Man, I really kind of like everything Cory Cataldo tries to do with Mad World, but I'm also a little worried that I don't understand anything that Cataldo wants to do with it, either. But for what it's worth, very few movies have tackled the whole Columbine Massacre/Teen Bullying issue head on, so Mad World earns proper respect right off the bat. But then it veers madly down that lonely road, bouncing off median dividers so frequently you just can't hold on, finally lying bruised in a ditch, wondering what happened.
Mad World isn't as much a narrative as it is a series of events leading to an inevitable conclusion. Writer/director Cory Cataldo introduces us to four high-school buddies, running the table, more-or-less, of teenage victims. Cory (Gary Cairns II) is the loser from the wrong side of the tracks. Will (Dylan Vigus) is the fat class clown. John (Matthew Thompson) is the black kid who rejects black stereotypes, and Jevon (James Lee Martinec) is the moody, mysterious rich-kid/drug-addict. They make an unlikely team save for the fact that they're outcasts, and they suffer outrageously at the hands of exaggerated authority figures and bullies. Over the course of 100 minutes of proselytizing and exploitation, it becomes clear that these boys are destined for a killing spree.
Though by no means perfect, Mad World is a striking picture that makes you think about the causes of school massacres. While many want to find a root cause for such things, Mad World makes its point in blunt terms; there are plenty of reasons kids might take a few hundred rounds of ammunition into the cafeteria. However Cataldo accomplishes this with a series of frustrating dichotomies.
For starters, is this a revenge flick, or a thoughtful drama? Full of exploitation elements, the movie would seem to appeal to prurient interests, yet each time some insanity happens - racially charged bullying, drunken-parent beat downs, what have you - we're allowed plenty of silent time with lingering cinematography to think things through. It's a tricky mix to pull off, as is the combination of some truly impassioned performances (Matthew Thompson and Robert J. MacColl as Jevon's creepy dad stand out) in service of pedantry, long speeches telling us what's going on in our character's minds, and what we're supposed to think rather than allowing for subtlety and interpretation. Even the soundtrack gets into the act. Tunes with lyrics sell the story remarkably well, while instrumentals meant to underscore action are clunky and ham-fisted.
Where this World is most maddening, though is in seemingly wanting to eat the cake and have it, too. Bad things happen in this movie. Really bad. Stuff even this jaded viewer was a little shocked by. We are primed to cheer these kids on as they do some well-deserved ass kicking. Sure, their myriad tortures are summed up in Cory's clanking speech as completely logical reasons to kill everyone: "they said we would turn out to be nothing, and they MADE us nothing," Cory rants. So much for self-determination. The problem lies in the fact that Cataldo won't let us revel in revenge. As awful as it seems, this movie needs some gleeful satisfaction, and we need to feel the thrill of the carnage. Mad World wants to be taken seriously. Methodical pacing (the movie could lose at least 20 minutes) and speechifying testify to that. But the sheer volume of sleazy transgressions indicates a fast-paced exploitationer waiting to break free. You can marry the two ideas, but Mad World gets cold feet.
Post Script: Then film ends with an interview subject saying something like, "kids should not kill" to a news reporter. The final shot has that reporter looking at the camera with air-headed amusement. It's the weirdest damn ending to a movie that I've ever seen.