Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Violent Kind (2010)

The Violent Kind, the Butcher Brothers’ follow up to their 2006 The Hamiltons, seems to have divided critics and fans alike; some see it as an original and highly unpredictable genre ‘mash up’ combining elements of the bike movie, Lovecraftian horror and alien invasion sci-fi. Others see it as a rambling incoherent mess that leaves viewers scratching their heads. I watched the film with limited knowledge of it, expecting a cross between The Sons of Anarchy and The Devils Rejects (which it is - and more). The Hamiltons was an incisive look at violence as inherent in the American family, which gradually morphed into a tale of vampirism. This led me to expect The Violent Kind to be a study of violence ingrained within the American psyche as engendered in popular culture by the Hells Angels movement. Having seen the film I still think that this is, at heart, what The Violent Kind is about, and the genre-bending in the movie makes sense, at least for me, when the film is read this way.

The film opens with a pre-credits sequence that establishes the bikers as the ‘violent kind’. Cody, the anti-hero and ‘deputy’ of The Crew, a second-generation Californian biker gang, is waiting with his cronies outside a house while their leader Q, finishes fucking his girlfriend (an act that climaxes with the girlfriend punching him full in the face). Two hicks pull up in their pick up, looking for Q, who is a drug-dealer. They have a beef with him, which is swiftly settled by violence, coldly meted out on the hicks by Q and Cody.  Afterwards, Q ensures that the hicks are safely returned to their truck so they can drive off. No hard feelings. Violence is clearly a way of life for this gang.

Later, the gang go to Cody’s mother’s old house in the woods to celebrate her 50th birthday in typical biker fashion. Here there are some soap opera elements typical of a biker movie. Cory’s ex-girlfriend, Michelle, has a new boyfriend. Cody is not happy, but gets talking to Michelle’s younger sister, Megan, who always liked him and wrote to him while he was in prison. There is also unresolved sexual tension between Cody and Shade, Q’s aforementioned girlfriend with the right hook. So far so Wild Angels. (I was also reminded of the PG rated biker gang in Mask) Cody is exactly the character that Jack Nicholson would have played in Roger Corman’s 1960s biker movies.

Then the film takes a turn towards genre shifting, as Michelle returns to the house, having previously left with her boyfriend, all beaten and bloody. She has been viciously attacked but we are not sure by whom or what. While the others go to investigate, one of the gang sexually assaults Michelle while she sleeps (further developing the violence/depravity theme) and she appears to respond to his advances, but then attacks him, biting into his face (a shocking scene of cannibalism reminiscent of Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day). It soon becomes clear that Michelle has become possessed but by whom or what it is not clear.  We seem to be moving into Evil Dead territory at this point.

However, the Butcher Brothers wrong-foot us again shortly afterwards by introducing a home invasion scenario as a bizarre retro-gang of rockabillies imprison Cody, Shade, Megan and Q. They claim to have come to retrieve ‘what is inside Michelle’ (and later perform a bizarre ceremony that is part demon invocation/part extraterrestrial encounter ala The Fourth Kind) for the most part however, their motives are to torture and torment the bikers.

This constant genre-shifting makes The Violent Kind either engrossing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. It may appear an arbitrary mix at first, but the setting of the film provides a unifying context. California, and particularly the San Francisco area and Sonoma Valley where The Violent Kind was filmed, has a history of cultism spanning the Hells Angels, the Manson Family and UFOlogy, all of which The Violent Kind references. The Californian counter-culture of the 1960s, which gave rise to the Haight-Ashbury hippy movement, also housed the Hells Angels (whose HQ was directly opposite the Grateful Dead’s pad in the Haight) and Charles Manson and alien abductions. The Violent Kind links these three areas of cultism as holding a particular cultural fascination in the American psyche because of their inherent violence.

The Manson murders still resonate today with Californians, who struggle to understand the reasons why they happened. San Francisco and Los Angeles are considered by the people who live in them to be liberal towns; Los Angeleans and San Fransciscans think of themselves as easy-going. The cultural firmament that gave rise to the Manson killings in the 1960s still troubles these modern Americans. This trauma is still being played out in films as recent as The Strangers and Mother’s Day. Interestingly,  The Violent Kind subverts the usual scenario, as the representatives of the dark counterculture (the bikers) are the victims in the story rather than the victimisers. Their attackers are ‘them’ in a sense but fifty years before: a biker gang from the 1950s who disappeared mysteriously years ago. That this 1950s gang should engage in the same violent behaviour as the modern bikers (using switch blades rather than sheaf knives) is befitting in terms of the film’s theme: violence is inherent in the American subculture – always has been, always will be. The fact that this 1950s gang has, in the film, been a victim of alien abduction/body invasion, is also telling in terms of UFOlogy, which, at its heart, is obsessed by violence done towards the human body by extraterrestrial beings: the notion of being ‘abducted’ for ‘human experiments’.

These themes are bound together by the central section of the film that present the possession scenario, in which an invading entity takes control of the body and compels it towards violence. The Violent Kind is ultimately presenting the American counterculture of the 1950s/60s/70s as possessed by a ‘force’ that leads it into violence. That force might be alien or it might be inherent, but it has become deeply ingrained in the American psyche, passed down through the generations, and is likely to explode again as it did in the late 1960s. The ending of The Violent Kind suggests that this violence may begin within the subculture but it eventually spills out into the American mainstream as it did in Kent State and at Altamont in 1970.

All in all, The Violent Kind is a worthy successor to The Hamiltons, amply fulfilling the promise of that film and building on its themes of violence as inherent in the American psyche.  I found it an intriguing and assured piece of work, and it set me wondering why The Butcher Brothers are not yet receiving the same critical attention that other directors such as Ti West and Bryan Bertino currently enjoy. 

1 comment:

Maynard Morrissey said...

Great write-up, Jon!
IMO way better than The Hamiltons, but still no masterpiece. Too much of a genre mish-mash. Tries too hard to be a unique and original over-the-top classic.