A version of this review first ran as part of our coverage of South by Southwest 2011.
A broken heart feels like the end of the world. That’s the essential truth and the ingenious premise behind “Bellflower” an apocalyptic love story by Evan Glodell, a mad scientist of a filmmaker. Glodell wrote, directed, and starred in the film. He also custom built the camera he used to shoot the movie along with many of the film’s weird gadgets and weapons. Like any mad scientist worth his salt, Glodell occasionally loses control of his creation. But that’s what we like to see mad scientists do: invent something truly crazy and brilliant and watch it crash and burn. In this case, the crashing and burning is literal, courtesy the fire-spewing exhaust pipe of a muscle car called The Medusa. Glodell built that thing too. For the film’s premiere at South by Southwest, he actually drove it from Southern California to Austin.
There’s a long drive to Texas in the movie too. It’s undertaken by Woodrow (Glodell) and Milly (Jessie Wiseman) on their first date. The night before, they’d met at a bar during a bug eating contest; it’s love at first bite of cricket. Woodrow and his best bud Aiden (Tyler Dawson) spend all their days tinkering with gadgets and weapons they’re stockpiling in case the apocalypse ever comes to pass. “Mad Max” fans since they were kids in Wisconsin, they dream of the end of days, when they’ll rule the world with shotguns and flamethrowers and Medusa. They’re not necessarily violent guys; they dig destruction in the abstract. But when his relationship with Milly starts to fall apart, Woodrow finds something else to do with all those toys.
That’s the rough outlines of the narrative but a description doesn’t do the film justice, which is a good deal more than the sum of its plot threads. Synopses can’t convey the beauty of the film’s off-kilter cinematography (shot with three cameras Glodell built), the uncanny naturalism of its dialogue and performances, or the complexity of the film’s editing and sound design, which took two years for Glodell and three other editors to refine. I suspect some audiences will be turned off by a few of “Bellflower”‘s bat-shit crazy plot twists, and by the clash between the good vibrations of its first half and the ’til I die mega-bummer of its second. But the narrative’s rough-hewn quality fits the film. Apocalypses are supposed to be messy.
“Bellflower” bears obvious stylistic inspirations, but it’s a totally original and incredibly personal film; the emotions spewing out of Woodrow and Milly’s dissolution like propane from a flame thrower are so blue-hot intense, they’re borderline uncomfortable. Medusa’s a cool car, but it’s also one big honking metaphor (literally!) for a young man’s impulse to create something great and his self-destructive need to burn it all down. That’s another sign of a good mad scientist: all they leave in their wake is fire, ash, and memories seared into your brain forever.