Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
2015 Tribeca Film Festival Line-Up Announced: James Franco’s ‘Adderall Diaries,’ Olivia Wilde In ‘Meadowland’ & More 2015 Tribeca Film Festival Line-Up Announced: James Franco’s ‘Adderall Diaries,’ Olivia Wilde In ‘Meadowland’ & More First Look: Joseph Gordon-Levitt As Edward Snowden In Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' First Look: Joseph Gordon-Levitt As Edward Snowden In Oliver Stone's 'Snowden' Drew Goddard To Write And Direct Sony & Marvel's 'The Spectacular Spider-Man'; 'Sinister Six' Scrapped Drew Goddard To Write And Direct Sony & Marvel's 'The Spectacular Spider-Man'; 'Sinister Six' Scrapped Premature Oscar Predictions: The 2016 Best Picture Contenders Premature Oscar Predictions: The 2016 Best Picture Contenders Watch: Original Short Film Version Of 'Whiplash' Starring Oscar Winner J.K. Simmons Watch: Original Short Film Version Of 'Whiplash' Starring Oscar Winner J.K. Simmons Watch: Nifty Video Examines David Fincher’s Subtle Repetition Of Framing And Blocking In 'Gone Girl' Watch: Nifty Video Examines David Fincher’s Subtle Repetition Of Framing And Blocking In 'Gone Girl' Sigourney Weaver Says She'll Be Playing A New Character In The 'Avatar' Sequels Sigourney Weaver Says She'll Be Playing A New Character In The 'Avatar' Sequels Margot Robbie Says 'Suicide Squad' Is More 'The Dark Knight' Than 'Avengers'; David Ayer Says Joker Is "Majestic" Margot Robbie Says 'Suicide Squad' Is More 'The Dark Knight' Than 'Avengers'; David Ayer Says Joker Is "Majestic" Kristen Stewart Joins Kelly Reichardt’s Untitled Montana Drama With Michelle Williams & More Kristen Stewart Joins Kelly Reichardt’s Untitled Montana Drama With Michelle Williams & More Watch: Paul Thomas Anderson's Sophomore Short 'Cigarettes & Coffee' Watch: Paul Thomas Anderson's Sophomore Short 'Cigarettes & Coffee' Another Oscar? First Look At Eddie Redmayne In Tom Hooper's 'The Danish Girl' Another Oscar? First Look At Eddie Redmayne In Tom Hooper's 'The Danish Girl' 'Prisoners' & 'Enemy' Director Denis Villeneuve To Helm 'Blade Runner' Sequel, Harrison Ford Confirmed To Return 'Prisoners' & 'Enemy' Director Denis Villeneuve To Helm 'Blade Runner' Sequel, Harrison Ford Confirmed To Return The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far The 50 Best Films Of The Decade So Far "I F*cked It Up": Neill Blomkamp Says He Wants To Go Back To 'Elysium' And "Do It Correctly" "I F*cked It Up": Neill Blomkamp Says He Wants To Go Back To 'Elysium' And "Do It Correctly" New Looks At Daniel Craig, Dave Bautista, And Lea Seydoux In 'Spectre' New Looks At Daniel Craig, Dave Bautista, And Lea Seydoux In 'Spectre' The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen The 25 Best Films Of 2015 We've Already Seen Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 Best Of 2014: The 15 Best Movie Soundtracks Of 2014 The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki

Review: Found Footage School Shooting Film 'The Dirties' Takes Aim And Misses

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist October 3, 2013 at 6:33PM

The found footage conceit, like 3D, has been mostly used as a gimmick to enhance the realism of a particular genre (mostly genre fare like horror flicks or teen comedies). The spookiness of, say, a haunted house, is amplified by the gritty, handheld textures that the format provides, offering an effective, low budget alternative to the kind of glossy Hollywood aesthetic. With "The Dirties," a new film that essentially attempts to be the "Scream" of school shooting movies, its filmmakers have tried to use the genre to get inside the head of a pair of budding psychopaths and comment on the way culture corrupts you. Or something.
7
The Dirties

The found footage conceit, like 3D, has been mostly used as a gimmick to enhance the realism of a particular genre (mostly genre fare like horror flicks or teen comedies). The spookiness of, say, a haunted house, is amplified by the gritty, handheld textures that the format provides, offering an effective, low budget alternative to the kind of glossy Hollywood aesthetic. With "The Dirties," a new film that essentially attempts to be the "Scream" of school shooting movies, its filmmakers have tried to use the genre to get inside the head of a pair of budding psychopaths and comment on the way culture corrupts you. Or something.

The Dirties

As the movie begins, we're introduced to Matt (director/co-writer Matthew Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams), two kids that are filming a movie for a school project called "The Dirties." Their movie is named for a gang of bullies that routinely beats up the pair, but for some reason their project features them playing cops who infiltrate a high school and is stocked with moments the teens have stolen from other movies (such as "Trainspotting" and "The Usual Suspects"). When they screen an early cut of the movie for a sympathetic teacher, you can't help but be taken aback, not by the violent, profanity-strewn content, but by the flabbergasting lack of creativity.

Somewhat dejected (unsurprisingly, a movie made about the bullies in their school intensifies them getting picked on), the pair begin to plan something far darker: an actual school shooting. Even as things become more ominous, the film maintains its jokey, you-are-there conceit, which sometimes makes things even more dreadful (quoting "The Royal Tenenbaums" while plotting a mass murder is pretty eerie).

The Dirties
Stephanie Luong

As the possibility of danger increases, so does the movie's own meta-textuality. At one point Matt, who is clearly more interested in "only killing the bad guys," reads from Dave Cullen's definitive account of the "Columbine" massacre. Reading a passage about what it means to be a psychopath, he asks aloud to Owen, "Does this sound like me?" These are kids absorbed by popular culture, with many scenes set in a kind of media-based rumpus room at Matt's house, the walls lined with comic books, movie posters, and Magic cards, with a sophisticated editing bay tucked in the corner.

But it's these lofty sociopolitical implications that get the movie in trouble. What, exactly, is it trying to say about the effects of popular culture on a young mind? Owen certainly seems warped but is far from the homicidal killer that Matt is. And yet he seems to enjoy, with the same amount of brio, similar pop culture indulgences. "The Dirties" only examines these kids through their love affair with movies, with almost nothing paid to their home life (although, from the looks of Matt's home, he at the very least seems financially secure). It seems something of a disservice to ground their personalities so heavily in pop culture while giving little attention to anything else, like the pundits who, post-Columbine, blamed violent video games and "The Matrix" for the tragedy.

The Dirties

One of the fundamental problems that has dogged the found footage genre is that the reason for someone being there and filming everything is rarely, if ever, reasonably explained. Why, for instance, during a cataclysmic event like the ones that unfold in "Cloverfield," would some yutz still be taking video? ("Paranormal Activity," at least initially, smartly addressed this as a series of home security cameras.) Not only is this never addressed during "The Dirties," but some of the angles and point-of-views seem, if not implausible, downright impossible. Also, there are moments when Matt addresses the unseen cameraman, who we never meet and who doesn't seem to have a personality or voice. In a way, this nebulously defined phantom is just as implicit in the eventual shooting (and, yes, it does happen, quite disturbingly) as the two leads. You'd think, at some point, the cameraman would have stopped to say something, or maybe turned the footage over to the police.

The unseen cameraman is a very glaring example of how muddled "The Dirties" is. Why, exactly, the movie has taken on the found footage format is just as unclear as what it's trying to say about popular culture and youth. If there was some explicit point it was trying to make, that point is lost, amongst shaky handheld camerawork and iffy audio. Why, exactly, the movie ends where it does (and who is supposed to have edited the movie together) are also elements that the filmmakers probably hoped would tantalize and incite discussion but really they just annoy and perplex.

The Dirties

Which isn't to say that "The Dirties" doesn't work completely. Because the movie still does possess a strange kind of power, even if it doesn't know what to do with it. Oftentimes the self-referential rabbit hole goes impressively deep, like a moment when one of the characters wears a T-shirt, adorned with the silhouette of a bull, that was also seen in Gus Van Sant's Cannes-winning school shooting drama "Elephant." And the film does create occasional moments of genuine dread, as we watch these kids descend into darkness, especially since the film is coming out so close to the Sandy Hook tragedy of last year. Even though a handful of films have been made about the subject, school shootings remain a topic that is electrifyingly taboo, even if the movies themselves don't carry the same voltage.

Ultimately, it's hard to recommend "The Dirties" as anything more than an attempt at saying something about the way that school shootings can be born from a mix of social pressure and cultural influence, it's just that the message, like the filmmaking, seems fuzzy and unfocused. This could have been a great film, and even in its limp final state is oddly effective, but it's no where near the movie that it wants to be, or thinks it is. Maybe the found footage aesthetic should be exclusively employed for scary stories and movies where teens become superheroes. [C-]

This article is related to: The Dirties , Reviews, Review


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


Check out Indiewire on LockerDome on LockerDome

E-Mail Updates