly,

the woman kept driving. She drove all the way home and stashed the

car in her garage, where she left him to bleed for death.

(Authorities said that if the woman had sought help after the

accident, he probably would have lived.) Finally, she sought the help

of friends to dispose of the body and ruined, blood-stained car.


The whole sequence of events seemed

unlikely, but there it was. The story had the whiff of sensationalism

about it, but the facts seemed to check out. Just reading about it

was infuriating, but I remember spending a lot of time mulling it

over, trying to figure out what state of mind that woman had to be

in. How tweaked did your brain have to be before it would allow you

to ignore an ongoing tragedy of your making? How invested in your own

self-interest do you have to be to shut out a death in slow motion

that only you are witness to?>

Stuart Gordon, not just a master of

neo-Lovecraftian horror but also a director of impressively dark

comedies, saw a film in the material. Gordon had a reputation as a

provocative theater director before he splattered onto the film scene

with Re-Animator, an impressively gross, tongue-in-cheek adaptation

of a story by H.P. Lovecraft boasting one of the best sick sex jokes

in film history, a signature performance by Jeffrey Combs as the

Frankenstein-like title character, Herbert West, and an apparent

claim to fame in terms of the sheer quantity of its bloodshed. (As

Gordon tells the story, he believed his production held the record

for gallons of fake blood expended until he met up with Peter

Jackson, who informed him that his own zombie comedy, Braindead, aka

Dead Alive, had bested it by two orders of magnitude.) Gordon had his

ups and downs as a genre filmmaker, but in recent years he had been

working at extending his range into sardonic character drama. In that

regard, the unpleasant Edmond, which starred William H. Macy in an

engaging turn as a difficult character, was something of a

breakthrough.

But Stuck is something else entirely —

it’s an energetic B-movie with pulpy magnetism. Think of it as

slapstick social realism. Mena Suvari, also listed as a co-producer,

stars as Brandi. Sporting a big, round forehead, an imperfect

complexion, and an intricate network of cornrows winding across her

scalp, she’s an appealingly unassuming protagonist. She’s introduced

in the film’s very first sequence, in which incongruous hip-hop music

thumps and rumbles on the soundtrack as accompaniment to images of

the tired and bewildered looking residents of an old-folks home where

Brandi works as a nurse, cheerfully cleaning up feces-smeared linens

and brown-nosing her way toward a promotion – the thankless

overtime duty and general ass-kissing involved just comes with the

territory. Shortly thereafter, we meet Stephen Rea as Tom, a

downsized management type who manages, just, to scramble out of his

apartment with one good suit as his landlord evicts him. (Gordon’s

major misstep is the introduction here of a gentle black character — too

broadly written and baldly symbolic of the established but unseen

American underclass, though perhaps he’s meant as an ironic invocation of the “magical negro” stereotype — who kindly lends Tom the shopping cart that

serves as a sort of Charon’s boat into the underworld.)

Brandi celebrates her good fortune at

work by getting hammered on a Friday night and driving home under the

influence. Newly homeless Tom wanders the streets aimlessly after

being rousted from a park bench by an unfriendly cop. And that’s

where these two worlds collide.

What ensues is a very dark comedy

about, mostly, Brandi’s take on events. (Poor Tom, impaled on

nasty-looking shard of broken glass, has a fixed and limited

perspective on the goings-on.) She treats the incident first as a

minor inconvenience that she has to ignore in order to stay sharp

when she heads in to work on a Saturday. When she realizes Tom is

still alive, the problem begins to gnaw at her, but instead of

summoning help she opts to protect herself by appealing to boyfriend

Rashid to give Tom an extra push into the hereafter.

There’s nothing pretty about Stuck, an

attribute that goes a long way toward establishing street cred. As

B-movie directors increasingly migrate toward the clean, modern look

of HD, this has a genuine low-budget film look, and its cocktail of

sex, gore and comedy is a tasty recipe that’s rarely served up these

days. A dust-up between Brandi and Rashid that begins with the tiny,

ferocious Brandi ejecting a nude woman from Rashid’s bed isn’t just a

funny scene, but also an illustration of how she’s directing all the

emotional energy that she’s not expending on empathy for her

hit-and-run victim. And the painful closeups of Tom’s squirm-inducing

injuries aren’t just money shots for genre fans, but important

grounding points for a story about suffering, and the deliberate

ignorance of the suffering of others.

Brandi is something of a monster, yes,

but that’s not to say Gordon doesn’t have some sympathy for her.

He’s clearly interested in the gap between her aptitude with her

patients and her callousness toward this bloody stranger. She’s also

under exploitative pressure from her smugly condescending boss, who

dangles the suggestion of a promotion in front of her just to see how

far she’ll reach for it. But the fix that both Brandi and Tom find

themselves in is the product of economic disadvantage — of her

upward struggle toward a paycheck that can help make ends meet, and

of the sudden downward mobility that put him out on the street in the

first place. (The problems of the immigrant family living next door

without documentation figure in as well.)

Yet this character has a great

selfishness and sense of entitlement that eventually makes her fun to

hate, and Gordon and Suvari both have a ball putting her through her

paces. Of course, once the badly crippled Tom gathers his strength

and his wits, Stuck turns into a bloody metaphor for life on the mean

streets of contemporary America, where youth and callow ambition are

having it out with age, grit and experience in a struggle for

opportunity. It’s the horror movie that our recessionary times

deserve. A-

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