Some may find it odd that I keep bringing up my irrational love for B-level entertainment, yet seldom mention low-budget independent cinema. After all, fringe indie flicks operate under the same type of budgetary restrictions I so often forgive in straight-to-video fair and, more to the point, provide fledgling filmmakers with an even greater level of creative freedom by virtue of not having disinterested studio heads remind them of their place in the Hollywood food chain. Therein perhaps lies the rub.
Consider 2012’s Gut, written, edited, and directed by Elias, whose first name I use here not because we’re best buds or anything but because it’s the only one the credits divulge. The movie follows childhood friends Tom (Jason Vail) and Dan (Nicholas Wilder) as they come across a series of mail-order videos in which an unseen killer slices open women’s abdomens and reaches inside. Each man becomes haunted by the snuff DVDs (or snuff BluRays for all I know) in his own way, and fascination soon turns to obsession followed by tragedy, as these things tend to go. A disinterested studio head might have mused, “We can compare it to 8MM on the back cover,” prompting the director to find more original themes to explore.
Without this unintentional guidance, Elias settles instead for the usual tale of human corruption, unaware we all found it a bit trite the first time around. In fairness, his take turns out more intimate than other treks down the psychosexual rabbit hole, focusing exclusively on the two leads and their parallel descents. In fact, every other character, which is to say every female character, feels like an empty accessory in their lives, especially Tom’s joyous little girl, Katie (Kaitlyn and Kirstianna Mueller), who keeps blurting out obnoxiously saccharine things for the sole purpose of reminding us she’s a joyous little girl: “Daddy stole my nose, but he always gives it back!” Katie didn’t need these artificial lines, and the movie didn’t need Katie.
I suspect Gut might have worked better as a short subject, given how padded it feels. A character can never just walk into a house. He’s got to drive there, park in front, stop the engine, step out of the car, lock the doors, walk to the front gate, jingle it open, take a few more steps, and then ring the doorbell. Similarly, every scene seems to linger a minute or two past its point, forcing the actors to stare aimlessly to the side, their minds wandering much like our own. Amusing trivia: Tom and Dan never finish their plate, opting instead to cut their respective sandwiches in two and leave a perfect half for the waitress (Angie Bullaro) to pick up. I know how nitpicky this reads, but such a detail might have gone unnoticed if the narrative had garnered a bit more momentum.
Mind you, there are advantages to Elias’ minimalist approach to film editing. For one, the long, static shots allow Jason Vail and Nicholas Wilder to showcase their acting chops uninterrupted. Neither is likely to win an award at this juncture in their careers, but I appreciate their ability to plow through an entire dialogue-heavy scene in one take, even if the whole thing does, to some degree, feel like community theatre. Ria Burns-Wilder also gives an amusing performance as Eve, the sassy new hire who takes over for our protagonists’ old waitress on the same day she goes missing. How did the punk know to apply for the job that very morning? We never find out.
In fact, that’s just one of the many questions left unanswered by the time the credits roll. Don’t expect any big revelation as to the killer’s identity or the origin of the videos. Gut trades in uncertainty, building a ninety-minute thriller around a single mystery that never pays off. I get what the filmmakers are going for. An abrupt conclusion can, in some cases, add resonance to a story, such as in No Country for Old Men (2007). However, that only works if the ambiguity serves as an affirmation in and of itself, not as a way to hint at depth without divulging any insight.
That’s, I think, the main difference between a B-movie and a fringe indie flick. The former aims, first and foremost, to entertain. The latter, on the other hand, usually tries to be profound (ain’t nothing wrong with that). Both can attain a certain level of genius if they manage to say something powerful in the process. However, because of these diverging goals, a shallow B-movie without a point can still thrill us on a visceral level, whereas an ambitious indie flick without a clear statement mostly feels like a missed opportunity.