By Tanner Smith
WARNING: This editorial contains spoilers for the film in question, “The Dirties.”
In 2013, an independent Canadian film called “The Dirties” premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival. Since then, filmmaker Kevin Smith helped with distribution by way of his company, Kevin Smith Movie Club, and it has since been released on home media and video-on-demand. Those who have seen it are rather split about it—some say it’s a fresh, compelling take on bullying while others either call it either a self-praising “meta-mockumentary” or an irresponsible look at a risky topic that shouldn’t be touched upon. That topic in question is “school shooting.”
There’s no doubt that whenever those two words are mentioned, people’s minds are at unease. People recall numerous horrifying occurrences in which students were killed by gunmen on campus, which then leads them to wonder why they happened to begin with. The answers from media and society are usually unclear, so people come to their own conclusions, mostly having to do with mental disorders or TV/film violence. “The Dirties” is a controversial film that raises similar questions but also manages to deliver its own interpretation as well.
The film is told through the perspective of a video camera and is about a teenage movie buff named Matt (played by writer-director Matt Johnson) wanting to make his own movie. He buys wireless microphones to use and has someone film him and his best (and only) friend, Owen (Owen Williams), presumably all the time. The movie he wants to make is a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which he and Owen exact revenge on a gang of bullies in their high school, whom they dub The Dirties. When that movie is complete, Matt comes up with an idea to make another movie—a more realistic one in which he actually brings a gun to school and shoots The Dirties. Owen doesn’t take Matt’s idea seriously at first, but he starts to question his sanity when he not only continues to play-act in front of the camera (as if living his own movie), but also has blueprints of the school and has been firing guns for target practice.
The main character of Matt is trying to become a movie star of his own creation. He’s constantly making film references that no one else understands, tries to become the thing he’s referencing, and as the film goes on, he thinks less of what famous people would do and what he would do, since he has become what he usually references. And thanks to the obscure cameraman (whose identity is never revealed), he’s never alone. This is a modern problem in today’s society, that today’s kids film themselves and act in front of the camera. But Matt, who faces issues of bullying and alienation, actively puts himself on camera 24/7, and so he’s always trying to perform and he can’t seem to break out of it. Even when Owen acknowledges what he’s doing is insane, Matt can’t bring himself back to reality and instead wants to further his own interpretation of reality and continue making his movie.
Owen, meanwhile, would rather try something else than keep making a movie with Matt. He wants acceptance among his peers, which is something Matt clearly quit trying to achieve. He longs for the attention of a girl he likes; he wants to make new friends; he wants to try something new. The biggest turning point in his life is when Matt is so obsessed with his art that he never talks to Owen like a real person anymore and, even scarier, actually seems serious about conducting his own school shooting.
When looking for someone or something to blame for school shootings, media and society sometimes like to point the finger at violence portrayed in TV and movies, suggesting that watching it can make someone want to commit destruction. But this film shows how that’s actually never the case. What it tries to address is the issue of youth psychology and how it’s never always how we interpret it. According to filmmaker Johnson in an interview with cinema-scope.com, “The news always tells you the story of the kid starting at the last chapter of his or her life: that kid was a loner, or whatever. Which is really irrelevant to what happened. If you actually wanted to know what happened to the kid, you look at the first 200 pages of his life.”
That leads into the film’s ending. Some people complain that the film ends anticlimactically with no clear reasoning or logic. It ends with Matt, after having shot The Dirties in the school hallway and scared away his classmates, finding Owen cowering in a corner. He says, out of breath, “What are you doing? It’s me.” The scene cuts to black, the end credits roll, and that’s the end. But if you really think about it, it ends where the typical news story would start. The news story would start where the tragedy ends, but the film is a representation of what happened beforehand, which no one would want to talk about.
“The Dirties” may be one of the most important films of recent years, delivering a compelling portrait of disaffected youth and a descent into sociopathic behavior. It accurately portrays kids with real issues—being bullied, isolation, moving on, drifting apart, and even at some points, being bullies to each other and eventually to their own bullies. When the promising sociopath feels like a real person, instead of a standard, cold, distant, ruthless, cold-hearted killer, that makes it overall tragic; when a funny, artistic, even empathetic guy is also bullied and more, that can cause him to take drastic measures for vengeance.
“The Dirties” is not merely an unflinching portrayal; it’s also a cautionary tale. The back half of the film is laced with misfortune (albeit with an underlying comic tone, brought on by Matt trying to keep things lighthearted). One scene features Matt telling Owen he thinks he might be a “psychopath”—is this a cry for help or more play-acting? Whatever it is, Owen doesn’t listen. Shortly after, Owen has moved on and become just another face in the halls and another member of society the film specifically criticizes—his mind is elsewhere and he doesn’t see Matt as a friend in distress. So, in a way, it’s Owen, Matt’s best and only friend, who actually drives Matt to do what he ends up doing in the end of the film. As Owen fears for his own life when he sees what Matt has become, Matt doesn’t understand what’s changed and why he can’t see him for what he is, hence the line, “What are you doing? It’s me.” It’s a truly sad moment. We know what’s really going on, but no one else does. Even Matt doesn’t see the trouble in what he’s done.
It’s a challenging concept when the victim is the one with the gun, at least in this film. Many people who see the film arguably miss the point of it (or they’re too busy questioning the identity of the cameraman), but those who don’t can’t help but wonder: Who’s really to blame for occurrences like this? Are they portrayed the exact opposite way? Etc.
More people should seek out “The Dirties,” which is available on demand. It’s the kind of film that will force them to ask questions and find answers they’re uncomfortable about, and it also emphasizes the importance of reaching out and helping those who need assistance and companionship. If society chooses to ignore or mishear cries for help, even from their own friends, it can lead to damage to themselves and/or others. That’s the theory Johnson tried to portray in “The Dirties,” and it’s hard to argue that it’s far off.
My original review: https://smithsverdict.wordpress.com/2015/09/19/the-dirties-2013/