Stuck
Director: Stuart Gordon. Cast: Mena Suvari, Stephen Rea, Russell Hornsby, Rukiya Bernard, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Wayne Robson, Bunthivy Nou, R.D. Reid, Lionel Mark Smith, Suzanne Short, Patrick McKenna, Liam McNamara, John Dunsworth, Sharlene Royer. Screenplay: John Strysik (based on a screen story by Stuart Gordon).



Photo © 2007 Rigel Entertainment/Amicus Entertainment
Stuart Gordon's Stuck trumps even The Darjeeling Limited as the most prophetic title of the movie year so far, initially strutting around with a real, punchy amorality before bogging itself down into stalled, repetitive dramaturgy. The movie increasingly assumes the stance of a transfixed but inarticulate bystander to its own premise, rather than using that premise as an aperture into revelation of character, accumulation of suspense, or persuasive ethical reflection. The opening sequence, a long steadicam shot through a garishly lit nursing home, throbs with the first of several interpolated hip-hop tracks by DJ Honda—titled, naturally, "Get on Your Job"—thus tipping viewers off that even though Stuck was financed and filmed in Canada, this ain't Away from Her. This sequence soon finds American Beauty's Mena Suvari sporting dark cornrows and toting a tray of sick-looking jello as she smilingly administers to her patients. Despite her kind demeanor, the film obviously has darker thoughts in mind, and if the coiled rap and skulking camera weren't enough to signal a storm warning, even the quaaluded viewer will take note of the literally explosive title credit and the dispatch with which Suvari's nurse Brandi finds herself wiping up the nastiest pool of #2 incontinence in recent screen memory.

Nasty shit and the raw shock of having to clean it up is what Stuck is all about, and though subtlety of simile is never where director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) or screenwriter John Strysik set up shop, the movie barrels and bristles along through its first half-hour. Like the blazing first acts in one of Samuel Fuller's underbelly thrillers, like The Naked Kiss or Shock Corridor, Stuck draws potent energy and giddy overstatement from Suvari's germy and menial duties, from the scene where her smiling-piranha boss dangles a promotion in front of her to secure her "volunteering" for weekend labor, from the Ecstasy pills and alcohol that soon permeate the movie's system as well as her own, even from the low-fi cinematography with its steamy streets and tight orientation around faces and moving bodies. Meanwhile, the parallel montage patently forecasts a fateful encounter between, on the one hand, Brandi and her drug-dealing boyfriend Rashid (Russell Hornsby) and, on the other, middle-aged Tom (Stephen Rea), whose tense eviction from his apartment is itself interrupted by a violent, offscreen squabble upstairs, allowing him to abscond with a heap of his white-collar clothes before heading out into the nightscape of Providence, Rhode Island (actually Saint John, New Brunswick). In their last hours of leading separate lives, Tom and Brandi both narrowly avoid hitting or being hit by other cars on the road, which might read as an early symptom of Stuck's simplistic propensities if the movie weren't, at that point, absolutely thriving on the certain foreknowledge of its crisis and on a poetics of pure impact rather than an ethics of depth or an aesthetic of cleverness. The same principle redeems the episode where Tom, sadly ensconcing himself on a park bench for the evening, is approached by Sam (Lionel Mark Smith), a veteran and apparition of the foggy streets who rolls his clanking shopping cart in silhouette like the Ghost of Christmas Past. Smith's own powers of prediction ("I'll be seeing you again...") cannot be doubted, because Stuck has already shown itself to be the kind of movie where mystical street prophecies will be ratified by life, though the timing and nature of how Sam's vision comes true seems titillatingly up for grabs.

We don't have to wait long to find out. When Brandi, addled by narcotics and distracted by her cell phone, plows right into Tom as he crosses a seemingly empty street, the movie palpably clicks into place as the movie it wants to be, like a loaded barrel being snapped back into a gun. Soon enough, while two policemen who lack any peripheral vision whatsoever book old Sam for vagrancy, he espies Brandi's car careening through the streets with Tom's abdomen and legs still protruding from her windshield onto her front hood. The associated thrill for the audience is structural as well as visual: having already played the imminent card of a second exchange between Tom and Sam (albeit a one-sided one), the narrative horizon stands totally open. As one of Stuck's characters will shortly espouse, "Anybody can do anything to anyone at any time," and though he intends a moral as well as a practical pronouncement about The Way We Live Now, he also gives voice to the machinery of the script. Who will survive this grotesque incident? Who will intercede as savior, witness, accomplice, or undertaker? When, if at all, will Tom regain consciousness? When, if at all, will Brandi's Darwinian impulses to save herself and to doom her desecrated victim be countermanded by a higher moral calling? And why are the choreography of the accident itself and the relative proportion of Tom's headfirst penetration into the cab of Brandi's car so sloppily shot and carelessly edited?

Oops: one of those questions ain't like the others, but if the crash is in every way the catalyzing event in Stuck's plot as well as its thematic progress, the scene also marks the pivot where the disreputable but engaging crudeness of the film tips over into inadequacy and an ever-increasing sense of limitation. The first major episode following Brandi and Rashid's rendezvous at her house entails his assuring her that hit-and-runs happen all the time, and then the taking of more drugs, which Rashid paternalistically plants on Brandi's tongue, and then some spirited ugly-bumping. Beyond the overkill of talk in the first half of this sequence, the general slackening of the editing as well as the dubious protraction of the sexual interlude make clear that Stuck is advancing a moral position against Brandi (can you believe she Did It while Tom languished outside?) but that Stuck, unlike the best bad-conscience thrillers it resembles, privileges the shock value and salacious aftershocks of the factually-inspired story way out ahead of any sincere or finessed attempt to get inside it. One might imagine that Stuck could fruitfully lead to an intense power-play between the panicked, self-absolving, but clearly horrified Brandi and the barely conscious Tom, who has spent the whole day realizing just how quickly and fiercely the world can come crashing down upon him, or else just into him. Or, if Brandi's code-red pragmatism exceeds any feeble tugs of conscience but Tom's mobility and sagacity are also in excess of what we first expect, then this horrendous dilemma could yield a truly astonishing series of cat-and-mouse maneuvers. Can a mouse wriggle itself out from a trap in which it's already caught, or away from the cat circling in for the kill? Does an escaped mouse avenge itself on the cat or simply dodge for cover? Does an accidental punisher or a deliberate predator ever feel remorse, and what is the difference or the shelf-life of distinction between the two? Foiled once, can a predator be foiled again? And if Stuck commits to any of the social or political reverberations which its opening scenes and structural undertows appear to introduce, where will final authority reveal itself between the upwardly mobile wage-worker and (unless our early impressions deceived us) the recently shamed and newly desperate bourgeois? Will the body or the mind finally emerge as the vehicle of victory or the chute into misery?

By all of these reasonings and many more, the Roman Polanski Stuck, the Alfred Hitchcock Stuck, the Lina Wertmüller Stuck, the Jacques Audiard Stuck, the George Romero Stuck, the William Friedkin Stuck, the Takashi Miike Stuck, the Aki Kaurismäki Stuck, the David Cronenberg Stuck, and, yes, the Samuel Fuller Stuck are all invigorating prospects. Even the Alejandro González Iñárritu Stuck, despite unwelcome overlays of bathetic or hysteric emotion, the costly diffusion of narrative focus, and the belaboring of an idea into a banality, would have taken more stock of how Brandi's co-worker and best friend Tanya (Rukiya Bernard), and also that angel of prophecy Sam, and even the peremptory middle-managers in Brandi's care ward and Tom's employment office are all "stuck" in their own ways. Unfortunately, the Stuart Gordon Stuck, or at least this Stuart Gordon Stuck, dulls and restricts its narrative just when it should be probing its potentials or drawing out its implications. [And here the spoilers proliferate...] Brandi's most fascinating and horrifying act in the film is her cudgeling of Tom with a 2x4 to prevent him from waking up before she hatches a plan to save her own ass, but Gordon paces and shoots this episode to play up the evident putridity of her choice instead of tracking her thought process or its import as a narrative turn (much less its value as a spectacle for audience consumption). Once Brandi has left Tanya high and dry to cover for her at the nursing home and roused Rashid from a faithless liaison with a naked girl, whom Brandi assaults with a violence the filmmaking never accounts for, Stuck decomposes into a series of What should we do? / I dunno, what should we do? dialogues between Brandi and Rashid. The triteness and the high, hollow volume of their arguments are equalled by the gigantic hugeness of the missed screenwriting opportunity in refusing to draw Brandi, Rashid, and the conveniently unconscious Tom into a three-cornered conversation, where allegiances might have vacillated in response to any number of the quickly diminished tensions that the film initially raised. Instead, Strysik manipulates Tanya back into the action, only to turn her into a dummy and a red herring. "What happened to your car?" she asks, spying the enormous hole in the windshield and the runnels of blood all over the paint job; she parrots her own question, with little sign of suspicion or of graduated reflection, until the script finally allows her to leave (after evincing a notably minor level of resentment at Brandi's brazen discourtesy and evasiveness). And then it comes time for everyone to harm each other.

[Yup, still spoiling...] Stuck becomes the kind of bad movie where Rea drifts in and out of remembering that he has a compound fracture, where gasoline not only has an innate sense of dramatic timing (waiting for just the right moment to ignite, despite a proximate flame) but also a remarkable capacity for moral judgment (refusing to lick its way over from a Bad Person to a Better One, even though it pools amply and continuously between them). Surprisingly nervous about being an intimate chamber piece, and with none of, say, Red Eye's agility in sparking two characters in a flagrantly jerry-rigged scenario against one another, the movie keeps dissipating itself to accommodate supernumerary stereotypes who sidle up to the central action without effecting any real influence: first, a Latino family run by a tyrannical father and scared of deportation, and then a gay ninny who speaks coochie-coo to his perfectly groomed miniature dog. Compelled to entertain us with cheap laughs when it isn't inclined to stupefy us with protracted guignol, Stuck makes occasional good on its early promise of exploitative thrills; a sequence where Tom has to hoist himself off of a jagged windshield wiper to reach a cell-phone in Brandi's front seat is a corker. Still, especially from a director with a storied and creative legacy, Stuck evinces almost no obligation to the technical crafts of moviemaking or to the idea that high-concept plots should only be the crust surrounding a mantle of detail and resonance and a core of hot, durable inspiration. Plus, Mena Suvari, who also serves as an associate producer, is a major liability in her day job. She doesn't draw any meaningful connections between her affable cool at the care ward and the sadistic proclivities that leak out of her in so many scenes, and rather than heightening the character as Stuck continues, she tends to turtle herself inward in major scenes—hunching up her shoulders and contracting her small frame and voice into even smaller ones. Stuck is never so listless as to qualify as an actual stinker, but more so than many of the year's mediocrities, the mediocrity of Stuck stands frustratingly close to not just one but several superior versions of itself that might have been achieved with greater directorial conviction and writerly perception. Unlike Tom, grasping at that phone, the movie isn't willing to do the hard, painful work of reaching for what it needs—for what might keep the film alive, instead of allowing itself to sag and dehydrate, pinned in place when it's supposed to be popping with life. C


A Note on Creative Testimonies, with the Biggest Spoilers of All: When I saw Stuck, as part of the Chicago Film Festival, Gordon, Suvari, and Strysik all appeared for a follow-up Q&A. As per usual, the forum mostly existed to spur friendly adulation from the crowd, loosely packaged in the form of questions, and well-lubricated charm and gracious thanks from the filmmakers, loosely packaged in the form of reflections on their own work. Gordon and Strysik revealed that in the real-life Texas incident from which Stuck was derived, the victim actually died in the motorist's garage, as a result of her continued neglect, but that the movie revises that ending to suit their "fantasy scenario" and to show "what should have happened inside the garage," for which the audience vociferously applauded. Gordon also revealed that he was inspired to make the movie by an ever-darkening worldview that sees only base and terrorizing behavior all around him, not least in George W. Bush and other political leaders and their lemming followers, with their perpetual calls for vengeance and violence and their refusals of accountability in the face of the grotesque horrors they produce.

I dislike when any public figure, including a filmmaker, holds himself above the perceived coarsening of the world while also describing the extremely coarse ending of his film in terms of "fantasy" and with utter (in this case gratified) reliance that his audience shares both his tastes for grandiosely violent paybacks and for displacing that appetite onto abstract others like "government" and "society." I asked Gordon and Strysik, who said that he had drafted and revised the screenplay for many years (this screenplay?), whether they had ever entertained an ending where neither Brandi nor Tom had to die—which hardly necessitates a "happy" ending, since the idea of Brandis and Toms running loose in the world, especially after surviving traumas of this degree, is hardly a comforting thought. I extended my question to ask whether the evident bloodlust of the finale doesn't run afoul of Gordon's own professed contempt for gratuitous violence, and what it means that the "fantasy revision" depends on the kind of vicious annihilation meted out to Brandi, despite the film's nascent gestures toward representing her point of view. Strysik insisted that the survival of Tom was the "fantasy" he meant, not the killing of Brandi—but surely the film takes these two resolutions as utterly co-extensive, to say nothing of the preceding and gleefully nasty offing of Rashid. He also said that at least one version of the script had allowed both Brandi and Tom to live, but that no production company would get near it. I don't doubt this information, but I wonder whether the filmmakers really want to profess such high-minded superiority when they have clearly forced themselves to accommodate lowest-common-denominator pragmatics of the business. Gordon cut off the conversation by saying, "Come on, guys, it's just a movie!", a particularly galling bit of hypocrisy in an admittedly soft event when one considers who brought up Bush and the film's aspirations toward allegory in the first place. [/Soapbox]

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