Interesting that at a festival that celebrates visceral cinematic shocks — the over-the-top splatter of “Tokyo Gore Police” and the “we dare you to walk out” boundary pushing of “Martyrs” and “Deadgirl” — the two most disturbing films I saw weren’t horror at all. The first is “I Think We’re Alone Now,” and the second Koen Mortier’s feature debut “Ex Drummer,” which wins the prize for moral decay. It’s been compared to “Trainspotting,” and, like that film “Ex Drummer” has visual style to burn and threads of seedy surrealism, but in terms of content it makes Danny Boyle’s work look like something from the Disney vaults. “Ex Drummer” would kick you in the teeth if it had a pair of steel toe boots and feet to wear them on, a whirlwind of nihilism in which every character is either an impulsive animal, a destructive misanthrope or a willing and deserving victim.
Adapted from Herman Brusselmans’ Flemish-language novel of the same name and set in Ostend, on the Belgian coast, “Ex Drummer” is the story of how three brutish men — a singer with a lisp, a bassist with a paralyzed arm and a half-deaf guitarist — approach a successful author with the idea that he’d be a good drummer. They want to form a punk band with only disabled members, but they’re undeterred by the fact that Dries, the writer, neither knows how to play drums nor has a handicap. He, on the other hand, sees them as ideal sources for material, and, on impulse (“I think I want to step outside my happy world”), joins them in rehearsing for what they’ve all decided will be a lone gig.
“Ex Drummer”‘s sense of overwhelming dread initially comes from the presumption that Dries is out of his league, and that his adventures in slumming amongst those whose day-to-day includes assault, domestic abuse, child neglect, monstrous sex, drug use and general living in their own filth will quickly prove his downfall. That dread later comes from the realization that Dries is the most horrific asshole of them all, an idle sadist who’ll annihilate the miserable lives of his bandmates and their friends and families just for sport, and then retreat to his beautiful waterfront condo and waiting girlfriend. After a while, the onslaught of unredeeming behavior becomes numbing — no one who’s not an angry goth teenager can buy into a world that’s so top-to-bottom grim. But Mortier’s box of visual tricks is inexhaustible, and most of the ones he tosses on screen stick: A character’s slippery sanity is represented by his only being able to walk on the ceiling of his bloodstained flat; a massacre pauses to allow its victims to offer a final rueful, bloodstained confession; a character walks away smoking and the world falls down; bike rides through town are shown in reverse, from ringing doorbells to a random beating; and every interior space outside of Dries’ immaculate apartment is a claustrophobic hellhole of peeling wallpaper, crumbling plaster and strained mattresses on the floor. Bleak, bleak, ludicrously, inchoately bleak — but exhilaratingly made even so.
[Photo: “Ex-Drummer,” Mercurio Cinematografica/Quad Productions, 2007]
+ “Ex-Drummer” (Fantastic Fest)