***/**** Image B- Sound B Extras B-
starring Jason Flemyng, Peter Stormare, Leslie Hope, Nina Garbiras
written and directed by George A. Romero
by Walter Chaw A comic-book morality play along the lines of his Creepshow, horror legend George A. Romero's Bruiser is rife with ideas and the kind of broad audacity that foments disquiet in rough strokes and bleak epiphanies. While it doesn't hold together and is too self-conscious by the end to be anything but a little tedious and a lot predictable, the film's first hour is possessed. Furious and marked by a sense of impending doom, Bruiser begins as exciting and risky an angst-ridden passion play as nearly anything produced in a yuppie-unrest genre that includes dissident films like Wolf, Fight Club, and American Psycho. It opens as a series of castrations for our milquetoast hero, Henry (Jason Flemyng)--humiliated at work, cheated by his friend, cuckolded by his wife (Leslie Hope)--until one day he wakes to find himself the protagonist in a Kafka parable. His face wiped clean of his identity, Henry becomes an amalgam of Ellison's and Wells's invisible men: ignored by society and ironically destroyed by the power bestowed upon him by his own anonymity.
The metaphors fly thick and heavy, from an unfinished home in the middle of an unfinished development, to a job in marketing at the titular vogue magazine, to an image of a toy poodle eating a giant slab of raw flesh; the last thing Bruiser can be accused of is reserve or subtlety. Yet the film's verve recalls the best of Romero in its fascination with intimate violations and conspicuous consumptions: the eating of meat during mad explosions of Darwinian justice; the disintegration of the family; the paranoia of the working class at the heart of the implosion of the American dream. There are two key scenes set in a mask garden--notice your eyes drawn to a mask that's decorated with the American flag. Every identity is slippery, Bruiser seems to suggest, and every identity is equal.
Bruiser begins to fail when it departs from its allegorical structure to present tawdry shots and mundane stings. Isn't there a more symbolically ripe way to dispatch a shrewish and inconstant wife? A richer Kabuki vein to mine in the locker-room gallows of the friend? The major fault of a Romero film has always been one of two things: the director's inability to riff brilliantly on his own brilliant themes, or an inability to know when his theme has run its course. (The exception, of course, being the incomparable Night of the Living Dead, the only Romero film other than Martin to even have an effective third act.) The problem with Bruiser isn't that it's too obvious, it's that it gradually becomes too afraid to be obvious in favour of embracing a Gaston Leroux romantic fable that is, after all, as familiar a tragedy as Beauty and the Beast. A climax set at a Misfits concert is nothing more than a punk revision of a gala opening night complete with wilting ingénue (his boss's wife Janine (Nina Garbiras)) stalked by a demonized virility (boss Milo (Peter Stormare)), defended by a twice-obscured madman. It lacks resonance for its over-familiarity: what should have been operatic in its lurid righteousness turns into "Phantom of the Opera". And that's an immeasurable shame.
For a while, though, Bruiser offers mundane horrors cunningly filtered through a monumentalist hyper-reality. It is everything that Vanilla Sky desired but undermined with its own smug self-satisfaction. But only for a while. The extended conclusion is the biker sequence from Dawn of the Dead all over again: a late-in-the-game freakshow that does little to revitalize an exhausted trope and comes too late anyway--all life has already left the building. I will say that Bruiser is a fairytale worth telling and a return to form for Romero who, even in his minor failures, exposes by example the dearth of significance and heart in the majority of today's lifeless knock-offs. Far from perfect, its last scene a cheat of the worst kind, Bruiser still has a full hour of heat that earns it a firm recommendation.
A commentary by George Romero and his production partner Peter Grunwald is exceedingly pleasant and conversational. Romero displays a high level of intention in his art; he confirms that many of the film's excesses are, indeed, planned. Much is made as well of his personal connection with this film and of the somewhat under-appreciated Martin--the thematic similarities between the two are obvious. There are a couple of commentary sound burbles in chapter 13 and fitfully throughout--they're irritating, but not terribly distracting. A good deal of make-up information and behind-the-scenes technical notes are also welcome. Trimark/Lion's Gate's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is nice though unexceptional: there is a medium-level of grain and it seems to have some problem in processing patterns. The colours are muted, not necessarily a problem with the transfer, and the Dolby 2.0 stereo mix is full with some nice panning effects during the climactic party scene. The satisfying presentation is rounded out by a Misfits music video, a trailer that is accessed through the main menu as something of an Easter egg, and trailers for O and Brian Yuzna's grotesque Faust: Love of the Damned. Originally published: December 29, 2001.