1997 - unrated - 89 Mins.
|Director: Harmony Korine
|Producer: Cary Woods
|Written By: Harmony Korine
|Starring: Jacob Sewell, Nick Sutton, Jacob Reynolds, Darby Dougherty and Chlo
|Review by: Bill King
Like everyone else who has seen "Gummo" (1997), I must ask certain questions about its reason for existence. Afterall, it contains no plot. Even those who like it have trouble understanding why. Some of the positive reviews I've read admit that describing "Gummo" is difficult. Others have attempted to find the meaning amidst the chaos. Perhaps that's the point. Harmony Korine, the writer and director, wants to challenge the audience to find the justification for his debut film. Why did he make it? What does it mean? Ultimately, though, I find the film to be pretentious and highly manipulative.
There are two likely reactions for a person after watching "Gummo." (1) The viewer will dismiss it immediately, because of the repellent images found throughout. However, I believe hating the movie simply for the contents is the easy way out. Such a person who objects to the content is denying himself the opportunity to really understand why the movie goes wrong. One scene has two kids whipping a cat hanging by its tail. A grisly shot, but I think most viewers can handle the depiction of violence against people in other movies. (2) The viewer can also praise the movie for its originality and daring. That would be an honorable intention, but after seeing what the movie presents, I don't think a movie earns praise on the basis of disgusting imagery. The result here is that the movie forces audiences to rationalize what they see. There just has to be some meaning in it all, so indie-fans and critics will offer cryptic criticisms to interpret Korine's intentions.
For me, neither approach will work. "Gummo" fails because its goals are unclear. (Notice I didn't say story, but goals.) It's also uneven. The movie takes place in the backwoods town of Xenia, Ohio. As an opening narration tells us, a tornado came through here and destroyed lives. In the aftermath, some of the residents have lost all touch with normal existence. There are two young boys, Tummler (Nick Sutton) and Solomon (Jacob Reynolds), who kill cats and sell them to a local supermarket. Two sisters, Dot (Chloë Sevigny) and Helen (Carisa Glucksman), put tape on their nipples, then rip it off to make them more red. There is also a boy (Jacob Sewell) who wanders around town wearing pink bunny ears. He meets some of the other characters, but he mostly keeps to himself.
Korine constructed his movie as a series of vignettes depicting these characters and various others engaged in antisocial behavior. The episodes range from funny and beautiful to gratuitous and senseless. My favorite scenes involve two skinhead brothers beating each other up for laughs, and a party in which two men destroy a chair. The film alternates between these scenes and others like Tummler and Solomon shooting cats. Bunny Boy plays the accordion in the restroom, then later plays with Dot and Helen in a pool. Some scenes that don't work, because they're just not interesting, include a brother who pimps his retarded sister (or maybe his wife, who knows?). We also meet an albino woman who would pay money to touch Patrick Swayze. Then there's a scene with Korine himself, drunk and hitting on a midget. In a junkyard, to bratty kids shoot Bunny Boy with BB guns and taunt him.
"Gummo" works part of the time, but the end result is a disappointment. You could fall asleep at any point during the movie, then wake up later and not miss a thing. I don't disapprove of it because it is shapeless, but because it adds up to nothing. It doesn't teach us anything. As a whole, it's not entertaining, enlightening, moving or fascinating. I'm not saying that poor, small-town residents are dull, but that Korine wrote them that way. What it all boils down to is this: Why do these characters deserve screen time? Why should I watch them? Do I need to see them? Korine doesn't answer, and that is why "Gummo" fails.