Release Date: October 4th, 2013 (US limited)
Starring: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams
His intentions are clear. Director Matt Johnson wants to create a film that tackles one of society’s most abhorrent problems, school shootings, in a way that is both original and impactful. He presents his piece as a documentary within a documentary; he and co-star Owen Williams’ first names mirror those of their respective characters; Johnson even looks to include elements of comedy, perhaps hoping that these moments will divert our attention away from more pressing matters just long enough for the film to cushion itself with added shock. None of it works. The Dirties severely lacks coherence, but that’s not the primary nuisance. Johnson and company probably don’t set out to be insensitive. Unfortunately, their film teeters unceremoniously along that edge.
A couple of high school mates decide to make a documentary about The Dirties, a group of bullies who terrorise their school. Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) bear the brunt of The Dirties’ abusive behaviour and, when their film is ridiculed in class, one of them resultantly gains a dangerous thirst for revenge. The other, though, becomes increasingly wary of and alienated by his friend’s behaviour.
There’s only one endgame here, and we know of it after five minutes. In truth, we’re fully aware before the film even starts. It doesn’t matter where Matt and Owen are — in class, at a secluded shooting range, around a bonfire — the only notion that consistently wears on our mind is gun violence. More specifically, gun violence in school. An at times imperiously weighty subject, school shootings have become one of humankind’s most despicable and perplexing habits. It’s a clichéd proclamation but, in an age when trolls linger all over the internet and online connectivity dominates our lives, school is supposed to be safest place for a child. There’s absolutely no getting away from the horrible concept, particularly when it’s regularly regurgitated on screen. The Dirties fails for that reason. The film takes something bluntly tragic and tries to be overly meta. Subsequently, plot holes appear quicker than a bee to honey, devouring any potential progress. There’s too much going on — are we supposed to take the film as just that, an overtly fictional piece based on true events, or is it attempting to be real life, paraded in a false documentary format?
Seemingly, Johnson endeavours to veil the piece as the latter. Shouldn’t it be a tad more serious then? Of course, its central topic is one riddled with sombre importance, but this is something The Dirties struggles to maintain. This absence of earnestness is down to how the film is presented, often flavoured by comedy and exotic normality. The cameraman — who we’re essentially meant to discard as a credible human being — follows Matt and Owen around persistently and becomes an agent of humour. At one point Matt passes over the popcorn in a scene that seeks to induce amusement but instead only serves to remind us of the film’s inconceivability and, therefore, crassness. When Johnson recalls the gravity of his material, he reverts to a gratuitous display of foreshadowing involving a Columbine book. We see this book more than once, its third appearance unsettling for all the wrong reasons.
Kevin Smith, whose production company was involved in the release, referred to this as “the most important movie you will see all year”. Smith owns and runs a comic book store in his spare time and his connection to The Dirties is apt given the film’s numerous movie buff references. I get a kick out of correctly identifying film trivia as much as the next nerd, but that sort of thing shouldn’t be on the menu here. By this point nobody really seems to care though: the filmmakers start adjusting rules to suit their own needs rather than those of the subject at hand. “Out of respect for the victims and their families, the footage has not been altered in any way,” reads a statement at the beginning. Numerous musical overlays suggest otherwise.
Having looked at it from a real life documentary perspective, let’s now consider The Dirties as a fictional account. Which it is, obviously. The screenplay is littered with inconsistencies, none more prevalent than our two main characters. Even though one of them eventually snaps, we never get into the nitty-gritty of his transformation. In reality, both boys relay fairly consistent characteristics throughout: quite cheery and upbeat despite the bullying. The biggest nonsense of all though, is the aforementioned cameraman’s role. (Or cameramen — it’s possible there are two males). Aside from getting away with always filming during classes, the operator(s) does absolutely nothing to prevent the inevitable atrocities. Devoid of explanation, this is completely unforgivable and lazy on the part of both Johnson and his co-writer Matthew Miller.
Besides, as simply a film, The Dirties is actually quite boring. For the most part the lives of our leading protagonists aren’t all that eventful. Interactions with girls turn out to be mellow rather than awkward, and they both get along amiably with the teachers at their school. Humorous injections reverberate out of rhythm too. There’s no air of disquieting callousness — the subject matter itself is intrinsically worrisome, but the way it’s communicated isn’t.
The Dirties tries too hard to be different when all its topic of debate warrants is precision. In the end, our feelings on school gun violence are exactly the same as they were when the runtime set off: shootings are horrifying and deeply unsettling. Our feelings on overly ambitious pseudo-documentaries shaped flimsily around said hard-hitting matter? In sharp decline.
Though there are better, more thought-provoking films out there, it is worth commending Matt Johnson for his willingness to engage in such a polarising and difficult issue, particularly given this is his first jab at directing.
Images copyright (©): Phase 4 Films