Screens at CIFF: 10/12 & 10/13
World premiere: 21 April, 2013, Tribeca Film Festival

That Josh C. Waller loves Quentin Tarantino is already obvious from the casting of ZoΓ« Bell as the lead of his film Raze - you know Ms. Bell, of course, she being the New Zealander stunt performer who doubled for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, and for her pains was made the fearless protagonist of Death Proof, Tarantino's half of Grindhouse, and given a really fun cameo in Django Unchained. And while Bell meets nobody's definition of a Great Actor, she's a thoroughly fun B-movie star, so even if it is inevitable, given her pedigree, that no director shall ever give her a part without metaphorically turning to the audience and saying "Oh, you remember where you saw her, right? *WINK*", I applaud Waller for his good taste. Bell is spirited, she has a great face, and her accent makes it sound like every line she ever delivers is a bad-ass corker, whether it actually is or not.

Anyway, what the fuck was I talking about? Oh, Raze. So Bell plays Sabrina, the featured victim in a movie that dumps a bunch of hot women in a dungeon, whereupon a jolly, skeleton-thin wisp of a man (Doug Jones) and his beatifically grinning wife (Sharilyn Fenn, because Waller also loves Twin Peaks I assume - as do all righteous people of course) prod them, two at a time, into a stone-walled pit and requires that the have a bare-knuckle fight to the death. Losing means that the woman's family members die. Refusing to fight means the same.

As I was starting to say, Bell makes it clear where Waller's cinematic heritage lies, but even if that didn't we'd still have the ironclad evidence of his chapter titles. For in lieu of a plot that doesn't assert itself until more than an hour into the movie, Raze structures itself one deathmatch at a time, and each sequence of the film (the fight, and then the chatter afterward as the man taunts the captives and they whisper through shared walls trying to figure what's happening) is introduced by the names of the two fighters, e.g. "Teresa vs. Megan". I do not remember if Teresa and Megan ever fight. I don't remember if there even was a Megan, though there was definitely a Teresa, and this I recall because she was played by Tracie Thoms, who I have found an appealing presence in movies before and, God willing, shall again.

The chapter titles, then, are another clear lift from the Tarantino playbook, given that they are theoretically providing a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor to the proceedings, though the effectiveness gambit is entirely in the eyes of the beholder. I, myself, beheld no such goddamn thing, except in the very last title card, which is actually clever enough in context that I laughed out loud, and it comes unexpectedly close to redeeming everything that had to be slogged through in order to get to that point; if the film had managed to stay at that level for the subsequent 15 minutes, I might have even left with charitable, nay, openly positive feelings about Raze.

This is not what happened. Bad for me, bad for the movie, but good for letting me write umbraged, pissy things in a negative review, because I enjoy doing that, at least.

Raze is a shockingly one-note movie. It's a nine-minute short repeated four or five times and given a shitty coda, and even that short isn't any damn good; there's no point to it at all, besides watching violent action scenes that all end with an innocent person dying and mostly ending with the killer feeling some kind of remorse over it. Meanwhile, analogues for the elite are cooing with pleasure at the skill of the killing. At some point during production, I'd wager good money that somebody thought to call this The Hostel Games, and if they didn't, I never want to be on a film set again.

It's amazingly nihilistic, glancing at the idea of female empowerment and the subversion of male authoritarian privilege and the male gaze, but only from a distance, and while it's running in a lateral direction. It's not even a horror movie, it's not even an exploitation film, for Christ's sake; it is, literally, nothing but violent scenes, payed out one by one, without even the compensation of good fight choreography or interesting camerawork to offset the emptiness of it. In an unnaturally generous frame of mind, I might wonder if Waller and company were making some kind of audience-baiting exercise in subverted expectations, but that would require some level of wit and any sequence that suggested any reading other than the most obvious, superficial one. This is just pointless punching "extreme" if that's the sort of thing you care for, but there are plenty of extreme films that actually offer some observation about human experience, or hit with their brutality hard enough at a sensitive enough spot that you can at least feel the rawness of it; Raze is too stupid and conceptually thin to even feel like real, upsetting violence. So why on earth would this be the extreme film you'd want to watch?

Simple answer to that: ZoΓ« Bell. She doesn't fix the material even slightly, but she makes it not intolerable, and she's a good enough fighter that her scenes don't feel as leadenly staged as some. Also, the final scene, adding one loopy, totally unexplained twist on top of the films already loopy invocation of the Maenad cult of ancient Greece, at least has the merit of being so incredibly misjudged that the movie finally starts to be as funny as you kind of suspect it was trying to be all along.

But golly, that's just not much of a merit, is it?