Sundance titles brim with bad behavior


PARK CITY -- Beatings, prostitution, rough sex, knifings, car wrecks, arson, self-destructive despair, chain smoking, suicide. Mmm, smells like ... independent film.

While mainstream fare like "Avatar" gets dinged for its depiction of a single character demanding a well-earned cigarette, independent filmmakers continue to roll out their gleefully flagrant depictions of all things bloody, brutal and bare-assed. Indie film is like studio filmmaking's nutty younger brother who gets away with everything.

One imagines the Sundance Film Festival patrons gasping: Thank the gods for that.

While one viewer's insightful realism might be another's pointless (and often pretentious) provocation, there is no doubt independent film is still the place to get your fix of actors reveling in depicting bad, oh so bad, behavior. And even if Lars von Trier's recent Cannes offering "Antichrist" has set a permanent world record with its repulsive sexual gore, Sundance 2010 has served up quite a sin buffet in its own right.

Onscreen smoking, which always has been a battlefield and now directly impacts MPAA ratings, is pervasive and practically nonstop. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's title character in "Hesher" smokes in every scene and seemingly can't speak a line without taking a drag first. The tattooed bad boy also uses his smokes to indulge his arson fetish.

James Gandolfini, grieving the deaths of his daughter and mistress in "Welcome to the Rileys," smokes constantly and often finds refuge in his garage. Incidentally, so do Gordon-Levitt in "Hesher" and Chris Cooper's downsized middle manager in "The Company Men" (who takes his inhaling to the extreme). It's as if men can only process tragedy in the company of oil stains and a tool bench.

One lingering image from the inventive action-comedy short "Logorama" is an animated Ronald McDonald brandishing a submachine gun and a dangling Marlboro as he puts a bullet in the dome of a Michelin Man. Punchline: "I'm lovin' it."

The women showcase their fair share of vice, or at least dark-side wanderings, too. Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson, before they are graphically beaten to death by knuckle sandwich, engage in kinky and violent S&M-tinged sex with Casey Affleck's sociopathic small-town deputy sheriff in "The Killer Inside Me." Slapping, choking and whipping galore. Of course, this made the film's prevalent smoking less of an issue.

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The Sunday night "Killer" screening was the rare time when an enthusiastic indie audience was pushed too far. During the post-showing Q&A and while waiting for shuttles afterward, audience members were fiercely defending, or more often denigrating, the movie's violent scenes. Words like "irresponsible" and "disgusting" were thrown around, and director Michael Winterbottom seemed taken aback by the vehement criticism.

Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine" tries her own share of rough sex, and Kristen Stewart in "Rileys" digs deep to inhabit an underage New Orleans stripper and sex worker who revels in cursing, crude sexual advances and -- wait for it -- smoking. She's also a cutter, but only the scars are shown.

This is not the case with the fateful set of gardening clippers employed in "Hesher." Suffice it to say they aren't used to prune the spring roses.

In an adjunct trend, this year's slate could serve as a PSA about the dangers of driving. Or just plain cars. Or existing at all, really.

An ice cream truck creams and paralyzes a Swedish guy on a bike in Patrik Eklund's short "Seeds of the Fall"; the mother is killed in a car accident, Natalie Portman's character has a fender bender, a car is incinerated and a van is beaten with a pipe in "Hesher"; the daughter is killed in a car accident in "Rileys," as is another off-screen character; several animated characters are struck by cars in "Logorama"; and a character has a deadly run-in with his car in "The Company Men."

It's like Cannonball Run: Sundance.

In this atmosphere, documentaries about the Khmer Rouge ("Enemies of the People"), imminent nuclear annihilation ("Countdown to Zero") and dead Mexican border-crossers ("The Fence") are pick-me-ups.
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