Family man Tom has seen something he can’t forget, a mysterious video with an ugly secret that soon spreads into his daily life and threatens to dismantle everything around him
“Gut”, the second feature film from director Elias, offers a complex look into the queasy voyeurism of gonzo splatter cinema, nestled snug in an expressionist crime thriller. While there are a number of scenes featuring up-close and nasty violence, they are almost incidental to the impact of this low-budget gem; “Gut” is at its best when it’s slowly gnawing on the act of watching something awful play across a screen. It is very much a horror film about the audience watching it.
The film centres around respectable suburbanite Tom (ably played by Jason Vail). A dutiful husband and doting father, Tom nonetheless finds himself chafing against the beige-ness of the life in which he’s found himself. It goes deeper than mere boredom, though. Seemingly innocuous domestic spaces throb and grind with a vague menace (due in no small part to Chad Bernhard’s evocative score). Despite himself, Tom feels trapped by his responsible adulthood.
As a counterpoint, we’re given Tom’s coworker and best buddy Dan (Nicholas Wilder). Inseparable in their youth, the two boys shared an appreciation of gore cinema. Indeed, Dan had ambitions of becoming a director. However, age and compromise have parked the two men in adjacent cubicles. And yet, whereas Tom has embraced the socially normative role laid out for a 30-something man, Dan remains an unrepentant horror-nerd and bachelor. Dan is Tom’s best friend and ally, in whom he confides his growing feelings of boredom and alienation.
Dan’s solution is simple: a night of beer and balls-to-the-wall extreme horror videos. It is during this boys’ night in that Dan reveals his most recent acquisition: a mail-order DVD of dubious origin and unknown content. They pop the disc in, and the whole film promptly dives into some pretty dark waters: the DVD contains no story or context. There is only an unidentified woman, a second unidentified knife-wielding person, and an act of horrific violence. The two men sit transfixed. “Do you think it’s real?” Dan speculates, “It feels real, doesn’t it?” Tom leaves, angry and uneasy, but the images stay with him. Before long, they’re watching another one, still uncertain whether they’re watching a movie or witnessing a murder.
The viewer-experience depicted in “Gut” is a tangled bird’s-nest of voyeurism and vicarious sexual sadism. Here, the “gore-p*rn” label is not entirely metaphorical. Violent imagery creeps into the characters’ erotic imaginations, and the film does an excellent job of bringing the audience into their heads. We, the audience, lack the comfortable distance from the characters that so often takes the edge off of an anti-hero. Instead, we are faced with some rather disquieting questions about how violent images affect and change us. “Gut” largely skips over the theory of “desensitization through exposure to violence”, and instead gets elbow-deep in voyeuristic pleasure. It makes for a difficult film, holding a mirror up to it’s own audience and asking some rather pointed questions.
The film does loose a bit of steam in the home-stretch, though. It works admirably when pulling apart the layers of Tom’s psyche, but the tone and structure shift partway through, settling into a more traditional crime-thriller mode. In that tonal shift, some of the cracks begin to show. Specifically, there is a real shortage of three-dimensional characters in the film. Tom and Dan lead rich and nuanced interior lives, but the other people in the film are little more than stock characters defined by their roles in relation to the two men. Indeed, it is truly disappointing when a film demonstrates such an intelligent and thoughtful perspective on horror cinema, and yet still blunders into the same old misogynist tropes that have plagued lesser slasher films.
Case and point: a romantic sub-plot is hurriedly introduced partway through the film, only the woman in question to turn up dead shortly thereafter (a victim of narrative convenience)..
Nevertheless, I heartily recommend this film. It is not an easy film to watch, but I found it as rewarding as it was troubling. This isn’t a popcorn movie. Rather, it’s the kind of movie you follow up with a venti cappuccino and a caffeine-fuelled conversation.