Somebody needs to cut Roger Avary a fat check to write and direct his next feature film. While he has not succesfully made as many films, he's right along side Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, specifically in the "filmakers who desperately need (and deserve) a wealthy sponsor" category. I also feel he's every bit as talented and has as singular a voice as his generational contemporaries David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky.He has thus far had only two theatrically released films as an auteur (he has written or co-written scripts for Silent Hill and Beowulf but obviously hasn't earned enough to finance his own new film). The first was 1994's Killing Zoe, which came about between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction when Tarantino's long time producer Lawrence Bender had access to a cheap bank location and asked his friend Avary if he had a script they could use to film something fast and cheap. Roger took a script he had been writing about his travels throughout Europe (he drew upon these experiences again for the amazing "Victor" section of Rules of Attraction which has also been shown as a stand alone short film called "Glitterati") and incorporated a bank robbery in Paris. The resulting film was very well received on the festival circuit (including the Prix Tres Special award at Cannes the exact same year Pulp Fiction won the Palm d'Oor). I will stop this from becoming even longer by saving an in depth look at Killing Zoe for another day but it is an outstanding and thoroughly bizarre heist film.
So yeah, I got hip to Roger Avary some 14 years ago through his work with Tarantino. They were old friends from Tarantino's video store clerk days and partnered up on several scripts (including the Tarantino scripted/Tony Scott directed True Romance and Tarantino scripted/Oliver Stone directed Natural Born Killers which both featured key re-writes from Avery). Ultimately, a script Avery was writing for a full length feature film, along with several unused scenes he had written for the True Romance script became a large chunk of Pulp Fiction (The Gold Watch section in particular and some key moments like the "divine intervention" scenes that had bullets miraculously missing Jules and Vincent and the accidental shooting of Marvin) for which he shared 1994's Best Original Screenplay Academy Award with QT. After Killing Zoe, it would not be until 2002 that he would get to helm another passion project, an adaptation of his artistic "soul mate" Brett Easton Ellis' novel, "The Rules of Attraction". I had read and loved the book years earlier. Ellis, the author of Less Than Zero, The Informers and most famously American Psycho (all made into movies with varying degrees of success) takes an extremely nihilistic view of the world and somehow manages to infuse it with enough sincere heart and longing to get through to good natured but damaged souls like you and me.
Rules of Attraction is a very emotionally complex film. On the surface though, it's a dark comedy, it is a college sex film of sorts and it is full of self centered, entitled, rich white kids with problems. In short, not an easy topic to make a weighty film from. Avery tackles the material though with verbal flair, extreme visual cleverness and absolutely brilliant soundtrack choices. None of the characters here are entirely sympathetic. Sweet and sincere Paul Denton is arguably the most human of the bunch. Paul (as played by Ian Somerhalder who many of you will recognize as the deceased Boone character from the early seasons of LOST) along with Sean Bateman (an excellent demented turn from James Van Der Beek, obviously desperate to shed his teen idol image and be taken seriously) and Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon), a dark beauty who has been tragically underused in dreck like One Missed Call and 40 Days and 40 Nights) form the central character trifecta that gives the film it's momentum.
We meet Lauren first, at the first of several crucial party scenes (including one in the middle of the film which features what appears to be an exact replica of the burning Wicker Man from the 70's film of the same name, itself a wonderfully demented, funny and wholly original take on the battle of the sexes). Rules of Attraction is bookended by this winter season "End of the World" party. The movie puts you off within the first 5 minutes as we watch this sad young lady emerging from a passed out drunken stupor and realizing that she's being filmed by a semi-acquaintance while being sodomized by a complete stranger, neither of whom realize she's losing her carefully guarded virginity. The gentleman pumping away pukes on her back (classy!) before the film starts literally rolling backwards, rewinding the story along with it. Avery's camera moves, in the first of many complex and brilliant tracking shots, down the hallway and down the stairs to introduce us to the demonic looking Sean (Van Der Beek) who swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniels and scans the crowd like a vulture looking for the evenings plaything. Bateman is established immediately as an emotionally vacant young man and a compulsive liar (it's no coincidence as we learn in a few subtle moments that he's the brother of Patrick Bateman, the inhuman sadist and Huey Lewis superfan from Ellis's American Psycho). We finally circle back (through another time warp reverse sequence) to Paul, who is in love with Sean. We then rewind much further, over several months and seasons, to the beginning of the school year.
In addition to the numerous examples of deliberate emotional manipulation and callous abuse that these characters inflict on each other, there are also many cases of mistaken identity and misunderstood "signals". The crucial one involves the sending of perfume laden love letters that Sean Bateman receives daily and which inspire him, for the first time it seems, to seek out a loving relationship instead of the debaucherous excesses that have numbed him to the point where sex is not even physically enjoyable anymore. These characters, for all their faults, truly put their hearts on the line with devastating results. As painful as the painful moments are though, this film has light and love and humor throughout as well. It is a brilliant satire (big surprise from the writer of American Psycho who again uses the decadent 1980's as the backdrop with which he weaves his yarn) and I also feel like there are probably some deeper themes that I haven't quite wrapped my head around yet. This film affects me very strongly on an emotional level of course but I feel like intellectually, there may be things going on that I haven't picked up on and interpreted as the filmaker and writer intended. That's okay though, great art, in my experience is subjective to the viewer. Everything is meaningless and yet so stuffed with passion. Everyone is cynical and yet wear their hearts on their sleeves.
I want to make special mention of a moment where cinematic technique and dynamic interpersonal chemistry meet. I've long admired the complicated tracking shots of Orson Welles (Touch of Evil), Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas famous Copa Cabana entrance amongst others), Robert Altman (the Welles referencing opening minutes of The Player) and of course Brian DePalma (who loves tracking shots almost as much as the split screen including the amazing sequence in Raising Cain where we follow two police detectives out of an office, down a hall, into an elevator, ouf the elevator, down a series of halls and into a morgue). The one in Rules of Attraction is easily my favorite of any of them. It starts as a split screen sequence that follows Van Der Beek and Sossaman in two seperate tracking shots as they get moving early on a Saturday morning, each navigating the beautiful sun drenched campus, Sossaman even stops to smoke a joint with her lecherous professor (an excellent cameo from Eric Stoltz who partnered with Avery as the lead in Killing Zoe and memorably played the heroin dealer in Pulp Fiction, a sequence Tarantino reportedly wrote for Stoltz based on his heroin fueled sequences in Zoe). We hear Sossamon tell her roomate that she's going to class but we don't know where Van Der Beek's headed, until each character suddenly appears in the others split screen in close up. We watch both faces as they meet cute, flirt and put butterflies in your stomach with the prospect of sweet young love. The camera pulls back and pivots until the shots join together as one and we observe them, in profile staring at each other. I mentioned a moment like this in my Sydney/Hard Eight write-up and mentioned in that same piece how well Paul Thomas Anderson had captured that falling in love magic in Punch Drunk Love; this is one of those moments as well. It's a bright ray of sunshine in a tragic story and the technically stunning aspects of it are dwarfed by the potency of its emotional impact. Ripe with visual metaphor, these two lonely souls connect...for a moment anyway.
Eric Stoltz' Irish professor is just one part of the eccentric tapestry of character actors who are familiar to us; Thomas Ian Nichols from American Pie, Clifton Collins Jr. (a bit over the top here as a wild eyed drug dealer seemingly inserted for comic relief, he has done great work in films like Capote where he played the vulnerable and psychotic Perry Smith and delightfully obnoxious work in a little B-movie classic from my high school days called The Stoned Age), we get Faye Dunaway as Paul's mom and Swoosie Kurtz (Citizen Ruth and Cruel Intentions among many others) as Mrs. Jared, the mother of young Richard, who has a brief energetic, George Michael and booze fueled tryst with Paul. We even get an almost unrecognizeable Fred Savage, strung out in a pair of boxer shorts, shooting drugs into his toes and playing the clarinet while a lit cigarette sticks out of his belly button. The Wonder Years indeed Mr. Savage!
I don't reaelly want to give away the plot twists in the movie but I can tell you that it is far from formulaic. Like The Shape of Things, I feel like this film missed it's audience because of it's marketing strategy. It was sold in 30 second TV spots as a college movie comedy (I was VERY distrubed to actually find it recently listed in the "Top 25 college comedies of all time") with the hearthrob from Dawson's Creek and young starlets Kate Bosworth and Jesica Biel. So, the people who did go to see it were probably horrified at the raw nerve vulnerability and pain at it's core or just didn't get it or are so much like these characters that they somehow viewed this film as a college comedy on par with Old School or PCU. I will also tell you that I can never hear the already tragic "I Can't Live (If Living Is Without You)" song without thinking about the saddest moment in the movie (in almost any movie for that matter).
Things don't end well for anyone involved except for you the viewer, who, if you can stomach the movie, will walk away profoundly impacted by what you've just seen. Again, I can't stress enough how much I love this film and think it's an absolute masterpiece but I'd also be irresponsible to not tell you that it packs a punch. Much like Arronofsky's magnificent Requiem for a Dream or my previous spotlight film Elephant, The Rules of Attraction will cut through the fog and break your heart because of how effectively the elements of performance, music, writing and directing gel together. Rules of Attraction gets an A+ from me and I hope that the coming decade yields at least one more new vision from the tragically underutilized genius Roger Avary.