What is a great movie? A great movie is a motion picture that sets out to do something new in its genre and not only achieves its goal but also manages to surpass your expectations and set a new benchmark in said genre. Following that definition, the Canadian indie film The Dirties is a truly great film and a near masterpiece.
Written, directed, edited and starring newbie filmmaker Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, The Dirties effortlessly mashes together dark comedy, social commentary, drama, bromance and Hollywood all with a distinctly meta flavor. The film takes on the risqué subject of gun control and school shootings in America and does it in a way you won’t believe until you see it. We’ve had films like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and We need to talk about Kevin, which were moving, shattering dramas, but The Dirties approaches the subject with a funny bone. This a comedy about two guys who plan a school shooting and making a film out of it. On paper making or watching a dark comedy such as this seems like a morally reprehensible act, and the fact that Johnson managed to pull it off in his bizarre comedic way is evidence of the film’s staggering achievement.
The Dirties won the Grand Jury trophy at this year’s Slamdance Film fest and it deserves a hell of a lot more than that. It’s a found footage film within a film within a film, and it becomes more and more arresting as it unfolds. Matt and Owen play themselves, or at least a younger version of their own selves - they’re high school kids, childhood friends and also crazed movie geeks obsessed with pop culture and filmmaking. Their school project, a harmless short film becomes a horror movie when Matt muses over how ‘real’, ‘awesome’ and ‘path breaking’ it will be if they actually shot a few people in their school and filmed it.
The entire film ends up as a found footage movie about these two trying to make a found footage film. If that isn’t meta enough, there is a scene in The Dirties where Matt and Owen’s film instructor forces them to make cuts in their profanity laden footage to make it PG-13, and Matt decides to actually kill some people. It’s a brilliant, cheeky stab at the Hollywood studio system which forces filmmakers to turn their art into commercialized populist balderdash. Another fascinating aspect of the film is that it brings out the dark side of Matt’s movie geekiness – he loves cinema so much and he’s so obsessed with movies he slowly begins to lose his grip on reality. In one of the best scenes in the film, Owen, by now clearly shocked by Matt’s increasingly bizarre behavior berates him for living his life as if being in a movie. It’s a moving, poignant scene that throws in a gauntlet or two towards filmmakers and writers lost in objectivity, and like the majority of the movie it’s never been done before.
The Dirties also really gets what movie buffs are about. Like any hardcore movie nerd Matt and Owen (in the film) consume movies like water – they make references to Irreversible, Being John Malkovich, Back to the future, Star Wars and dozens of other films in any casual conversation. Johnson also films these scenes without being ostentatious, thus giving a relatable vibe to them. He also very subtly nails the psychological aspect of it where Matt’s breakdown finally occurs and, instead of making pop culture references, he starts trying to become a pop culture icon.
Stuff like this wouldn’t have been possible without some excellent acting from the cast. In a found footage film one is constantly aware of either the genuine fakeness or the fake ingenuity of the film, but in The Dirties the acting is so good it fills the void between both scenarios and lets you accept the film for the way you want it to. If your first impression of The Dirties is of a meta film within a film, you’ll go along with the flow; if you think it’s just a movie shot with a handheld camera, you’ll still appreciate its style. I can’t think of a single found footage movie in recent times that managed to pull you away from its gimmicky technicality and let you keep your focus on the story.
With the Sandy Hook incident in the recent past and the pang of Columbine still ringing in the ears The Dirties does a tremendous job of rubbishing the perceived reasons for the incidents and establishing how society glosses over the true nature of youth psychology. Johnson makes it a point to muse that school shootouts are not as simplistic as a reaction to violence in movies. The media always digs out the recent past of the shooters without really delving into their lives and trying to understand what made them resort to such violent behavior, and The Dirties ends at the exact point where the media would start excavating. Little things like these make The Dirties a great movie and Johnson an astute observer and a giant talent, and I won’t be surprised if more and more movies in the future are made this way.
(First published in DNA)