Johnny Roe, Jr. and his common-law wife Virgie Marie Pennoui, once beautiful, talented, and full of life, are now the scariest, most bizarre human beings you’re ever likely to see; two lost souls so pathetic, so riddled with addiction, abuse, and self-loathing, that not even John Cassavetes, tortured by visions of Grey Gardens and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, could have conceived of characters so demented. They are sick, vile, appalling, and unnaturally cruel; dancing around a relationship that long ago ceased to be anything other than sadomasochistic dependency, crossed with a heavy dose of murderous rage. Only they’re real — all too real — and their passion play is set before Johnny’s estranged son, rather than an indifferent director. Having not seen his birth father for over 25 years (he was taken from the home after his father deliberately crashed the car they were riding in, bringing forth charges of attempted murder), he has brought his camera to a dirty, dank home in Terrytown, Louisiana in order to exploit the living hell out of people he has never really known. And thank fuck for that, as what transpires is a hilarious, gut-busting treat; not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the most entertaining visions of hell in the history of the cinema. The truest test of its greatness lies in the fact that at 83 minutes, it’s not even remotely long enough, and I could have watched this bloody train wreck for dozens of hours, if not days. Hell, let’s cut to the chase: it’s damn near a masterpiece for our times. Seek it out immediately if you value all that is honorable and true.
Director John Maringouin plays around a bit with film stock and even resorts to split-screen on a few brief occasions, but on the whole, it’s simply the stuff of raw, hand-held brutality. The camera never flinches, getting so close to the action that the body odor, filthy carpet, and rooms overstuffed with garbage practically choke us with their musty insanity. This is a home that is endured much as a prison cell or insane asylum, and the only thing holding it together is a deep, unyielding hatred that threatens to break out in violence every other minute. There are accusations, recriminations, insults, and open threats, with the best of all being Johnny’s glassy-eyed, “I got plans for you.” Or after Virgie Marie refers to her small stature (all of 4’9″), he replies, “I don’t care if you’re eight foot-eight, you’re still a bitch.” Johnny wants this woman dead, though she wants to die herself, but not before she watches him suffer a tortured agony. She claims that death is just around the corner (promising to have died by Christmas, Johnny shouts, “Christmas is done…Adios!”), only to talk about plans for the future. She pops pills like candy, he fights the pain of his home life and hip replacement surgery with even more pills, and the events are made even less endurable by the presence of Johnny’s brother, Stanley. To watch him push his dying mother to the brink over the proper way to use rosary beads is both cruel and kind, as his fanaticism becomes comic fodder for decades to come. The old bat (on oxygen and bed-ridden) is the only fortunate person we meet, as she quickly dies and is buried with her glasses on.
The film is broken up into chapters, though the piece is one long continuum of pathological brinksmanship, more massacre than confessional. Whether it’s the photo album featuring nothing but criminally insane acquaintances (“That one there….I won’t even tell you what he did”) and assorted poses with pistols and shotguns (some caught spontaneously, as if such shots are not at all uncommon), or Virgie Marie’s obsession with the movie The Odyssey, these are people so locked in place that any disturbance is practically an act of war. He wants money; she tells him to fuck off and die. She wants more drugs; he pleads with her to drop dead. He confesses to murder; she remembers the same event with fondness. He stares open-mouthed at, well, just about everything; she rots away in sweaty squalor while the trash piles ever-higher. While it’s clear that John is fortunate for having been raised by a different set of parents, one wonders what compelled him to come back. There’s nothing to be learned here, no insights or penetrating glances at childhood trauma; simply a man chronicling the end of the fucking world as he sees it. At least that’s what’s in it for him. We, however, get far, far more. As when, among the scenes of verbal combat, we get Johnny looking for shotgun shells and whipping out a box cutter with every intention of finally cutting the old bitch’s throat. Or when Johnny runs to Walgreen’s to pick up his fifty-cent prescription for codeine, providing the best example yet for Medicaid’s dissolution. It should surprise no one that his home is teeming with empty bottles of every pain killer known to man, though they’re tough to spot among the feces and half-eaten spaghetti dinners. Needless to say, this den of iniquity eventually burns to the ground. Alas, no one is inside at the time.
So why watch a film that, for many, is akin to sick voyeurism? Endured rather than genuinely enjoyed? Sure, it is tempting to admit that watching a family so far over the edge (if there even is an edge) makes us all feel better about our own (we’ve all fought and scratched at holiday gatherings, but surely we move beyond praying for their deaths), but for me, it’s much deeper. Or more shallow. It is, above all, the simple belief that human beings are never more interesting than when soaked to the bone with rage. Ordinary anger is mildly entertaining and even illuminating, but what this film portrays — and what I need to see — is beyond a simple misunderstanding that leads to a mild exchange. Take years and years of guilt, resentment, pain, and abuse, add mental illness and drug-induced stupors, and only comic gold could result. And it’s not at all a case of feeling sorry for these people, or even looking down my nose with superiority; I love them as I would a sunny day, or a basket of kittens let loose in a flower-filled park. It’s the human experience in microcosm; who we really are and must be, given our limitations as a species. Too many of us wear masks of respectability and cling to the trappings of civilization when, in fact, savagery always threatens to tear us apart. Johnny and Virgie Marie (and to a large extent, Stanley) have no such inhibitions. They wallow in unvarnished reality every waking moment of their lives, and as such instruct us more in the ways of the world than a thousand lectures or psychological treatises. So I laughed harder and longer than I have all year. Don’t let that confuse you. We really are this ridiculous, much to my everlasting joy.