Stuck

“I’m going to have to come up with a new word. ‘Indifferent’ isn’t enough. ‘Cruel’ isn’t enough to say. ‘Heartless’? ‘Inhumane?’ Maybe we’ve just redefined inhumanity here.” —Tarrant County, Texas prosecutor Richard Alpert

“Why are you doing this to me?!” —Brandi Boski, Stuck

In spring 2002, a juicy little news story out of Fort Worth, Texas briefly lit up the tabloids: “Man Stuck In Windshield Left To Die.” Seems that a nurse’s aide named Chante Mallard hit a homeless man with her car, drove home with him stuck headfirst in her windshield, and kept him in the her garage, ignoring his anguished cries as he slowly bled to death. According to the police, the 25-year-old Mallard occasionally checked in on the man and apologized to him, but she never alerted the authorities or did anything to help him. After the man finally died, she and some friends threw his body into the trunk of another car and dumped it in the park. Mallard was later arrested and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Taking off from this irresistible tale of man’s inhumanity to man, Stuart Gordon’s Stuck follows the basic contours of the case while playing its B-movie luridness for extra viscera and dark comedy. He and screenwriter John Strysik also take plenty of dramatic license where necessary, to enhance the themes and bring the events to a vastly more satisfying conclusion. Though it riffs hilariously on human callousness and stupidity, the film also taps into a thornier set of motivations on the young woman’s part and deepens the homeless man’s backstory beyond what the papers cared to imagine. The result is exploitation fare of the first order, working on one level as a nasty little pulp thriller and another as a surprisingly complex look at social class, community, and the bottom-rung survival instincts that connect its adversaries.

Shifting the action to Providence, Rhode Island—played capably here by the city of Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada—Stuck stars Mena Suvari as Mallard surrogate Brandi Boski, introduced as the sort of girlish type who still dots her I’s with hearts. The cornrows on her head tell another story: In spite of her slight frame and bubbly demeanor, Brandi is surprisingly pugnacious and willful, certainly more than her tail-chasing, drug-dealing boyfriend Rashid (Russell Hornsby). On weekdays, she’s a model employee, dutifully scooping up bedpans (and worse) while positioning herself for a big promotion; on weekends, she likes to hit the clubs hard, preferring an intoxicating brew of hip-hop, liquor, and the seemingly endless supply of Ecstasy pills that materialize from Rashid’s jacket pocket. The opening credits put Brandi’s separate lives in hilarious juxtaposition:

Across the city, Thomas Bardo (Stephen Rea) is having an extraordinarily bad day. His landlord has reached the end of his patience and kicked him out of his apartment with little but a hastily gathered pile of clothes in his arms. Wearing the hangdog expression that has been Rea’s stock in trade since The Crying Game, Thomas shuffles into the local employment office for a scheduled appointment, waits for three and a half hours, and is then told that he needs to mail in some forms he already mailed in. After that bureaucratic “Who’s on first?” routine, Thomas heads to a park bench for the evening, where his humiliation is deepened when another homeless man takes pity on him. (“I don’t know whether to ask you for money or give you some.”)

Though Gordon and Strysik move swiftly to the hit-and-run accident that brings Brandi and Thomas together—Stuck, like any proper genre movie of its kind, gets it done in less than 90 minutes—the setup complicates audience feelings about the characters, particularly Brandi. This isn’t a Bonfire Of The Vanities situation where a rich person runs over a poor person and desperately scrambles to hang on to her status. Brandi’s nursing job puts her a rung or two above Thomas, but they aren’t far removed on the social stratum, and they each have their share of daily humiliations. To maintain her shitty house and her shittier car, Brandi has to grit her way through caring for people with failing bodies (and bowels), and suffer the abuses of an administrator who dangles a promotion in front of her like a carrot on a stick. Of course, that doesn’t make her behavior less monstrous, but it complicates it beyond mere callous villainy.

Lest anyone believe that the director best known for Re-Animator has gone soft, however, Stuck strikes a tone that’s vividly gruesome, absurd, and hyper-real, even while its characters’ thought processes are grounded and crystal-clear. Gordon doesn’t miss the sheer comic outrageousness of a man lodged face-first in a windshield, legs flailing and twitching as if he were an oversized bug. Or the equally surreal sight of Brandi continuing to drive through the streets of Providence, hoping the entire city will be too sleepy or apathetic to notice this bizarre spectacle. (She’s right on that count. Though the same homeless guy who helped Thomas earlier in the evening bears witness, he doesn’t have much credibility with the police.)

Gordon also plays up the grisly ordeal of Thomas doing whatever it takes to survive. Every time he tries to pull himself forward through the windshield, driving shards of glass and a snapped-off wiper blade deeper into his midsection, the audience feels every agonizing inch of his progress. (Typical of the film’s twisted comic sensibility, his epic quest to reach Brandi’s cell phone is rewarded by contact with a 911 operator who can’t do anything to help.) This is one of the places where Gordon and Strysik take the true story into a more interesting fictional place: Here’s a man who doesn’t have much to live for—no home, no job, and no immediate prospects for either—yet he refuses to go down.

Brandi has survival instincts, too, though they’re all geared toward self-preservation. The film has endless fun with her runaway narcissism: “Why are you doing this to me?!” is the money line, but she’s incapable of looking past her nose elsewhere, too. What’s interesting about Brandi is that she’s capable of real compassion: In the setup, she argues forcefully for keeping a demented, incontinent man in the assisted-living facility rather than booting him to a nursing home, even if that means personally cleaning his soiled sheets and wiping his ass every day. By leaving Thomas to rot in her garage, Gordon and Strysik suggest that she isn’t “redefining inhumanity,” as the Ft. Worth prosecutor said of Mallard, but affirming humanity’s craven impulse to look out for number one. Coming clean about what really happened would mean losing her job and going to jail, just for a start, and the reality of her situation is so terrible that she walls herself up in denial. She even shows up for work the next morning!

Shocking apathy and denial aren’t just Brandi’s department in Stuck, they’re an affliction that extends to nearly everyone else. The police don’t give credence to the homeless man as a witness; the 911 operator doesn’t care enough to figure out how to help Thomas; the father of a neighborhood boy who actually sees the injured man in Brandi’s garage won’t get involved for fear of drawing attention to his immigrant status; a wandering dog that gets blood on its brow from licking Thomas’ exposed shinbone doesn’t alarm its owner into action; and Rashid proves totally useless and ineffectual, in spite of his claims to badass criminality. (“I’ve done this a thousand times!”) Though my favorite scene in the movie is too NSFW even for this column—one word: catfight!—here’s another funny moment when Brandi’s friend walks into the situation at an inopportune time, but still can’t bring herself to pick up on the obvious:

Beyond being a strong piece of social commentary, Stuck just flat-out delivers as the sort of nasty little genre film that doesn’t have a place in theaters in the ’00s. You may not have heard Stuart Gordon’s name much in the years since Re-Animator, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped working or stopped doing interesting films; to the contrary, his 2001 film Dagon mostly nailed down the often cinematically elusive H.P. Lovecraft, the barely released Edmond brought out the raw power of an early David Mamet play, and his segment on last summer’s NBC anthology flop Fear Itself was by far the strongest of the series. Stuck had the misfortune of getting picked up by ThinkFilm, a now-defunct indie distributor in freefall, but it’s unlikely that it mattered. There’s just no place anymore for low-budget movies this gritty and impolite; in his resolve to keep fighting in an uncaring world, Gordon himself has to feel like Thomas’ bug on a windshield.

Next week: The Lovers On The Bridge

September 3: Slacker

September 10 & 17: Toronto Film Festival (no column)

September 24: Napoleon Dynamite