Whatever happened to films that were impolite enough to scare the hell out of their audiences? I’m talking about movies like Taxi Driver or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, movies that took you all the way inside the world of their characters, and in doing so wrapped their tentacles around you so tightly that you couldn’t breathe.
Our bland and prudish age has infected yet another promising film, Broken Vessels, and turned it into a big-screen episode of NBC Dateline. Like Leaving Las Vegas, it’s an exceedingly genteel descent into hell, one that is careful to never violate our boundaries although there is no other reason for it to exist.
Broken Vessels follows two ambulance drivers working the streets of Los Angeles. Tom (Jason London), a Pennsylvania farmboy, is the apparent innocent with a skeleton in his closet. (We can hear the bones rattling in the first scene. As it turns out, the reason he moved to L.A. is less backstory than landfill.) Jimmy (Todd Field) is that friend we’ve all had at some point in our life, the guy who speaks to our dark side so fluently that we’re literally willing to go to hell with him. Jimmy lures Tom farther and farther into – well, into what is apparently some kind of drugged-up sex-orgy scene that’s going on amongst Emergency Medical Technicians these days. The two guys begin by portentously drinking beer in a cemetery, and by the end we’re supposed to see it as indicative of how far gone they are when one of them pukes behind the couch and nobody cleans it up. The film focuses on the gradual reduction of their lives until, having exhausted all of its possibilities, it kills one of them off. (In real life, it would be the other character who’d die.)
It’s pretty depressing all right, but for all the wrong reasons. Broken Vessels could have been a decent movie – not a great one probably, but at least a decent one. You can sense it in the lived-in characters of Suzy, the guys’ speed-freak neighbor, and Gramps, a burnt-out wreck who lives only for the next drug handout his grandson can lay on him. And director Scott Ziehl had the right actors to play those characters (Susan Traylor and Patrick Cranshaw, respectively), and he couldn’t have asked for more from Field as the slick, friend-of-the-devil Jimmy.
But Broken Vessels is so weighted down by conventional morality and predictable storytelling that its virtues make for scant compensation. This is a movie that throws that old standby, the Nice Girl, into the mix. She’s so clearly Tom’s last chance at a healthy life that she ought to be swinging a lifesaver over her head like a lariat. Tom blows the relationship, of course, and in a stormy restaurant scene she confronts him with the Ugly Truth. "You’re on dope, aren’t you?" she cries. "I’ve seen this before!" Well, of course she has – in Reefer Madness.
The movie is more than willing to lean one thumb on the scale to make sure that the characters’ sexual activities seem equally "wrong." At one point, Jimmy exposes and then leers over an unconscious patient’s breasts, but the camera conveniently cuts away before the filmmakers have to decide whether or not he’s an actual rapist. Not only does this voyeuristic fetish (if that’s what it is) remain undeveloped, it’s not even consistent with everything else we know about Jimmy. It’s just a gaudy conceit that probably seemed shocking when Ziehl and his co-writers thought of it.
Broken Vessels was a favorite at many recent festivals, and it was a Best Foreign Film nominee for the British Independent Film Awards (it lost out to Boogie Nights). It’s also part of the lineup – along with My Dinner With Andre and Paris is Burning – in the Classically Independent Film Festival. But such fanfare only begs the question: What good is an independent cinema if its product is as compromised as the mainstream stuff?
– Tom Block