Based on true events, Carl Withers and James Landers return to society at age eighteen, after having been incarcerated since they were ten for the murder of a small child.
David Schmoeller, noteworthy director of PUPPET MASTER, TOURIST TRAP, and CRAWLSPACE, returns to tread the same water as HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS, and FUNNY GAMES. Like those films, 2 LITTLE MONSTERS, based on true events, is a harrowing, realistic character study of the truly disturbed. Also, it’s totally—radically—unlike any other David Schmoeller movie heretofore.
At a mall in Liverpool, 1993: two ten-year-olds, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, captured a very young James Bulger. Later, they tortured and killed him.
If that isn’t the most horrible circumstance imaginable . . . ugh.
The boys were tried and imprisoned, but now, both at age eighteen, are released back into society. Their names are changed to Carl Withers and James Landers. James goes to live in a foster home, and Carl works in a law firm, under the supervision of his parole officer. There is to be no contact with their real families, friends, or each other, and their whereabouts is to remain secret. But lots of people catch on, and, even more so, lots of people—journalists, especially—want to track them down for a number of reasons (there’s a bounty hunter, too).
The film is a meandering, grim character study, focusing on the experiences of these two youths, who now live out their witness-protection-type lives. It oscillates between documentary-style interviews and intense scenes of dialogue and reflection.
Ryan Laboef plays James. He’s decidedly more rehabilitated than his counterpart. He’s shy, agreeable, and contemplative. Charles Cantrell plays Charles, who is still very disturbed, but fully committed to duplicity, i.e. more noticeably psychotic. Both actors bring the perfect sense of harrow and brooding to their roles. They’re simply impressive. And what a difficult job, to bring these people to life on screen. I don’t envy them. Not one bit. They’re both terrifying, James subtly and Carl overtly.
While Laboef and Cantrell are complex beyond all reason, the other characters, unfortunately, are not. The undeniably tense, complicated duty of serving as a foster parent for a ten-year-old killer, for instance, ought to have been explored with similar nuance. It wasn’t. And the interview subjects—outraged parents, media figures, etc.—come off less than believable. At times, 2 LITTLE MONSTERS feels like a mock episode of DATELINE. Why a mock episode? Because the budget is too low. Because the cinematography is too sparing and sparse, the actors too amateur. The screenplay shows a real disparity of energy put into James and Carl and the rest of the cast. 2 LITTLE MONSTERS is nevertheless thought provoking and disturbing—an affective bummer, no doubt. You have to hand it to Schmoeller, who is breaking new ground.
But is the film’s fictionalization of such an undeniably heinous true event in bad taste? Is it just as sensationalistic as the media it purports to critique? The movie is not without its critics who’d say ‘yes.’ I’m not quite sure where I stand. I’m not the number one proponent of sober-look-at-reality movies. You can’t fault them for being made, though.
All in all, 2 LITTLE MONSTERS is a quite uneven sober-look-at-reality movie. Its budget cripples its deep ambitions, but the leads’ performances are worth observing. It’s certainly not pleasant to watch, and, in a way, though less effectively than HENRY, calls into question the whole nature of entertainment. Real life horror. If you want to watch a movie that will send you, desperate for consolation, running into the arms of people you love, 2 LITTLE MONSTERS is for you. It’s gritty, nasty stuff.