During the 2017 SXSW Film Festival, I had the opportunity to check out several movies on the fringe of the horror genre, including M.F.A., Assholes, and Two Pigeons, and you can read my thoughts on all three films right here:
M.F.A.: An uncomfortable and devastating exploration of the trauma that comes from rape and sexual violence, Natalie Leite’s M.F.A. punched a hole right through my soul. While rape is certainly an upsetting topic for most, writer Leah McKendrick’s approach to how the film’s protagonist, Noelle (the amazing Francesca Eastwood), handles her ordeal becomes something of a cinematic anthem of empowerment once the young woman takes matters into her own hands.
In M.F.A., we meet Noelle, who is completing the grad student program in Fine Arts, but she can’t seem to break past her own sense of mediocrity when it comes to creating her art. Perfectly content to live within her own little bubble with her bestie, Skye (McKendrick), Noelle finally ventures out to hang with a fellow art major whom she has a crush on, but then tragedy strikes when her suitor takes things too far, raping Noelle in his bedroom while his shindig rages on.
Thinking her college will surely take action, Noelle reaches out for help, only for her cries to fall on deaf ears. Once she realizes she’s not the only female student who has been left feeling helpless after such an atrocious act, Noelle transforms herself into a vigilante, preying upon various rapists who have gotten away with their unforgivably vicious actions, her vengeance-filled path becoming an awakening for the budding artist.
When tackling the subject of rape, filmmakers can walk a tightrope between exploitation or totally misunderstand the complexities that surround the vile act, but both Leite and McKendrick’s script take a thought-provoking route that isn’t afraid to ask tough questions, forcing viewers to contemplate a variety of issues that they maybe hadn’t given much thought to before. M.F.A. is driven by Eastwood’s powerhouse performance that’s unapologetically bold and unceasingly engaging as the two versions of Noelle: the shy, unsure artist who doesn’t fit in amongst her peers, and the retaliatory predator who’s not afraid to get a little blood on her hands in the name of private justice.
While it may not be a “feel good” experience by any means, M.F.A. is a genuinely necessary film that takes on an important issue and explores the many-faceted emotions and responses to rape with a great sense of nuance and emotional centeredness. Anchored by a career-making performance by Eastwood, M.F.A. shook me to my core in a way that I wasn’t expecting, and I expect great things from the actress in the future.
Movie Score: 4/5
Assholes: The one thing I can say about Assholes with any kind of certainty is that it absolutely lives up to its name. I’m all for weird, gross-out, experimental comedy as much as the next person (for example, I fell head over heels for last year’s The Greasy Strangler), but Assholes just pushed me to my absolute limits as a viewer.
The film starts with a four-and-a-half minute diatribe from Adah (Betsey Brown), as she unloads her contempt for her brother, Adam (Peter Vack) onto her analyst during a therapy session. Adam is friends with Aaron (Jack Dunphy), a struggling playwright who is also seeing the same therapist as Adah, and when they discover their therapeutic connection, the pair decide to hook up, start dating, get married, and eventually start a family—all while getting hooked on poppers and eventually turning into actual assholes as they run through the streets of New York City.
And yes, you did read that last part right. We spend the last 20 minutes or so of the film watching both Adah and Aaron with very unique prosthetics covering their faces, transforming them into the movie’s title. And the final moments of Assholes? It plays out while cast members are seated on toilets. There’s certainly not a lot of subtlety going on here, that’s for sure.
Eileen Dietz (whom horror fans know from her work on The Exorcist) plays Mephistopheles, a demon birthed from Adah’s butt at one point, and I have to admit that “Mephy” (as she is nicknamed) ended up being something of a bright spot for me throughout the film’s entire runtime. That being said, I can’t help but admire Vack’s audacity in making Assholes, even if it wasn’t a film I particularly enjoyed. There’s always something to be said for directors who take risks, and Assholes is about as risky and experimental as they come.
Movie Score: 1.5/5
Two Pigeons: A slick real estate agent named Hussein (Mim Shaikh) screws over the wrong guy in Two Pigeons when one of his victims (Javier Botet) moves into his apartment, hiding away in a secret compartment inside the closet to wreak havoc through some extreme efforts. When Hussein goes to work each day, that’s when Orlan comes out to play, and we see the various ways he inflicts his wrath on the man who caused him such misery. He messes with his toiletries, he sneaks food, and Orlan also uses Hussein’s linens and toothbrush to tend to his “nether regions” (and then places them back for the unsuspecting host to use the next day as he gets ready for work). Two Pigeons is literally any germaphobe’s worst nightmare.
Orlan’s tactics get even more aggressive when Hussein’s girlfriend, Mel (Mandeep Dhillon), comes to live with him, as he begins to drive a wedge between them with his disgusting and harmful shenanigans. And as the domestic stowaway’s tactics take their toll on Hussein, both mentally and physically, he begins to question whether or not he has a ghost living with him, or if he just happens to have the worst luck ever.
Botet’s incredible physicality is put on full display in Two Pigeons, and I thought it was great that the man behind so many nightmarish creatures (Mama in Mama, The Crooked Man in The Conjuring 2, and the demonic force Myrtu in The Other Side of the Door, to name a few) gets the lion’s share of the screen time to play this wonderfully complicated character that you empathize with, while also recognizing that his dangerous fixation on getting even with Hussein causes him to act out in some rather cringeworthy ways.
The film’s title becomes a metaphor for Orlan’s pain, as we learn his backstory while he recounts his tragic tale to a pair of pigeons who happen to hang out on Hussein’s windowsill every now and again. Co-writer/director Dominic Bridge’s pitch-black comedy effectively crawls under your skin, but its lack of any sort of cohesive resolution makes Two Pigeons something of a befuddling affair in the end (which is a shame, because I was wholly transfixed throughout the rest of the film). We get no sense of finality in the conflict between Hussein and his sadistic antagonist, leaving me with a bit of a “ho-hum” feeling at the conclusion of Two Pigeons.
Movie Score: 2.5/5
Stay tuned to Daily Dead for more of our SXSW features, and in case you missed it, check out our other coverage of the film festival.