There are two easy types of film provocation. You can prod an audience with boundary-pushing images — say, Chloe Sevigny painting Vincent Gallo’s tree — or by testing their tolerance for style or narrative experimentation — say, Vincent Gallo driving, driving, driving, driving. “Kinatay” (which translates to “Butchered”) tries out both, culminating in an act of gruesome violence after a patience-trying buildup of dread and boredom over a long, unlit nighttime car ride. The film’s main character is a upbeat teenager who’s just married the equally young mother of his baby. Short on cash, he’s been dabbling in petty crime, and blithely hops in a van with a friend who’s a member of a local gang for an unspecified but presumably dodgy job. It’s apparent early on that something very bad is going to happen at the final destination — the woman they pick up, bind, gag and beat into unconsciousness is kind of an unmissable sign — but the guy stays, the camera peering at his unhappy, conflicted face as he passes up different openings to cut and run or to help their captive escape, lingering as he witnesses and becomes complicit in something monstrous.
Roger Ebert called “Kinatay” the new “worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival,” succeeding the original cut of a certain road/blowjob feature. That’s a bit strong. Director Brillante Mendoza is just convinced that ideas must equal difficulty — and so, with last year’s “Serbis,” the theater itself had to be the main character, the teeming human dramas it sheltered deliberately, coyly captured only in oblique fragments. With “Kinatay,” the problem is more that the ideas aren’t that good, unless you want to take its protagonist, a callow kid who can’t look away as things get more and more unpleasant, as a stand-in for the audience. In which case, maybe you’re meant to do what he never manages to and walk away — the film gives you plenty of opportunity to, and plenty of people did.