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Bellflower

Dir: Evan Glodell

Rating: 3.8/5.0

Oscilloscope Laboratories

105 Minutes

Anton Chekhov’s dramaturgical rule regarding the necessary narrative value of every element introduced in a piece of theater insisted that a gun included as a background detail must be fired at some point, or, as the theorem is often condensed, “A gun in the first act always goes off in the third.” Chekhov offered multiple variations on this credo, but I don’t believe he ever weighed in specifically on whether or not it applies to flame throwers. I’m guessing it does, which is at least part of the overwhelming sense of dread that pervades the new film Bellflower.

The flamethrower in question is the construction of Woodrow (Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), best friends who moved together from Wisconsin to live in sunny California, where they seem to have settled into a rundown suburban life of nothing much at all. They spend their nights at bars and house parties, while the days seem filled with little more than plotting out their post-apocalyptic existence. That endeavor is seemingly undertaken somewhat tongue-in-cheek; having more to do with emulating the coolness of the Mad Max series rather than actual fretting over imminent economic collapse or some other start of a landslide of circumstance that will destroy the social order. Still, they’ve got a notebook full of drawings of the mayhem they expect to engage in as part of their Mother Medusa gang, the renderings looking like the work of idle hands serving out a few lengthy high school detentions. And, of course, there’s that homemade flamethrower capable of ending mocking laughter real quick.

Glodell also wrote and directed the film, and he keeps subtly shifting the landscape of his story and letting the overall tone slowly rot around the edges. The film introduces Woodrow as a sweet, somewhat shy guy. Aiden, meanwhile, comes across as something of a wild card, edging into moments with a bizarre energy that feels like it can suddenly spin in any direction. Glodell doesn’t completely shatter the expectations that his develops, but he also makes it clear quite early on that the film isn’t going to adhere to the patterns it seems to be setting up.

Woodrow winds up in a romantic relationship with Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a young woman he meets at a bar when they face off in a cricket-eating competition (in a movie this edgy, that’s the equivalent of a Hollywood “meet cute” scene). As they cuddle during their epic first date that spontaneously spans several days and involves crossing many state lines, Milly warns him that she’s likely to hurt him some day, but that doesn’t stop Woodrow from falling hard for her. When the inevitable bad turn takes place, the shadows of the film grow darker, in every sense.

Cinematographer Joel Hodge shoots the film with a grim, raw look, sometimes literally through a dirty lens. Some of the unique visual palette comes from a custom-built optical system created by Glodell that gives scenes a melancholy earth tone wash, as if they’d been baked to solidity in a clay oven. The film reportedly cost about $17,000 and much of that went towards a reworked muscle car that blasts out towers of flame, another manifestation of the characters’ over-identification with the wasteland wanderers in their favorite movie. It wears its meager budget in the grungy images, the looseness of the performances and even the way that moments of intensity surge into being rather than gradually build. The film winds up being about its ramshackle ethos as much as any theme or idea shimmed into the plot.

The last portion of the film is when Bellflower is at its most cryptic and challenging. It doesn’t turn matters over to an unreliable narrator, but it is clearly taking its cues from a lead character who’s suddenly, tragically developed a suspect ability to deal with the challenges that beset him. Glodell wrenches the story into yet bleaker territory without quite managing the operatic excess that the film nearly cries out for at this point. It still skews towards the deadpan, which creates a slightly deflating discordance. The gravel is turning to ice beneath the film’s wheels; it still grips the road, but there’s some skidding too. It’s almost as if the film’s inner nihilism starts eating away at the very contours of the story, like battery acid strewn across a thin metal sheet. Then again, it’s hard to complain about that too much when it equally represents Glodell staying unyieldingly true to his uncomfortable vision right to the bitterest end.

by Dan Seeger

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