Race - a difficult, demanding subject. Prejudice is problematic for many obvious reasons, especially within the realm of entertainment. Hate-spewing characters create their own instant associations, and reactions. Gone are the days when Archie Bunker could run the gamut of insensitive slurs and audiences laughed. Indeed, the issue of ethnicity and the bifurcated nature of the human response to same have driven an international discussion, but few cinematic insights. The reason is simple - a filmmaker must finesse the subject less they be accused of pandering to one side (or God help them, the "other"). Pariah decides to take a more confrontational approach. By dealing with skinheads in Los Angeles circa 1998, writer/director Randolph Kret gets the subject matter scrutiny out of the way right up front. Yet as with any discussion of bigotry, the causes get lost in a legitimacy the movie can't quite comprehend or handle.
One night, Steve and his sultry bi-racial girlfriend Sam are attacked by a band of skinheads, led by the sinister Crew and his redolent right hand man, David Lee. She is gang raped over and over while he is beaten and forced to watch. The resulting personal devastation causes Sam to take her own life, and Steve is destroyed inside. Months later, he decides to infiltrate the Neo-Nazi organization and exact his payback. While initially rebuffed, chubby club slut Babe gets him an audience with the leadership. Soon, Steve is cruising the streets in his bald head, white t-shirt, and red suspenders, beating up minorities while getting rolled by some angry locals. All the while, he waits for the proper moment to take down David Lee and Crew. However, something inside Steve starts to stir, and he's not sure if he's capable of such violence - or if he needs to exact his revenge after all.
On its surface, the hot button low budgeter Pariah should be commended. It's not every film or filmmaker that would take on the subject of Nazi skinheads with such an unblinking eye toward realism and authenticity. Clearly, writer/director Randolph Kret knows his material. He uses incidents that happened to his brother, as well as to a member of his production crew, and laces them together with spasms of punk rock pointlessness. Out of the drunken debris and random racial epithets, a portrait of bored youth straight out of an episode of Geraldo begins to emerge. Even within the scripted storyline which tries to merge social commentary, character study, and Death Wish style vigilantism there are moments of uncomfortable truth. This is not the kind of movie where you ask how, basically because the rationale is written across the face of each of these bald bigots. Instead, one turns their attention inward, asking why Kret would even imagine that someone would be interested in this idea - or worse, find it entertaining. As an artist, he clearly has the chops. As a sketcher of subcultures, he's more or less dead on. But as someone trying to balance insight with intrigue, he's way off the mark.
There are two plot points that really lessen Pariah's impact. The first is its outright misogyny. The female members of the cast are raped, beaten, belittled, degraded, defiled, and more or less treated like clubhouse f*ck furniture for these irate arrested adolescents. Kret does try to give them a strength, avoiding many of the aggressive advances directed their way. But when girls are systematically trampled, when they are sexually assaulted and treated like filth, the filmmaking is more than misguided. In addition, the minorities being rallied against are not saints themselves. Indeed, there is a group of African America thugs who spend the entire narrative chasing down and beating up anyone they want. The racists are not their only mark. They take on women, innocent boyfriends, and anyone who tickles their drive-by fancy. Now granted, these actions don't warrant the horrendous hate crimes perpetrated by our worthless white supremacists. But trying to paint a portrait of intolerance and prejudice with targets that are equally unlikable seems antithetical to your message. Besides, whenever these ancillary characters show up, they immediately take us out of the drama that Kret is trying to create.
Frankly, Pariah needs all the help it can get. The revenge-oriented plot thread never pays off in a way that's satisfying, and the notion that we care about Steve's ordeal is more of a formulaic than a factual one. Part of the problem is Damon Jones. As an actor, he's rather limited. And since he's much better at portraying a sullen skinhead than a devastated victim, we don't get the proper foundation to follow his arc. Luckily, the rest of the cast is very good, with Davidlee Willson and the late Dave Oren Ward as the primary gang leaders. Willson is particularly intriguing, since he seems to balance a secret life as a homosexual (and male prostitute) with his racially insensitive sadism. He can be one note at times - call it sulking sullenness - but he's magnetic onscreen. Similarly, Ward (who was stabbed to death the year after this film was released - 1999) walks a fine line between charismatic and caustic. We're supposed to see his natural leadership and unforgivable beliefs, but there are additional layers here that make Crew more than a straight forward hate monger. It's just a shame that Pariah gets lost in its own desire to be true to its source. A little editorial control and this could have been something special. Instead, it's just a solid, if scattered, effort.
Actually captured on real celluloid - 35mm to be exact - Pariah's 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image actually looks very good. Certainly, the low budget aspects of the production come through in the lighting and set design, but Kret and his cinematographer(s) do an excellent job of conveying the seedier streets of LA. There is a nice saturation of color, and use of directorial tricks. Overall, this is a very good transfer, especially for such an unlikely independent.
Relying on a score from Scott Grusin and lots of post-punk hardcore, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix here is good, but not great. There are times when the speakers explode with a cacophony of sound and fury. There are other times when the dialogue gets buried in ambient noise. Still, this is a very professional and polished production, right down to the tiniest technical element.
Indican Pictures gives this film a nice DVD package, from the informative commentary by director Kret to a series of actor audition tapes and deleted scenes. The alternative narrative does a wonderful job of explaining the joys and pitfalls of making a non-mainstream movie, with our filmmaker overflowing with details, desires, and designs. We learn about the facts behind the fiction, how Kret came to make this movie, and why Ward's cinematic comeuppance was so horribly prophetic. The director also offers a compilation of skinhead lore which wisely adds information about the anti-racism angle of the subculture. The TV and radio spots, along with the theatrical trailer are interesting, and the edited content gives new life to a few ancillary plotlines and shortened sequences. Toss in some storyboards, a photo gallery and the aforementioned rehearsals, and you've got a nice overview of Pariah's creation.
Honestly, this critic lost interest in this film about halfway through. For him, it took too long to get to Steve's second storyline, and the wandering manner in which the material finally finished seemed oddly out of step with the urgency raging inside the rest of the narrative. Still, for what it's worth, Pariah stands as a good (if not great) slice of real life. Therefore, it earns a Recommended rating, although anyone unsure of the subject matter may want to Rent It first to see if they can take the bleakness and bigotry. Race is never an easy subject to realize on film. For every positive facet a movie can bring to the discussion, there's potential of rubbing the audience the wrong way - or worse, sending them the absolutely wrong message. Clearly, no one will be inspired to shave their head and get a swastika tattoo after seeing Pariah. Whether they will be entertained or engaged is another matter all together.