It’s true that mediocrity is the enemy of greatness, but even a movie that puts forth a singular, uncompromising vision can be intolerable in other ways. Bellflower, the first film from writer/director/actor/gadget-creator Evan Glodell looks like nothing else and commits to the audacious idea of melding end-of-the-world fantasies with the misery of a romantic breakup. It is, without a doubt, a striking debut. But it’s also punishingly distasteful and disjointed almost beyond coherence, a repetitive heap of a film that feels disgorged rather than crafted.
Glodell stars as the sweeter half of a pair of Wisconsin natives who moved to California and settled into an uncomfortable rut. He and his puckish partner (Tyler Dawson) have shared an obsession with The Road Warrior since childhood—in particular, with the beefy, mask-wearing wasteland warrior Lord Humungus—so they spend their time assembling a homemade flamethrower and dreaming of the car that will make them kings of a post-apocalyptic future they profess to believe (and may actually believe) is on its way. The best thing about Bellflower is the ways it finds to suggest they’re probably right. Nobody in the film’s world appears to be employed: They spend their days in filthy apartments and their nights at house parties or bars where grasshopper-eating contests count as entertainment. Glodell coats the film in a sickly yellow glow via cameras of his own design, made by combining vintage analog elements with digital equipment. (He also built the flamethrower and the dream car, which appears later in the film. He did not invent limited focus; he merely overuses it.)
Much of the film’s first half concerns the romance between Glodell’s protagonist and the winner of one of those grasshopper-eating contests (Jessie Wiseman), a sweet-seeming woman who warns him, during a spontaneous trip to Texas, that she’ll probably end up hurting him. Before she does, Bellflower finds a few lyrical moments amid its trash-strewn world, but several more circular, “dude”-strewn conversations about cars, flamethrowers, and love make it seem like the world’s first nitro-powered mumblecore movie. Then it descends into a never-ending second half filled with violence and confusion, as Glodell and Dawson try to pick up the pieces of the former’s broken heart.
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The final stretch makes it hard to sort what’s real from what’s imagined, but by then, it’s hard to care. After a point, Bellflower becomes a film about men who hate women, and it comes awfully close to endorsing their point of view. Women here are either duplicitous or disposable, and while there’s something to the way the film presents its heroes’ descent into ultra-masculine hobbies and knee-jerk violence as gross overreactions to their troubles with the opposite sex, it doesn’t have a firm enough grasp on its characters, or strong enough actors, to carry those ideas across. Glodell has an eccentric vision, a gift for striking visuals, and some ingenious ideas. But his dreary notion of drama, which ultimately defines the film more than its distinctive look or its flame-spewing car, is almost Tommy Wiseau-like: Characters enter a room and yell at one another, then repeat the process until the bloodshed starts.