‘Bellflower’ is Long on Art, Short on Ultra-violence

South by Southwest favorite Bellflower finally made it to New Orleans this week. The movie’s description placed it well inside my sweet zone for films, so I made a point to go to one of its two screenings.  Overall I liked the film.  It had some beautiful and creative filming, the acting was solid—rare in an independent film—and the premise was both interesting and well executed.  I also, however, felt a little bit…oh, what’s the word I want here…underwhelmed by the level of violence which was not as “extreme” as the film’s descriptions implied.  Probably this says more about me than it does about the film, because there was violence, and it was devastating. 

Caveats and introduction out of the way, let’s talk about what I did like.

First of all, the premise.  Bellflower is kind of like American Psycho with rednecks.  Not like backwoods banjo rednecks but like all the guys I knew in my hometown: guys who rebuild engines to spec’s they were not meant to attain and engineer home-made flamethrowers, guys who get shitfaced on a regular basis because what else is there to do when you’re not rebuilding your car to have a dashboard whiskey dispenser, guys willing to punch or take a punch stoically if not with alacrity.  That kind of redneck.  The awesome kind.  Anyway.  Two friends are obsessed with Mad Max and spend their time working on building an apocalypse car (plus gear like aforementioned home-made flamethrower) so that if the world ends they will dominate early.  And in the meantime who doesn’t want to rig their car to eject flames out of back?!  One of them falls hard for a new girl, and their groups become entwined, until—as the chapter heading put it—“All Things Must End.”  I won’t spoil the surprise except to point out what should be obvious from the premise:  shit goes from bad to wrong.

One of the selling points of the first half of the film (the set-up to contextualize what happens later) is its mood of awkward humor and hope.  It’s amusing; not laugh out loud but chuckle funny, especially the interplay between the two friends and their building projects.  The budding romance is sweet and as true to life in terms of uncomfortable moments and that initial breathless plunge into fascination as I’ve seen.  The dialogue is not movie-slick but often halting, repetitive, and, again, realistic.

One of the selling points of the film in general is its filming.  The director does a lot with light and shadow, keeping some shots overexposed and almost painfully bright, making others hard to determine what is going on because the whole is swathed in shadow.  There is also an interesting camera technique . Along with the light effects, it several times also creates an effect similar to Blue Valentine and the rowing scene in The Social Network—that almost telescopic lens appearance, where the focal point is in sharp detail but everything outside that circle is in soft focus or even blurred.

The film is visually interesting throughout, and I would see what this director does next just to discover what else he has up his sleeve cinematically.  The scenes of violence are, again, not as graphic as I expected, and rely more on suggestion than explicitness.  The only reason it created a problem for me is that I expected more based on the way the film was described in press releases and promotional teasers.

The two main narrative techniques used come together at the end to create a really effective means of delivering this story, one with more punch than would have happened if it were told sequentially rather than its fractured manner.  I don’t think either is easy to pull off, and putting them together twice as tricky, so the storyboarding and scripting was really well done.

I will say, the film was not perfect.  I hit a point in the first half when I began to wonder if the film was going to go anywhere.  Looking back I think the opening might have gone on a bit too long, mostly because the ending was not quite big enough to balance it.  Coming out of the movie I enjoyed it, but I don’t know that it’s a movie I would revisit for the story (maybe for some of the filming).  And there was not nearly enough of their Mother Medusa car once they got it together!

On the whole, though, this is definitely a film worth watching if you like psychologically dark, revenge-bent movies…especially that have great artistic filming and badass cars.