Evan Glodell, the writer, director and star of Bellflower, has said that his debut movie was inspired by a bad breakup, which is about as revelatory a disclosure as Martin Scorsese admitting that Mean Streets was influenced by Catholicism. The film was shot with a custom-built digital camera, but I'm pretty sure it's made out of hate sex. It is exactly like All the Real Girls if David Gordon Green had grown up worshipping Ozploitation flicks instead of Terrence Malick, and if he couldn't help finishing every emotional confrontation by pulling out a flamethrower. I mean, this is a movie in which the romantically devastated hero considers a litany of different responses, playing each option out in his head—and not one of them fails to include a flamethrower.
This synopsis makes Bellflower sound funny, which it is not. It is silly, but it is not funny. In fact, it is often very upsetting, in the way that the thought of going mad is upsetting. I have rarely seen a movie not made by Scorsese that so precisely captures the place where male insecurity and impotence become male violence. It is a film about truly impure thoughts, and it calls to mind the famous priestly question, âDid you entertain them?â Bellflower compulsively strokes those thoughts into an elaborate phantasmagoria.
So, then—not a date movie. But it does contain dates, many of them notably tender in a heedless way. Some of these outings are between Woodrow (Glodell) and his best friend, Aiden (Tyler Dawson), who have the destructive platonic chemistry of the Sobotka boys on season two of The Wire, and share a fondness—not to say a fetish—for the Road Warrior movies, and especially the hulking, bondage-clad Lord Humungus. Their idea of a productive afternoon is going into the California brush, chaining a propane tank between two poles and setting it on fire. Later, Woodrow spends evenings with Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a girl who styles herself as a man-eating tramp, but is really very sweet. They take an impromptu road trip to Texas in a Volvo Bertone fitted with a whiskey dispenser. They share kindness. Then she inexplicably becomes a man-eating tramp. He responds poorly.
Here is a lesson in how a $17,000 budget can buy you a summer's worth of free controversy. Getting almost as much attention as Glodell's cars and cameras (much of the movie is filmed in the limited focus that David Fincher used to make the rowing scenes in The Social Network look like miniatures) is the question of whether Bellflower is misogynist. That question hinges on exactly how much distance Glodell keeps from his characters and their almost helplessly vile imaginings. It is worth noting that this criticism—how much do you identify with these people?—is the same one usually leveled against female filmmakers (Miranda July and Lena Dunham, most recently) who make intimate movies about real feelings, and is never applied to the dozens of hacks who make Marvel adaptations, even though everybody who watches those movies is supposed to identify with the juvenile, banal machismo of the heroes.
The nastiness in Bellflower comes from a far less calculated place. But it seems fairly clear that Glodell is aware how pathetic Woodrow's revenge meditations are: Just look at the movie's epigraph, "Lord Humungus shall not be defied," and how it is credited to, well, one Lord Humungus. As important as the operatic assault at the movie's end are the scenes of Woodrow scouring the fields in slo-mo with his flamethrower—it cannot be an accident that he is compensating for emasculation with a fiery phallus. That said, Glodell's awareness about the thoughts of Woodrow doesn't change the fact that the actions of Milly make no sense. Great art has to contain the perspectives of multiple people, even when one person's emotions are a raw wound. Bellflower is the work of a director bravely admitting that he doesn't understand how to relate to women. It would be a better movie if he understood women.
70 SEE IT: Bellflower is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.