A Violent State of Nature
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(Weapons screens Sunday night, April 12th, at 11pm as part of the Cinema Nolita/Hammer to Nail screening series in downtown Manhattan. Director Adam Bhala Lough is expected to be in attendance. Or you can buy it at Amazon.)
Weapons opens with a bang, immediately bringing into relief its rather loaded title (pun intended) and telling us quite bluntly, “This ain’t your father’s Boyz in the ‘Hood.” Nick Cannon, the star of Drumline and an actor more talented than you might suspect, is eating a cheeseburger. It has way too much ketchup. We see him lift it—in slow-motion, with credits and blaring hip-hop accompanying the image—and put it in his mouth. He seems to be enjoying it, as any red meat eating young man would. All the while those eyes stare right at us, implicating the audience in the moment, chewing away, this handsome, all-American boy (at least in this age of messianic Black politicians). Yet once the credits end, a shadow begins to emerge from behind, in the front of the sunlit Burger joint. An out of focus white man stands in the background (eventually we will learn that this is Paul Dano, in perhaps his most penetrating and complete performance to date). He hoists one of several Weapons that will be on display for the next 80 or so minutes—in this case a double barrel shotgun—and he blows Mr. Cannon’s high cheekbones, or at least part of one of them, directly into the lens. Everyone’s attention has been immediately acquired, and for good reason: Adam Bhala Lough, this film’s extraordinarily talented 29-year-old director, knows how to never let it go.
About 30 minutes or so into this revelatory tale of misbegotten vengeance among the young and dumb in an monotonous exurban hell, I started to feel like I was being plunged into some early 21st century version of Thomas Hobbes’ “state of nature.” This is a place where pervasive lawlessness, boredom and mistrust fuel a stringent pathology that centers on the notion that violence reprisal can be just and normative. Where it seems every individual’s desires, be it sex, justice or self-dignity, are only achievable through violence and sadism. Of course, these desires are never met in an ecosystem such as this. “War of all against all,” as Hobbes put it in Leviathan, leads to lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
The environment of Bhala Lough’s second feature is a distinctly American one, a place where small ranch houses, ones paid for with sub-prime mortgages and bad faith, bleed together in anonymity, where young men smoke blunts and complain about the heat, where fathers see their only children for the first time since they’ve returned from State College and can only ask, “You got a cigarette, boy?”, where lives are shattered by senseless violence all too easily and where small dreams are generally deferred, although they are more than likely never even conjured.
Shot in the working class suburbs of East L.A., it has a tone and feel uncommon for films about dangerous youths. Without condescending to his small circle of early twentysomethings bent on revenge and tethered to an ethos that can only be described as nihilism, Bhala Lough shows us people whose lives are dominated by sluggishness, ignorance, depravity and pain in a rigorous but accessible way, prying empathy out of us without letting his subjects off the hook for their transgressions or their mediocrity.
Unfolding mostly in a series of breathlessly long tracking shots, home video and slow-motion interludes which suggest the tedium of its setting and within the lives of its young, angry characters, this gem of Sundance 07’ has, after a sticky two years in distribution limbo following its Sundance bow, finally arrived on DVD via Lionsgate and not a moment to soon. It contains the best performances in the young careers of several emerging performers such as Cannon and Mark Webber, but Paul Dano steals the show. He plays an apathetic, angry, forgotten and disliked person, a young man who has a small DV camera and a double barrel shotgun and isn’t sure which one to use first. The type of individual almost no one likes to encounter and fewer want to watch a film about. Yet Dano invests his character with such authenticity and naked human sorrow that we can’t help but be cauterized by his self-destruction. He uses the camera for pretty much the entire film, but only uses the shotgun in the first and last moments of Weapons, ones which happen to be the same moment, and as the film doubles back many times, in deeply unsettling but hypnotic detail, to show us just why he had to blow Nick Cannon’s face into the lens, you will bear witness to a film that will in time be seen as evidence of the early maturation of some very talented performers and an equally promising filmmaker.
— Brandon Harris