The Dirties is a stunning debut from Matthew Johnson, the Canadian writer/director/producer/editor/star who took home the Slamdance Grand Jury Prize (“Terrifyingly timely and brutally honest”) earlier this year. To structure the movie, Johnson uses two distinctly 21st Century genres, mumble-core and found footage, to tell the tale of Matt and Owen, two high school students who have been bullied, marginalized, and picked on. Matt and Owen deal with this emotional torment by venting in the healthiest way possible, they make a movie. Sure they swear a lot and they “shoot” their enemies, but it’s only a movie, and movies can’t hurt people. Right? Just keep repeating that to yourself while you watch Matt walk down the hallways of his school, a loaded pistol in his hand and a hockey bag full of shotguns and semi-automatic rifles. It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie…
Set in modern-day Canada, in a suburb outside of Toronto, The Dirties is the name of the film-within-a-film that Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) are making. The movie we are watching is the making of The Dirties that Matt’s friend Jared (cinematographer Jared Raab) is making. Matt, Owen, Jared, these are the kids who spent more time watching movies than learning to talk to girls. They have decided it’s high time to pick up cameras and make their own, but about what? How about a movie where their characters get revenge on the school bullies? Makes perfect sense to me. Even Woody Allen saw the beauty in a scripted world, “You know how you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art, because it’s real difficult in life?” Matt titles the movie and the bullies The Dirties, and scripts a 70s buddy cop movie where he and Owen take them down. The movie they make is good, but is far too violent and foul-mouthed to be shown in class. The teacher forces them to make a tamer (PG) cut, the class mocks them when they screen it, and Matt and Owen are back to square one.
Matt starts to lose the boundary between fantasy and reality, and begins work on an actual attack of The Dirties. He plots out his attack like a director plotting and storyboarding his next film. Owen continues to work and play with Matt, but his attention starts to drift toward the pretty girl in class, Chrissy (Krista Madison). The more time Owen spends apart from Matt, the more Matt slips further and further down the hole, until all is lost. When Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver he included a piece of prose that not only summed up Travis’ momentum, but the momentum of all psychotic prior to action: The film is moving fast now; it pushes hard and straight toward its conclusion. We’re moving towards the kill. There is no doubt where The Dirties is headed, it’s conclusion hanging over the rest of the movie like a dark cloud. Can Owen sense that conclusion? Is that why he gets out? Can Matt sense the conclusion? Does that explain why he spends so much time crafting the tiny details of his life? Checking out every copy of The Catcher in the Rye from school, selecting his outfit for that fateful day, reading up on psychosis, and the shooting at Columbine High School. Is he preparing his case ahead of time? Johnson and company do not answer these questions, because in real life, we wouldn’t, and haven’t gotten those answers either.
The Dirties tackles much more than the events leading a person to commit such a monstrous act. It also depicts (and depicts beautifully) the fragility of masculinity in teenagers. They can’t quite express themselves the way the want to, so they model their lives and behaviors after something they think gets it right, movies. Matt is the director of his fantasy movie The Dirties, the documentary of making The Dirties, but most importantly, he is the director of his life. He thinks like a director, crafting shots, Foley sounds, atmosphere, and mood. First he does it for the camera, then he does it in front of the camera, and finally, he starts to do it in real life. When Matt decides to help Owen get Chrissy he stages two “scenes”. The first involves a phone call where Matt uses background noise from a party movie to give the illusion that Owen is out with the maddening crowd. Owen tells the girl on the phone that he’ll go some place quieter, with Matt using heavy shoes to make sound effects, fades the party noise down, even playing a CD with nighttime sound effects. It’s not enough for Owen to talk to Chrissy on the phone, the proper illusion must be created. Another “scene” is staged with Owen baking a cake, but pretending he stole it, to share it with Chrissy. It works, but one of The Dirties sits down and Owen offers him a piece of cake. Matt is furious. Because Owen interacted with his sworn enemy, or because Owen deviated from the script?
Owen show us a different side of humanity. Owen has been bullied just as much as Matt, and he takes just as much pleasure in making a movie about killing The Dirties as Matt does, but something happens that changes things drastically, Owen gets the girl. Owen goes along with Matt, possibly even fantasizing about killing The Dirties as well, but then love or infatuation intervenes, and Owen has a new reason to live. Matt grows impatient with Owen because he is not only deviating from the plan, but his attention has shifted from Matt to Chrissy. Owen grows impatient with Matt because all he sees in Matt is talk without action. Owen thinks that he has acted by winning over Chrissy. With Owen, revenge over The Dirties is a life well lived. With Matt, revenge requires a lead bullet.
Belonging in the same category as Taxi Driver and Crime and Punishment, The Dirties takes an unvarnished look at the psychotic slowly slipping from reality into fantasy, finally acting out in an unhindered and violent fashion. Here, the benefit of the found-footage genre allows the viewer to not just watch the psychotic, but to identify with him as well. Cinema is a cruel medium because it is a mirror that doesn’t just reflect society, it reflect ourselves back at us. As we watch characters move through the scripted world of the movie, we constantly look for moments and emotions that contain humanity, allowing us to empathize with the character. Any male of a certain age will see themselves in the characters of Matt and Owen, they are that richly drawn. That is what make certain scenes so hard to watch, particularly Owen’s confrontation in the cafeteria and Matt’s disillusioned ending. This is what makes the ending of The Dirties so uncomfortable, so gut wrenching: we may not be that character any more, but we were just a few minutes ago. If anything else, this is where Johnson really shines. He makes Matt such a lovable character, you hope and pray that he won’t do the one thing you know he is going to do. We’ve watched him, he’s not a monster. It takes real talent, and real genius to do that, and at twenty-eight, Johnson does. If there is one career that you need to pay close attention to, it is his.
There are two major questions that I think The Dirties answers, and those are the two most commonly asked in the aftermath of these situations: Who is to blame? and Why were none of the warning signs heeded? It is in our natures that when we look at something monstrous, we must find the monster that perpetrated it. We search for faults and causes, A+B+C=Violent Crime. In essence, “If I avoid A, B, and C, then I will avoid a violent crime,” or, “ If we can ban A, B, or C, then we will all avoid a violent crime.” Sadly, it’s never that easy. One of the reasons we don’t heed the warning signs is because when it comes to a human being, especially if they are someone we love, then we look past all that is problematic and troubling and try very hard to locate the good. Owen certainly knew that Matt was planning a school shooting, but he also knew that Matt was capable of helping him get the girl. Someone with compassion is incapable of killing, right? The teacher and janitor that barely questioned Matt as he walked into the school early in the morning, should they have been suspicious and wondered what he was really up to? Would you? If a student tells you he is working on a project for another teacher, why wouldn’t you believe them? The teacher and the janitor believed that Matt was telling them the truth. Owen believed that Matt was good and would not do bad. I wouldn’t blame them any more than I would blame the factory that made the bullets that killed those kids. I blame the shooter, and I might blame the person who gave the shooter those guns, but I could never blame a person who trusted in the goodness of strangers.