The Dirties (2013)
written by Matthew Johnson and Matthew Miller
based on a story by Josh Boles
directed by Matthew Johnson
Two high school students, tired of being harassed by a group of bullies called The Dirties, decide to make a film (also called The Dirties) where they can fantasize about killing the thugs. Matt is the mastermind behind the project, an exuberant but annoying motormouth obsessed with cinema. Owen, quiet and introspective, goes along with Matt’s plans but secretly longs to be liked by the hot chick he’s had a crush on since grade school. They’re an instantly recognizable pair of geeks hoping to connect.
For the first half hour, The Dirties plays almost like a comedy. The guys put on costumes and reenact scenes from Pulp Fiction (1994) and Irréversible (2002). It’s awkward-funny to see them recording foley and convincing their teacher to act as a cop. But then the buddies show the movie in class with predictably disastrous results, the bullying intensifies, and Matt decides they should make a non-fiction sequel (also called The Dirties) where the tormentors really die. Okay, not funny anymore.
The Dirties has several tricks up its sleeve, not least of which is its movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie conceit. Matt (played by writer/director Matthew Johnson) turns out to be highly unstable. His whole identity, his whole persona, is based on pop culture; he’s a loner who has found refuge in movies, with Owen (Owen Williams) the only friend who will listen. Matt also serves as the film’s unreliable narrator, constantly talking to the unseen, silent people behind the cameras, in essence breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience. As he slowly exacts his revenge, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell reality from fiction. Is this really happening or is he the protagonist of a “movie” that’s only playing in his mind? Is Owen just a figment of Matt’s imagination? The answers are purposefully unclear, but most interesting of all is our inert role as spectators: Are we, and therefore society at large, somewhat complicit in looking at these events and not really doing anything about them? In the wake of every American school massacre from Columbine (which this film references) to Marjory Stoneman Douglas, it’s a valid, scary proposition.
The Dirties isn’t completely successful: Its ambiguity ends up lessening its impact. But I still appreciated its feverish postmodern approach. Many sequences were shot at an actual high school with real reactions from non-actors, and the bullying feels frighteningly authentic. A scene where Owen gets slapped around had me getting angry and frustrated. And watching Matt and Owen sit by a fire and discuss the names of the people they’d like to execute is heartbreaking. Perhaps this is where The Dirties ends up really hitting you in the gut: As a portrait of loneliness and despair where a violent fantasy can turn into a deadly reality.
Carlos I. Cuevas