It's become a sort of theme week: I get to review movies that I don't particularly care for at the request of people who loved them. In this case, the Carry On Campaign donation that put this particular movie at my doorstep was courtesy of Jonathan Volk, a good human being and friend who at least had the decency to pick something I disliked by accident, unlike some others.

Knowing the man's work largely by reputation alone and praying the reputation was inflated, I'd hung on to the belief, no doubt foolishly, that the title of Harmony Korine's fourth feature, Trash Humpers, referred to something other than the most obvious interpretation. It does not. Verily, this is a film in which people hump trashcans - not the actual trash inside, mind you, and not just trash. There's very nearly as much tree humping as trash humping, along with shrub fellating.

The three individuals who do this, given names on various websites that are never indicated in the movie or its credits, are played by Brian Kotzur, Travis Nicholson, and Rachel Korine, the director's wife; Harmony himself plays a fourth humper who is only seen onscreen infrequently, spending most of his time manning the VHS camcorder on which his confederates' acts are to be saved for posterity. All four performers are wearing thick latex makeup meant to make them look old, though in effect, aided by the fuzziness of VHS, they look more like the mutated sub-humans of the remade The Hills Have Eyes than old people, particularly the one played by Rachel Korine, whose skin is a specially nauseating shade of grey. Whether the characters are meant to be old people, or young people in masks, is left unaddressed and is anyway besides the point.

Trash Humpers has no plot, only a succession of motifs. The trash humpers wander through the streets of an identified city (the film was shot in Nashville, Tennessee), destroy things, interact with other outsiders (I could describe them but then I'd be stealing the movie's job), sing nonsense songs and wail nonsense words and utterances, cause mayhem, drag around baby dolls. This last repeated image is arguably the most pervasive in the film, even above humping trashcans; and the conclusion of the baby doll motif, which is also the conclusion of the film, has the benefit of being, for me at least (and there's really no reason to pretend that anybody could respond to Trash Humpers in any objective, impersonal way), the only point when Korine's button-pushing actually manipulated me in a way I felt particularly good about.

There's always the temptation, in discussing the director's modest output (four features in 12 years, plus two screenplays for Larry Clark), to use the word "provocateur"; Lord knows Trash Humpers appears deliberately provocative, though it's hard to say what specifically it's meant to provoke. Far better, I suspect, to take Korine at his word, in interviews and the like, as well as the lengthy monologue he gives his own character near the end, the only time that any of the four protagonists speaks, for any protracted length of time, in relatively clear English (relatively: in any other movie, this would be the most deranged and nonsensical of psychotic rants), and allow Trash Humpers to be some kind of paean to the life of vandals, the underground, the deranged. It is a profoundly amoral movie: even though he dwells on the damage caused by the trash humpers, including murder, Korine simply does not apply any judgment to those actions, never painting the characters as terrifying of monstrous, nor beatifying them as insane mystics and truth-tellers. He is just fascinated by their behavior, or more accurately, by the results of their actions.

The film can, then, be read as an exercise in visual abstraction: taking the weird and alienating and reducing it to its most visually elemental. Certainly, the very brash use of VHS as a recording medium and and editing system (which results in a lot of abrupt or otherwise clumsy cuts, as well as the onscreen appearance of more than a few VCR commands appearing onscreen) creates a visual texture like nothing else, one in which all of the images we see are viewed though a tape darkly, covered in a haze of low resolution and blockiness, with video noise splattering many of the takes.

The other function of the VHS is to lend the patina of "found footage" to the proceedings; Korine is said to have considered dropping the finished cut on a street somewhere and watching to see where it went from there, though this is an idea sufficiently fraught with pitfalls that I can't imagine he considered it very long. At any rate, the thing does feel like a capsule from another place and time, never "realistic" in the sense that video sometimes is held to add a documentary truthiness to cinema; more like somebody's nightmares crossed with their home videos.

It's desperately fascinating as an object; even as a concept, it's difficult to find fault with Korine's desire to create a non-narrative cavalcade of strange and often unpleasant vignettes, something like a variety show created by the psychopathic. Underground art masquerading as outsider is interesting, if nothing else, though I can't help but feel that Korine thinks he's being more daring than he really is; there is a line between the genuinely challenging and the merely gross, and Trash Humpers virtually never abandons the wrong side of that line, while his enthusiastic violations of all the rules of narrative cinema mean that the film, untethered to specific characters or emotions, is always too theoretical for it to "say" much about whatever culture it is supposedly critiquing.

One of the common complaints upon the film's release in the summer of 2010, even from critics and viewers who mostly admired it, was that after about 20 minutes, after you'd gotten the joke, the film started to repeat itself. I must be an utter idiot, for after all 74 minutes, I not only hadn't gotten the joke, I didn't even realise there was a joke I wasn't getting; but I'll agree that any individual 10- or 20-minute snippet of the film ultimately means the same thing as the whole feature, though that does ignore the very real way that certain elements only gain whatever meaning they ever do from repetition over the course of more than an hour. That doesn't change the fact, though, that a little Trash Humpers goes a long way; and as much as I'd expected to find the thing disgusting and nasty, and I even had my whole "I feel like thinking a Harmony Korine film is disgusting and off-putting means that Harmony Korine wins, but..." lede all ready to go, the most shocking thing about Trash Humpers is that it's boring: only the scene of a tween-ish boy destroying a doll and laughing evilly actually bothered me, while overweight prostitutes and a man dressed in a French maid outfit and so on all wore on and on beyond any reason I could discern. It gets, at times, hellishly annoying (the characters, especially Korine's own, speak in irritating squeaky voices), but virtually never offensive, and whether this says more about our living in a post-underground world, or about the director's shaky, self-promoting idea of what "underground" means, it leaves Trash Humpers as only a bit of ado about less than nothing.