Review: Bellflower, 2011, dir. Evan Glodell

Flamethrowers, precarious romance, badass muscle cars, and directionless, angry young men make for a potentially cataclysmic cocktail. So goes the narrative of Evan Glodell’s Bellflower, a tale of love and apocalypse and slackerdom and possibly the most aesthetically unique film of the year. Glodell, who not only directed the film but also wrote the script and plays one of its principals, put Bellflower together on a hope and a prayer, funneling an unknown but clearly minute investment into making not only the film but also his own camera; if nothing else Bellflower can be called one of the best recent examples of D.I.Y. filmmaking in action to be released in theaters.

But Glodell has something truly special here apart from moxie, something exciting and crazy and bloody and true, driven by aggressive and unrelenting displays of emotion and a raw passion for filmmaking both behind the camera and in front of it. Bellflower‘s two leads, Woodrow (Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), spend all their free time– of which they appear to have an abundance– stockpiling weapons, including the aforementioned homemade flamethrower and a car equally capable of spouting flames, in the event of a global disaster, hoping that the ensuing chaos will clear the way for them to rule the post-apocalyptic wasteland a’la Mel Gibson’s Mad Max. It’s the introduction of the fairer sex, in the form of Milly (Jessie Wiseman) and Courtney (Rebekah Brandes), that alters the course of their plans just enough for everything to end badly. Don’t toy with the emotions of a guy who owns a flamethrower.

Bellflower could ultimately just be the product of two aimless twenty-somethings with serious, inexplicable chips on their shoulder– toward life in general and perhaps women in particular. Perhaps Glodell’s artistic offer of explanation– that the film refers back to a heartbreaking relationship from his past– can be seen as something of a smokescreen. But Bellflower smacks of honesty; it’s an embellishment, obviously, but the sentiment is there and reads as genuine. The film feels like the work of a person seeking closure of a sort, in the most bombastic and stunning ways possible. Some may walk away from Bellflower with the belief that Glodell is simply on a misogynist power trip; they’re entitled to their reactions, of course, but it’s worth giving the young filmmaker the benefit of the doubt, as Bellflower is too earnest to be summarily dismissed on grounds of gender bias.

And as it turns out, Bellflower‘s also nearly as  much about the disaffected female characters and their own burdens as it is the males’; while perhaps male-centric, the film isn’t entirely consumed by Glodell’s smoldering emotional catharsis. Woodrow and Aiden constitute the film’s primary studies, of course, but neither Milly nor Courtney are ciphers; they have baggage as well, including emotional hang-ups and their own absence of purpose, though they are given much less room to flourish as characters than the film’s leads. They’re coasting just like the boys– though maybe less so, since Milly, at least, seems to be employed. Meanwhile Aiden and Woodrow enjoy unlimited funds that let them buy custom-ordered parts for their weapons and, eventually, that very same badass muscle car brought up in the first paragraph; simultaneously, they keep themselves fueled on a steady regiment of alcohol and drugs. It’d be a miracle if they even made it to the point of Armageddon.

Which makes the numerous comparisons to Fight Club a bit of a puzzle. In truth there’s some validity to the connection. Both films document naked male rage in brutally honest and artistically compelling ways. But Fight Club hails from a completely different time. Edward Norton may have grown to be disillusioned and he may have hated his job, but at least he had a job with a course plotted for his life. Woodrow and Aiden possess the same disgruntled wroth as Norton in spades but share nothing else in common, and unguided acrimony and fury is so much more harmful than the alternative.

Between their anger and the film’s decidedly indie roots, Bellflower turns out to be something of an unexpected one-two punch. Glodell’s picture feels like a bizarre marriage between the mumblecore movement, distinguished by films like The Puffy Chair, and more disturbing low-budget shock cinema. For some, the coupling may be problematic; the film’s opening minutes forecast its violent finale, but in large part Bellflower functions as something of a stripped-down exercise in human romantics lovingly coated with an overlay of genre homage. Apart from occasional glimpses into the psyches of Aiden and Woodrow– windows of opportunity that continue pushing the film into darker territory– Bellflower‘s central love story renders it surprisingly sweet. As Glodell leads us into the film’s final 40 minutes, though, the rug is yanked from underneath us as Bellflower revels in getting its hands dirty.

If Bellflower has a flaw, it’s that the incendiary, pernicious climax is dishonest, which threatens to unravel everything. Without venturing into the realm of revelation, there’s a bit of a bait-and-switch that stops the film from going anarchically and irrevocably haywire when it would be so totally justified in doing so; the effect is very nearly deflating. None of this would be a problem if Glodell avoided deception, and either allowed Bellflower to blossom fully into an inferno of self-destructive behavior or clued us in on his duplicity. It’s a misstep easily made by a first-timer, but Glodell should be let off with mere slap on the wrist given the quality of the rest of his film.

That’s no exaggeration, either. Bellflower is a film that demands to be watched and deserves your attention, full-stop, though I write this fully acknowledging that its melange of cinematic sensibilities may not be everybody’s cup of tea. Yet Glodell’s celluloid brew immediately announces his status as a filmmaker to watch; he not only has talent but a singular vision to go with it. Glodell knows how to get good performances out of his cast; he knows how to compose his shots and stage a scene; he knows how to use his hyper-stylized use of aesthetics for maximum impact (though cinematographer Joel Hodge may be too obsessed with tilt-shift photography). Regardless of your personal reaction to the film, Bellflower announces the emergence of a potentially vital director, and presents a gut shot of jaded, disillusioned youth and spiritual carnage, crafted beautifully and to devastating effect.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Bellflower, 2011, dir. Evan Glodell

  1. Pingback: 2011: Retrospective, Awards, & ACVF’s Top 15 (Pt.1) « A Constant Visual Feast

  2. Nice review Andrew, Bellflower has been on my must watch list for quite awhile. I am going to have to get to it sooner rather than later.

    I see you are in the “Boston area” we at three guys are all from central Mass originally.

    • I feel like I’m one of the only people out there who has seen this! Glad to know I’m not alone– it took me by surprise.

      I live in the suburbs about 15 minutes/20 minutes outside of the city. Makes it easy to get in and check out movies on the Common when the opportunity arises.

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