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? (2005)
Directors: Alex Harz and Tom Kennedy

review by Richard Bowden

The most striking independent feature seen by this reviewer since Reflections Of Evil, the interrogatively titled ? shares some themes in common with that earlier film. An angry suspicion, or rejection, of the American dream for instance: particularly that of consumerism, social responsibility and the way to personal happiness - not to mention its similar concern with aspects of mental health and a fierce, deadpan humour. But Packard's magnum opus was a scream of impotent rage from just one disillusioned individual. That of film of actor-directors Alex Harz and Tom Kennedy, while it also features a central character with an anger management problem (West, played by Kennedy), this time the charmed circle is extended to include his new companion: Arthur (Harz), an amiable 'retard' as well as in turn his inanimate, if beloved, companion the inflatable sex doll Nancy.

? we are assured, is the tale, 'based on actual events', of two outsiders in a story which takes place over three days. The bald, emotionally intense, aggressively sideburned, Tom Kennedy frequently recalls Woody Harrelson in a film which begins with him in characteristic rage: first at this lack of employment, then at his current relationship, his car and finally his mobile phone, which he grinds underfoot in the road. His girlfriend has him down for therapy, but he will have none of it. Instead he pushes her over and storms out one particularly fraught morning, before popping into a Ku Klux Klan member's convenience store for cigarettes. It's here he first meets Arthur, employed apparently at no salary. Himself cheated by the redneck proprietor, West returns to take his revenge shortly afterwards before leaving with Arthur in tow to "do what normal people do."

Reasonably independent following the accidental death of his family, Arthur lives in a spotless apartment furnished just as eclectically as one might expect: he's particularly fond of loud polka music and of exercise machines (of which there are several lined up in the living room). He's also addicted to tofu smoothies, and proud of his collection of 498 porn videos. Silver-faced alien masks adorn the walls, and indeed the familiar face of alien abduction makes up the bulk of his decor. In this environment West can start to relax. He buys his new friend Nancy, an acquiescent rubber companion from a sex shop, and a strong bond is forged. In the next couple of days the three grow inseparable as they reclaim some of West's possessions, choose porn, go on a hot date together where they meet Patsy (Connie Gair), drugging the girl for sex thereafter, and attend a 'love the American dream' lecture, actually a pyramid selling seminar that they disrupt.

Citing David Lynch, Stanley Kubrick, Monty Python, the Coen brothers and fellow Colorado filmmakers Matt Stone and Trey Parker as influences, co-director Herz says the main intention of his film was to provide something unique, all the while evoking emotions. Others with less sympathy for the results have seen them as just "the Farrelly brothers with a mean streak" but, to this viewer, at least, there's no doubting the memorability of the disreputable and distinctly un-PC activities of his outsider-heroes, shown as they are without judgement or sentimentality. The humour may be shocking for some, especially with the heavy sexual dimension, but never cruel, and together Arthur and West are surely an unforgettable experience. Their impact is increased by the inclusion of four scenes shot with unsuspecting members of the public as the peculiar duo sit in a diner or play out in a park. As they interact quite naturally with others it dawns on the viewer that perhaps these two oddballs are not so peculiar after all, and that they'd perhaps fit in very easily with the eccentricities of society at large. The effect of such moments is to make their fictional moments together almost natural, as if the peculiarities suggested by blaring polka music, alien masks, the affection for sex dolls and barely suppressed rage of the unemployable exist behind every lace curtain on the block.

When playing the endearingly loopy Arthur, Harz has perhaps the most demanding role in the film. To be fair, he's no Rain Man. In fact, we're always aware of his performance as 'performance', with none of the all-round convincingness of mental handicap that one finds, for instance, in W. Earl Brown's cousin Warren in There's Something About Mary (1998). As the credits role at the end of ? we see Harz reassuringly back to 'normal' in the outtakes. Never the less Arthur is a watchable, warm creation, one's tempted almost to say endearing, while his peculiar peccadilloes, sexual or otherwise, ultimately add to rather than detract from our sense of his humanity. At the centre of one of the most controversial moments of the film, that of the date rape, despite his porno enthusiasms, Arthur remains essentially an innocent. To a certain extent he even helps temper West's frequent misogyny. (Unlike his co-director, Harz's career has blossomed somewhat since making ?, appearing in no less than four projects in 2008).

In similar fashion to Eastwood's A Perfect World (1993), ? also begins on an enigmatic shot which presages the final tragedy. So it's a film told in flashback, even though it's not a process we're aware of until towards the end. Meanwhile there are other flashbacks too, notably those which reveal the central characters having both been victims of childhood sexual abuse - a process though which presumably has left West with a sense of injustice that's a source of his wellspring of rage against the world. The drug rape of Patsy is his idea, although it's promoted less for his own advantage than a wish to see his new friend reach an overdue fulfilment. West's history is also the reason, we suspect, why he takes the exploited Arthur so readily under his wing, and it leads to one notable fantasy sequence where West instructs a line of bikers just how to put the world to rights.

Perhaps it's a world to which such fantasy, emotional disengagement through mental handicap, or alienation through rage is the only sensible answer for, as the film shows, it can all end in tragedy. Ultimately, Arthur, Nancy and West only have three days together. The end of this time is signified by the mistreatment and 'death' of the doll and then West's hit and run accident, in which he runs over a derelict. Just like the aliens on Arthur's wall (the blank, abductor faces of which recall that of Nancy's permanently open-mouthed latex charms) Arthur and West are, in their way, also strange beings in a hostile world. If by the end West's rage has been transformed into something approaching acceptance of the way things necessarily are, they remain according to the final shot, like a pair of strange sheep penned in amidst the greater, unthinking herd of mankind.

? comes in colour and black and white version, both included as part of the same boxset, with the film's 'real life' scenes made distinct within each version by colour or lack of it. Even more generously, the set includes a full soundtrack album, although this lacks the Mozart that so memorably underscores some of Arthur and West's escapades. Such generosity makes up for the lack of a commentary track. The picture quality is excellent, being shot on HD video by the look of it. Even though the DVD and CD set may be relatively hard to track down (there's no region 2 edition for instance and the film's title results in standard Internet database searches being ineffectual), there's no question that ? is worth seeking out. The two directors have also collaborated on Lamb TV (2006), a well-received collection of short films and skits, also out on DVD.
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