Friday, January 11, 2013

Ten Statements About....SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS (2001)

This woman has just shot a man to death...and she's your hero.

"These cats don't have nine lives."

1) Even though it doesn't fully fit into the purview of 'found footage,' this is one of the most effective examples of that subgenre.  It tells a compelling story, it justifies why we're getting all the footage that we might not otherwise expect to see, and it hints at a larger tapestry that shores up the world the film is set in.

2) ....and that might be the most intriguing thing about the film--the fact that the story, ostensively episodes from the seventh season of this demented reality show, takes place in this weird alternative nightmare universe that implies our society has gone down a very dark, very unpleasant path.  And yet nowhere does writer/director David Minaham spell it all out for you.  We know that the government has a hand in this reality show, we know that they manipulate the results, and we know there's a darker purpose behind all this--but we never learn the truths behind these circumstances.

3) Of course, this film would not work without strong performances, and the strongest performance is by Brooke Smith as our central character Dawn.  We see Dawn do some truly brutal things--there's a brief sequence where Minaham contrasts Dawn's interview with footage of many of her previous kills that is ruthless in its violence--and yet she manages to get a great deal of humanity and sympathy at points, particularly when she takes a moment to comfort the wife of a just-murdered contestant.
Don't pity this woman despite her deer-in-the-headlights
expression...because she won't pity you....

4) ....and on the other end of the spectrum we have Marylouise Burke as Connie, who is a horrific monster of a character--and yet believes one hundred percent that she is not evil, that she is motivated by her Christian values.  And Minaham never presents Connie as anything other than a ruthless killer, right from her first interview where she admits to 'helping' people who suffer pass on to the next world ('This happens more often than you think,' she adds after this confession!).

5) This is a violent film that comes by its R rating thoroughly honestly, and yet the violence onscreen is relatively restrained.  That being said, the brutality and intensity in the way Minaham presents this violence throughout makes some of it rough to watch, particular the film's biggest setpiece set at a suburban mall.

6) The film is hard to categorize.  Even though it doesn't have any gruesome elements, I'd almost categorize it as a horror film for the pitch black view of society it has....but the film is also richly and darkly comic.  Minaham knows he has to give us a release valve and peppers the film with some moment of genuine, twisted humor.  Even the narration--ably provided by Will Arnett, of all people!--gives us some lines that allow us to laugh nervously between the horrific elements.

And what would a reality show be without a car chase?
7) I do like how Minaham does play with our expectations when it comes to the reality show 'script.'  The person we expect to be the first to be picked off is the one who commits the most henious act of violence; the person who we expect to be the mildest is the one who is the most venomous contender.  And since Minaham worked as a story editor for newsmagazine shows prior to directing this film, he's managed to perfectly recreate the way these shows can deceive the public and bend the narrative.

8) ...and that might be why the film didn't do well in its theatrical run.  Minaham is too precise in his recreation of The Contenders TV show, resulting in us not having that slight distance that satire sometimes need.  Even though we're given absurd moments (Dawn being unable to register a kill because a cameraman gets in the way; hostages cheering when a character announces 'people will die'--not realizing that the people that are being referred to are themselves; etc.), they don't feel like commentary; they feel like an example of the thing Minaham is commenting on.  And as such, sometimes the comments don't through to the viewer.

9) ....although I will admit that the 'recreation' of the film's denoument is wonderfully lame, featuring actors who look uncannily like Smith and Glenn Fitzgerald, who plays Jeff....if you looked at them sideways.  As with the rest of the film, the recreation of reality show tropes is uncanny, but unlike elsewhere, Minaham manages to create that little separation so we can appreciate the half-assedness spin control the producers of the show try to achieve.

10) Can I say I love Girls Vs. Boys' soundtrack, which mananges to subsume their noise rock qualities when they need to to recreate cheesy reality show muzak muck, and are able to take a back seat to other composers when they have to (like that hilarious usage of Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' when it comes to delineating Dawn's backstory).

Overall...even though it may fail as a pure satire, this film excels as a really frightening extrapolation of what our present society's obsession with reality TV can result in.  Held together by a magnificent and ruthless performance at its center, it also serves as a great example of how you can use 'found footage' tropes to tell a really great story.

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