Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review: Pig Pen

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

Pig Pen
Directed by Jason Koch        
Dire Wit Films / Lost Empire Films / MVD Visual
85 minutes, 2016 / 2017

One of the better things some torture films have brought into the sphere of genre films is a new neo-realism that harkens back to the time of Rossolini, Passolini, and all the other –olinis (i.e., other filmmakers in the style). The Italian neo-realism of the 1960s and ‘70s brought life situations to the audience, with all its blemishes and horrors in a matter-of-fact way.

Recently, there have been a series of gritty, realistic (relatively, hence the “neo-“) stories that are there to disturb more than distress, such as the ones by Dakota Bailey (e.g., 2017’s American Scumbags). I mean, this isn’t really new, as we’ve seen it before in films like Suburbia (1984), Scorsese‘s Mean Streets (1973), or even The Day of the Locust (1975; where Donald Sutherland played Homer Simpson, but I digress…). The difference is that of late, realism has faded away into the static camera of torture porn which is less about story than effects; realism is just the opposite, even with its level of gruesomeness.

Lucas Koch
I didn’t really have any expectation about this film, so its level of initial low-key grittiness took me by surprise, which doesn’t happen very often these days. Here, Zack’s (Lucas Koch) world is one of dysfunction. The tall and lanky13-year-old stoic skater, whose school nickname is Pig Pen, lives in a home where nothing gets cleaned and supper consists of cold cereal mixed with water. His mother, Sandy (Nicolette Le Faye), is zoned out on booze and pills, and her new, abusive “entrepreneur” boyfriend Wayne (Vito Trigo, who sports a strange facial hair style) pimps her out and sells drugs. Wayne is so narcissist that he has his own name tattooed on his neck. Things aren’t going too well for Zack and the future looks as bleak as his present life. Between the occasional huffing and probably PTSD, who wouldn’t be stoic just to survive?

Insisting that Zack bring in some money, such as by doing what the guys on the corner do for cash, the boy is thrown to the streets, where we watch as he learns to survive amid desperation, stealing and violence.

As a nice move, Koch edits in flashback scenes throughout that lead up to the present, as we see how life has spiraled out of control step by step. Of course, the past catches up in an explosion, after he gets some dough through an act of violence, and is met by an even larger one at home.

This film doesn’t pull any punches. It gives a realistic feel of the dangers of living on the street, including gangs and perverts; a much-muted version of this kind of life was presented in the Mel Brooks’ Life Stinks (1991). But Zack isn’t like other boys his age. His moral compass has already been turned up this side of Sunday, and he isn’t beyond thievery even before the Wayne hits the fan.

Nicolette Le Faye
In some ways, which I won’t go into in too much detail, Zack and Wayne have some traits in common, just the extreme is different, at least at the start. Perhaps it’s brain damage from the glue sniffing or seeing his mother abused, or perhaps he’s just high-functioning nuts, but he is both walking around like he’s in a state of constant shock while he’s also waging and absorbing information, and how to work it to his own advantage. He seems to have no qualms eating out of a dumpster, or sleeping in odd places. His adjustment skills are stunning for someone his age.

Like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Straw Dogs (1971), Zack is kind of a stranger in a strange land, and when finally pushed to shove, he is a survivor and will fight for his life no matter what it takes. When dealing with Wayne and his troupe, to paraphrase Generation X’s “Your Generation,” it’s “gonna take a lot of violence…but he’s gotta take that chance.”

This is an intense film right from the start, and it just keeps building right until the very end. Its sheer level of violence – everyday kind of violence to the extreme level, meaning the story begets the violence rather than the other way around, as in most films of this type. That is where the neo-realism comes in: it’s realistic, but takes a step beyond that into a fictional realism, if that oxymoron makes any sense.

It really is a horribly beautiful film. The editing, the lighting, the camerawork is all spot on. It doesn’t hug the action (that’s not to say there aren’t some close-ups), but rather presents it as Zack sees it. We see everything the same time he does, i.e., he’s in just about every shot. I’m not sure how old Lucas is in real life – I’m guessing somewhat older than his character – but as a performer he plays stoicism pretty well, rarely letting the viewer get lost in the acting. Similarly, Le Faye strikes a delicate balance in being sympathetic as both a dreamer and a lost cause. The viewer is both horrified at her actions, and also her inactions. To me, she is the most realistic in being caught between wanting to do good, pining hope on the hopeless, and feeling trapped. I see women who have gone through this nearly day, and have decided to take the step of separation from an abuser that Sandy does not.

Vito Trigo
As for Trigo, if he can make us uncomfortable while his face is being hugged by that shaved raccoon on his face that seems right out of the Dirk character from She Kills (2016), that says talent. Seriously, he comes across as fierce in an early Harvey Keitel kind of way. He takes a ridiculously looking role and still made us fearful and him fearless, and that’s good acting. At least, I hope it is…

If you’ve ever seen Koch’s first film, 7th Day (2013) – or, if you’re like me and have seen the trailer – you know how effective his SFX company’s work is, and it’s no surprise that the application work is top notch. With the exception of the fact that there would have been a lot more blood in the situation presented (no, not gonna give it away), it looks spectacular. It also isn’t overdone, which is a nice choice for Koch, considering this is only his second feature.

If you’re in for a good story with some excellent writing and acting to back it up, tension that is palpable in a building crescendo, and some way-above standard physical effects, this will be a good direction to go.

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