THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Not all films have clearly defined morals,
motivations, or explanations. Films that complicate
these things, however, sometimes have trouble finding
their way to the marketplace. 1998's Charming
Billy made the film fest rounds, picking up a few
well-deserved best actor nods for star Michael Hayden, but received
no real theatrical distribution. Fox Lorber's DVD of the film is
nothing special in the technical departments but it does offer the
chance to see this original and affecting film and that's good enough.
Billy Starkman (Hayden) is a depressed, repressed, possibly sociopathic guy
next door, a sort of rural Travis Bickle, who sludges through the
degradations of everyday life, from menial labor to abusive employers
and customers to frustratingly mundane family life. All of these
experiences create a cacophony in Billy's head that's communicated through
the intercutting of various timelines, a technique that keeps the viewer
slightly disoriented at all times. Whether Billy is having an uncomfortable
Easter dinner with his family, working one of his two miserable jobs, or running
into a smarmy old friend who wonders why Billy never finished school, there's a sense that
Billy is never really where he is. His mind drifts and his blank face barely betrays traces of real emotion.
All of this tension explodes when Billy climbs a local water tower with a high-powered rifle and
starts picking off innocent passers-by. The film doesn't allow this to play out like an exciting climax, however, by cutting this scene
in throughout the film. The blunt realistic violence is gut-wrenching and each murder rings tragic with some unique
element, like a matronly woman whose husband Billy has just killed, who stands, defiantly, and exclaims "Young man!
What do you think you are doing?" Billy doesn't really even know.
The film is certainly ambiguous as to Billy's motivations. Rather than one thing pushing him over the edge, the tone has been
set that it could be anything or everything. The world depicted in the film (sadly, much like our own) is grossly cruel.
Billy's grandfather (Anthony Mockus Sr) is introduced as a cheerful, simple,
mountain of a man with a friendly Santa Claus white beard and a great smile, only to be struck down moments later by a debilitating
righteously defends himself at work against accusations of incompetence only to have the rug pulled out from under him moments
later. It's devastating
and his reaction is understandable on a metaphorical level. His actions, however, are sickeningly misdirected and, in light of recent
events, horrifyingly real. Understanding why people
snap is important, and Charming Billy offers a forum for this discussion.
The widescreen non-anamorphic video is pretty weak. A noticeable amount of dirt appears on the print and the colors and
sharpness are dull.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is ok, if a bit muted. No subtitles are included.
A commentary track from director William Pace, actor Hayden, and two of the producers is included. The participants go into
the origin of the script (Pace started it as a grad student in NYU's film program) as well as the rest of the production process.
They also spend a good deal of time discussing the various motivations of the characters and the variety of
interpretations that the film opens itself up to. As a bonus, if you listen through to the closing credits
you'll find out which 80's pop-metal band helped inspire the story.
Although the realistic, unglamorous violence in the film might be disturbing to some (I cringed at some of the murders)
Charming Billy is a serious film about important psychological and emotional issues. Taking inspiration from from real-life
killings, Charming Billy tries to take a look
at developing human psychosis without the condescending over-simplification that Hollywood usually employs and that we all know
to be a lie.
E-mail Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org