Clean (Adrien Brody) is a trash man in Upstate New York—a good worker who repairs old things, but also a walking emblem of trauma and a violent past, cursed with a name that might as well be Symbolic Placeholder. He keeps an eye on the people around him, and where and how they’re living. He’s a friendly person in the life of Dianda (Chandler DuPont), a young woman being raised by her grandmother who represents all women and all of Generation Z, while also incarnating all of the received sadness that Clean (both film and character) will tell us about at some point.
Clean and Dianda have a mutual respect built on earned silences, and these scenes have exponentially more impact than the ones with the fishmonger crime lord Michael (Glenn Fleshler) and his caricature of a son, which are all very, very loud and not remotely subtle. This movie loves big, operatic gestures. At least visually, it lands them all.
Brody, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Paul Solet, delivers a fine, corporeally focused performance, carrying a palpable sense of life’s weight. At its best, the film reduces itself down to the kind of process-oriented physicality that the Dardenne brothers do so well, letting Brody’s body tell the story through lines and scars and sinew rather than words. Clean is visually powerful and distinctive enough, with an uneasy poetry to its imagery and stylized environments, that Solet could have improved it by simply scaling back the chatter by a few magnitudes. The script offers a bit too much flowery voiceover and clichéd dialogue, which mostly just get in the way.
Audiences know this kind of film and how it works, so why is so much time wasted on information that’s readily observable? The exposition is obligatory—a great example of how genre can be both a foundation and a prison. At times, Clean has the strange structure of liturgy. Clean is destined to pursue grotesque vengeance to atone for his past. It’s just a question of what will set him down this teleological path. There’s no movie unless something heinous and often sexually violent happens to make the masculine cipher take up his industrial pipe wrench again.
Solet and his cinematographer, Zoran Popović, have a profound sense of atmosphere, and the visual space of Clean and its central mood mesh very well. The bloodlettings are imaginative and brutal; this movie would play like gangbusters at a drive-in, its violence blown up big. Brody also composed the intriguing score from a toolkit of electro and early hip-hop sounds, deconstructing them into minimalist tones.
There used to be, back in comic books of the ’80s, an onomatopoeia used for breaking glass, some stabbings, and all kinds of concussive reckonings. It was written out as something like krrrrreccch. In Clean, Clean builds a one-man arsenal to single-handedly upset the balance in local crime (and fishmongering), and the monstrous, impressive weapon he crafts makes that noise when it fires. It’s as gross and awesome on screen as it was on the page. In that moment and a few others like it, this flawed, far-from-groundbreaking movie achieves a certain splendor on its own terms.