film responses: Hostel 2 & Alpha Dog

I must be getting sensitive in my old age, but both these movies depressed me to the point where I had to drink a beer and take a long, recuperative nap.

Maybe it’s just the mood I’m in, but Eli Roth’s Hostel Part 2 disturbed me more than any other piece of filmmaking I’ve seen in quite awhile. The first half of the first Hostel bored me and I didn’t find much in the second half worth remembering either, other than when the Japanese girl threw herself in front of the train because she saw a reflection of herself with an eyeball hanging out of its socket. 

The second film of the franchise again pits American backpackers against absurdly caricatured Central and Eastern Europeans, the politics involved altered subtly by the fact that it’s Americans torturing Americans, who’ve won the privilege through a high-tech auction conducted on bidders’ cell phones and PDAs. Of course, only the American characters attain any sort of stature as characters, even though at the same time we’re supposed to feel superior to their naivety, and character flaws, and so by extension, at least partially identify with their torturers. 

For reasons that I don’t quite understand, but that I suspect have something to do with my feelings toward dumbass frat boys as opposed to more-or-less smarter, college-age women, it’s much harder to do this in this second installment. 

That’s really all you need to know about the honesty that director Roth brings to both projects. 

Hostel 2 is more impressive as cinema than its predecessor — the scenes at the Harvest Festival imbue one of Bratislava’s river islands with a wanton otherworldliness — but the movie really doesn’t come into its own until the torture begins. Geeky and sensitive Lorna, played by Heather Matarazzo (the little “ugly” girl from Welcome to the Dollhouse) is the first one to taste death. 

She’s hung upside down in chains and hauled over a large, candle-lit sunken bath — I kept being reminded of both Salo and Caligula, for some reason — where she’s cut and punctured and sliced open with a scythe. Her torturer is a woman, reclining nude below the writhing and screaming girl. She bathes in the blood of her victim, enraptured. 

Roth’s widescreen compositions are really beautiful throughout this sequence. The girl’s head and her chained feet are center-frame. There’s nothing oblique or coy about the way the torture is shot. We don’t see everything but we see enough, and Matarazzo’s performance, her anguished cries and screams and sobs, puts it over. 

The message seems to be: Torture is beautiful and moc sexy, or at least an ecstatic experience for both parties. I found it to be nearly unbearable.

Even the young Central European boys in my house, who usually hoot and holler whenever a female victim gets what’s coming to her, averted their eyes a few times. Close your eyes and just listen to the scene. It’s perhaps even more awful to experience that way.

Eventually, the smarter of the American girls escapes, facilitated by two clever plot twists involving an initially sympathetic torturer. I didn’t quite believe one of the reversals but at least it shows Roth was thinking about the possible motivations for such activities. 

The revenge reel shows the young woman literally castrating her attacker and therefore becoming a torturer herself. Although formulaic, it rhymes with a much earlier scene in the film, probably forgotten by most spectators, where a dick is almost shown, albeit in the context of a nude-figure drawing course. 

The coyness of that scene contrasts with the very graphic depiction of a soft, and big, cock getting ripped off and thrown to the dogs. Maybe that was the most depressing reminder of where in the moral universe we are during this film: A man’s penis can be looked at the longest only in the context of its being destroyed. It’s not to be admired or lusted after. A similar rule is enforced as the camera lingers on the voluptuousness of Lorna’s torturer, drenched in blood. And some people call pornography sick.

Alpha Dog depressed me more, partially because it’s based on a true story. It reminded me of Larry Clark’s Bully, in that both stories involve stupid teenagers headed down an inexorable road to murder. It’s the inevitability of both stories that I found offensive as filmmaking. There’s really no way to avoid being manipulated except to hit stop. 

Both films also indulge in quite a bit of homoeroticism, to what end I couldn’t tell. Of the two, I prefer Clark’s, although that’s really not much of a recommendation.

Nick Cassavetes‘ film does contain one remarkable scene. The film presents its denouement as a series of faux-documentary sequences in which some of the characters are interviewed in an attempt to discover to where Johnny Truelove, the gang leader/drug dealer who ordered the murder, has escaped. The character of his friend, who drove Truelove across the border, is played by Lukas Haas. The character of Truelove’s father is played by Bruce Willis, as it was for the preceding scenes in the movie. 

The character of Truelove’s mother, however, is not played by Sharon Stone, as it was throughout the film, but rather by a rather plump, aging bleached-blond woman with bad, bad skin who is not credited. A title identifies her as Olivia Mazursky, the name of the character. (The real name of the woman whose son was murdered was Susan Markowitz.) She comes completely undone talking about the murder of her son and reveals that she attempted to commit suicide three times, once in the hospital. If God has a purpose and a point to her life, he’d damn well better come down and explain it to her, she says. Then she bares her fake-looking, bright, white teeth and nearly cracks up, right before our eyes.

Everyone I’ve watched it with has assumed that it’s the real mother, not an actor. I haven’t been able to find any information about this on the web. No one has listed it as a continuity problem or piece of trivia on IMDB. Regardless, it’s the scariest performance in the movie – and it is a performance even if the woman is not an actor. When it’s all over, she asks the interviewer, “Was that okay?” Her despair feels ugly and real, despite the hysterical, hambone delivery; and that’s very California, isn’t it?

I don’t know what to make of it really. Whether or not that woman was the real Susan Markovitz, it seems clear we’re intended to think so. It’s a risky strategy in a movie that otherwise makes a lot of safe and tentative, if unpleasant, moves. Is it worth waiting for? I don’t know. I was tempted to rip the DVD, then isolate that sequence and post it to YouTube or something. So maybe it is worth watching the whole thing.

It’s possible that I didn’t even know who Justin Timberlake was at the time.

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