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Brutal (2012)

I'll Know It When I See It (Maybe)

Watching the first half of writer/co-director/star Michael Patrick Stevens' debut film, Brutal, I found that I shared a lot in common with its most important character: we were both bound to a chair, forced to endure unspeakable, repetitive, and seemingly endless amounts of torture.

The movie is named after Stevens' character, a large, masked psychopath who uses a cheaply made roulette wheel to determine which agonies his hostage, Carl (A. Michael Baldwin), will suffer next. After twenty minutes of extremely convincing fingernail-pulling, gasoline dousing, and sander-to-the-kneecaps action, I wondered if I could survive another hour-plus--and if I'd maybe gotten too old for torture porn.

Before watching Brutal, I'd considered "torture porn" to be an exaggeration, an easy phrase dreamt up by concerned-parents groups to write off the Saw and Hostel movies. Any honest person who takes the time to watch them should be able to distinguish between the Lady Bathory scene from Hostel 2 and, say, George Clooney's interrogation in Syriana: one is over-the-top horror that's not easily accomplished by average people; one is fetishistic in its intimacy, and simple enough to pull off with a rope, pliers, and an off-kilter brain.

Neither qualifies as torture porn, though, because they A) serve their respective films' stories and B) come and go quickly enough that no viewer could assume the overall intent is to showcase mutilation exclusively. Stevens pushes through that gray area, front-loading his movie nothing but graphic misery and sadness. It made me sick and depressed, and I wanted nothing more than to turn it the hell off.

Having said all that, I can't recommend this film enough.

Explaining why necessitates heading deep into spoiler country. The movie will have a limited DVD run in September, and may pop up at some festivals--so you're either going to have to trust me on this, or decide that you don't care either way and keep reading. If you have the stomach and the patience for it, I suggest watching Brutal and then checking back in for my thoughts on one of the most impressive debuts I've ever seen.

Besides a flashback montage and some police station cut-aways, the entire movie takes place in a basement. Carl wakes up handcuffed to a chair, with a sack over his head. Minutes later, he's joined by Richard "Brutal" Lachman, who tortures him almost wordlessly for forty minutes; as the roulette wheel spun by each avenue of pain, my stomach sank at the prospect of having to watch more household items do despicable things. I had the same reaction to one of Martyrs' closing scenes, in which a girl is beaten for days on end, which amounts to what must have been five or ten minutes of screen time; both films stretched the limits of my "No Walking Out" policy.

The first half's saving grace is the mood that Stevens sets through repetition. Brutal doesn't take joy in anything he does, as if he's a good man called to do God's dirty work; we know from some opening-scene surveillance footage that he's been following Carl for awhile, but it's unclear what he did to warrant this degree of punishment.

Things get very interesting very quickly when Brutal's mother (Marvella McPartland) shows up. She drops in just after her son leaves to (he claims) rape and murder Carl's family. Horrified by what she finds in the basement, she tries to free this bloody, practically immobile man. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as we'll soon discover), Brutal returns early and helps Mom get a good look at the guy she's just unchained. On a dime, she morphs from Samaritan to angel of vengeance, pounding away on Carl's chest and cursing him.

Clearly, Brutal's whole family has something personal against Carl. Having seen many of these kinds of movies, I figured Carl must have been a drunk driver who ran ran over Brutal's daughter or something, and was either released from prison early or got off completely. Still, taking a power saw to someone's face seems a bit extreme for a tragic moment of impaired judgment.

Soon, Brutal reveals the truth about Carl, a secret so shocking and weird that I'm still mulling it over. Seriously, if you plan to watch this movie, now's your last chance to look away.

As it turns out, Carl murdered Brutals' sixteen-year-old daughter, Lisa (Annie Molnar). He didn't just kill her, though, he tied her up in his basement and tortured her relentlessly. He went to prison for awhile, but got out, I believe, on good behavior. Back home with his wife and two young kids, Carl resumed a life of normalcy while Brutal's fell apart. Grief-stricken beyond return, his wife, Maggie, (Jennifer Wilde) killed herself, leaving poor Richard to pick up the pieces of a once picturesque, suburban life.

This profound twist casts the whole film in a different light. It's a Rorschach test for the audience's sense of justice: some might say that Brutal didn't go far enough in his treatment of the monster who robbed him of happiness; others might say that it's God's job to mete out justice to the wicked; still others might suggest that Brutal is the hand of God (or fate, or randomness) in this situation.

I prefer the last explanation. I'm not remotely religious (anymore), but it's fun to think of Brutal as an exorcism picture. We learn that Carl is an almost supernaturally terrific actor, playing the dumb, innocent victim roll to a "T". Once all the cards are on the table, his true colors bleed through in an admirable, darkly comic display of villainy. Much as horror movie priests spend hours coaxing demons from the bodies of young girls, Brutal endeavors to bring Carl's true self to the surface in order to defeat him. As often happens, the process of raising the Devil breaks Brutal's already fractured spirit, rendering him too weak to deal with what he's unleashed.

I don't know if Stevens or co-director Darla Rae had any of this in mind when putting their movie together. Like many great works of art, though, Brutal inspires interpretation while also standing tall on its own closed-loop narrative.

It's also very well made. That may sound like a no-brainer, considering the limited cast and locations, but there are so many little details that can derail independent films. The movie's first triumph is its practical makeup effects. Christina Kortumn, Mace Bracken, and Emie Otis make every scratch and gaping hole on Carl's body feel real--which is part of the reason the first forty minutes are such an endurance test. If Stevens and company keep making horror movies, I hope they stick with this talented crew and resist the allure of computer-generated splatter effects.

As for atmosphere, Stevens' DP, Gary Otte, and cameraman Ken Hendricks make Brutal's basement into a minimalist performance space. They focus on just the right things, making the whole production feel appropriately claustrophobic--until a key scene where the characters must appear small before an exaggerated wall showing home movies of Brutal's former life. Legendary composer Alan Howarth's score got under my skin, too, even as Carl's was torn off. Intense but rarely overdone, and interesting enough to carry scenes whose best quality is the music, Howarth contributes a number of great little mood pieces that are as surprising as the screenplay.

Yes, I had a few first-time-filmmaker issues with Brutal, but they are by no means deal-breakers. When we leave the basement, the quality of the performances becomes really spotty. Stevens and Baldwin excel at their game of psychic Russian roulette, and I think the film really should have remained a two-actor, single-location story. The "police station" looks like an insurance office at lunch-hour (which it may have been), and the actors inside play cops like...well, insurance salesmen playing cops on their lunch hour. The film's strong performances shine such a damning light on the lesser ones that I wanted to fast-forward to the next wretched-basement scene.

But asking for perfection in this case is just greedy. As it stands, Michael Patrick Stevens has delivered an uncompromising and uncomfortable morality play that speaks more to the resilience of the heart than the entire Saw franchise--which ostensibly shares many of the same themes. Its first half comes the closest I've seen to torture porn, but at the zero hour it rises above exploitation to become a series of hard-to-shake questions about identity, character, and spirituality. You may lose your soul watching Brutal, but will likely get it back by the end--maybe even in one piece.