Not even Mr. McTiernan’s ROLLERBALL managed to scare up as much hatred in movie critics as THE RULES OF ATTRACTION, the latest by Roger Avary, Oscar winning screenwriter best known as the guy who worked at the video store with Quentin Tarantino. I knew there were a handful of fans but many of the reviews were filled with the kind of angry blubbering you usually get when somebody talks about that last Batman and Robin movie or the 30th Anniversary version of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD where they added in extra scenes and changed the music. The kind of thing where you’re so appalled by the movie you can barely even speak English anymore. The film critic at a local alternative weekly interviewed Avary about the movie and the first question was “What were you thinking?”
So I was kind of surprised by how good the movie actually is. Sure it’s pretty pretentious. And if all you see is a “rich college kids are fucked up” message then no, it’s not an original message. But then neither is “war is hell” and that hasn’t made anyone declare the end of the war movie genre for all of eternity. I didn’t find this movie profound (I didn’t find it empty either) but I really thought the execution of it was exceptional. And there is some truth to the story it paints of people being attracted to horrible people and things turning out bad. (In fact, real bad.)
Based on a book by Bret Easton Ellis, who also did AMERICAN PSYCHO, the story is about the painful mating rituals of some college kids. First of all you got the kid who plays Dawson Creek on tv. I believe his tv character is a goody two shoes type but here he is a real asshole coke dealer misogynist named Sean Bateman, apparently the brother of AMERICAN PSYCHO Patrick Bateman. He describes himself as an “emotional vampire” searching for victims. Dawson does a good job, doesn’t really seem like a stunt although it’s a little overboard when he does evil slasher expressions while hitting on women (actually the opposite of his brother Patrick, who looks like a normal guy hitting on women when he is actually a slasher looking for victims).
Then you got a young brunette gal with a cynical attitude and punkish haircut, but old fashioned values. We’ll call her Winona Ryder. Her roommate (the girl from SEVENTH HEAVEN) tries to convince her to get laid, but she’s saving herself for her innocent boyfriend who is in Europe. (Later he gets back and we find out that he is not only an asshole womanizer, but that he doesn’t even remember who Winona is.)
And there is a gay guy. What happens is both the gay guy and Winona end up yearning for Sean, exactly the wrong guy for either of them (or anybody in the whole world) to be in love with. And when Winona learns her lesson Sean suddenly falls in love with her and tries to prove himself, but unlike in every teen movie or romantic comedy you’ve ever seen, he does not sing a song for her and they don’t ever find the common ground.
So what you got is basically some CRUEL INTENTIONS and a touch of HEATHERS in a cold-hearted college world, but directed with DePalmian attention to detail and trickery. I think people who hated this movie put it in the same category with that Gregg Arakki dude, or JAWBREAKER: the moronic, self conscious attempts to be shocking and nihilistic. I don’t think it’s that type of movie, though, and I really think this cleverness in direction is the main reason why the movie made people so spittin angry. It’s the same thing I talked about with REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. Although that movie was a little overrated by some, others were punishing it for being stylish. Like it’s wrong to be stylish and clever and entertaining in a visual medium. I really think if THE RULES OF ATTRACTION just had generic pop songs instead of obscure oldies and bombastic orchestral music, and if it was presented in a lifeless Kevin Smith style (maybe even a frenetic Bruckheimer style) nobody would like it too much, but they wouldn’t be pissing themselves in anger either.
The structure of the movie is built on a series of college parties, all with apocalyptic names (END OF THE WORLD PARTY) subtitled on the screen with the same sense of importance as historical dramas when they subtitle dates and locations. Which is probaly how these young fuckers see life, too.
Then there is this whole RASHOMAN type deal where the same period of a party will be told from a couple different perspectives. Mr. Avary finds an interesting way to travel through time visually. He shows the events in one room, then reverses time, following some frat boys backwards down the hall as they roll an empty keg back to the party. We hear the shoop shoop shoop of the backmasked music and see events from earlier, but backwards. Then the camera moves over to another partygoer, time starts going forward again and we follow that person.
There are several points in the movie where time moves backward, and Mr. Avary is sure to find the best things to show in reverse: snow falling, smoke blowing, vomiting, blowing bubbles, a praying mantis walking backwards.
There is another scene that is more blatantly Depalmian, and it was one of my favorites. In splitscreen, two different characters get up for the same class. We follow their morning routines and journeys to class. Eventually we see that they are heading down the same hall in opposite directions. Then they have a conversation, still in split screen so we see each character’s face from the perspective of the other character’s face. And finally the camera whips around to the side to show that they really are facing each other in the same shot, at least as far as I could tell. Nice work.
To be fair, some of the movie does have sort of a freak show feel to it, and not all of the attractions are spectacular. (this paragraph will give away some of the best parts, so watch it.) I thought the kid yelling obscenities to embarass his rich mom at a fancy restaraunt was too obvious, and so was the scene where Winona has to give a blowjob to her professor (Eric Stoltz). But there were other scenes where I just felt that rush that I was seeing something I hadn’t really seen in a movie before, at least not quite like that. Like there is a scene where Sean, who is in debt to his drug supplier, goes to the dorm room of a junkie friend to try to get money that he himself is owed. It’s a hilarious/tragic portrait of wasted youth, this fat, hairy naked kid giving a tour de force monologue of stoner wisdom before shooting up in his toe and screaming “I can feel my dick! I can feel my dick!” The actor is very convincing and the scene goes from amusing to incredible at exactly the moment when you realize that this fat naked guy is that fuckin kid from The Wonder Years. Kevin Arnold.
Another example. And don’t read this either if you’re gonna watch the movie. Throughout the whole thing Sean is getting these mysterious love notes and trying to figure out where they come from. I assumed from the beginning that it was the gay guy and that you were supposed to assume it was Winona. But when the author is finally revealed it is actually a total stranger, only barely seen in the movie, who finally gives up on Sean and slits her wrists in a bath tub. You’ve seen this bath tub suicide scene a million times before but this time it’s somebody you don’t even recognize. It’s long, dialogue-less and ritualistic and I couldn’t help but feel like I was spying on some poor anonymous stranger. I mean no wonder this gal feels so ignored. Not only does Sean not know she exists, I didn’t either and I was watching her damn movie. I should be one of them omniscient guys. I almost blamed myself for her death.
If I had to pick this one or AMERICAN PSYCHO I’d probaly pick AMERICAN PSYCHO because that one was hilarious. Remember when he was running around naked with a chainsaw? And then he bit her on the leg. That was funny shit. But I preciate a filmatist trying to be inventive, to find new ways of telling stories and things we haven’t seen in a movie before. To be frankly honest I didn’t even like this dude’s pre-LOCK STOCK bank heist movie THE KILLING OF ZOE, and here I am singing the praises of some college movie. Oh well I gotta tell it like it is man.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.