When I rented TWENTYNINE PALMS, I knew it would showcase Bruno Dumont's taste for dispassionate portrayals, violence of various sorts, and shock. In spite of this mental preparation, this very atmospheric film built to a grotesque resolution that left me, a seasoned viewer, rattled. Unfortunately, the shock and awe it achieves is short lived. 'PALMS is modeled on the horror film, but, like many of its American cousins, the horror it achieves failed to haunt me. The narrative as a whole left me rattled, yes, but there was also an unsettled feeling, as if a cynic had just talked my ear off. I wondered, "Is there really something to this guy's story, or is just him?" You may also get the sense that the horror of 'PALMS is more about the worldview of the director (or his view of America), rather than the world his storytelling creates.
Sam Peckinpaw's STRAW DOGS is in ways a similar but superior film. I can admire 'DOGS for its many strengths, so long as I avoid viewing it as the MAN-AS-ANIMAL fable that Peckinpaw intended. It isn't that I disagree with his view of humans as domesticated animals. Rather, I see 'DOGS as a rare example of violent drama and technical virtuosity transcending the simplicity of its maker's defense; whether Peckinpaw has a point or not seems beside the point. Of course, the trick with any argument is in having good evidence. In pressing one's point of view, there is often, in or out of the filmic context, an artful description of a scene/scenario, one that reflects the viewer's position. In this way, films have the strange ability to create their own myths, their own arguments. To invest a film with one's views too forcibly can dull the work's independent life with the sententiousness of fables.
Watching TWENTYNINE PALMS, it seems impossible to avoid questioning Dumont's personal views. This is partly due to the fact that so many of the events described in the film are implausible. Lacking believable characters and action, one naturally develops a sense that the director is revealing something to us that we haven't seen; something unique to his vision. If the strange behavior of the two principles was about their uniqueness and their relationship (e.g. as outsiders) then why would Dumont undercut their characterization, denying us a belief in them as individuals, or, more profoundly, as points of identification? I gradually came to view the two principles as an every-couple, with private rhythms and misunderstandings that might appear absurd if made public. And indeed, such details of their relationship are hinted at without the benefit of a backstory for us to know them more precisely. So the couple is particular and thus strange, but lacking particulars/details their value becomes more symbolic. They seem to be a snapshot of human coupling in its most bestial simplicity, dimly framed even in bright sunlight. This seemed like a worthy focus, but Dumont forces it to play against a theme of violence, both seen and unseen. The violent atmosphere of the film was something I couldn't account for until the resolution, and even then with difficulty.
Toward the end of film, we're given a horrific equation of two orgasms: that of the male protagonist and that of his rapist, the film's principle antagonist (aside from the desert). Both orgasms are shown to be dangerous, powerful, and unspeakable (or, at least, not clearly worded). This equation discounts the context in which the orgasms occur, leaving the viewer with no reliable distinction of the protagonists from their insanely hostile environment. Clearly, the bourgeois, carefree lifestyle of the couple is set up to be cut down (a horror convention), but Dumont makes the attack personal in the most perverse way. From early in the film on, the protagonists suggest an inner horror, which is unmitigated by their lovemaking, and perhaps even feeds on their relationship. The irrationality of their environment makes the couple our most recognizable guides on this strange road trip, but they demonstrate their own measure of insanity. The male half of the couple betrays an undercurrent of sadism that eventually explodes as an act of sexualized murder. The female's deviance is less clearly defined, but there are several scenes in which she is shown inviting harm. If our trip, as it seems, is through a kind of anti-Eden, and our guides are an every-couple, with no structured identity of their own, then their deviancy would suggest a kind of universal infection, or nature, rather than an aberration of character. This would also render the criminality of the final scenes uncertain, in light of their amoral setting.
Some would say that the best criterion for judging a horror film is whether it horrifies, regardless of how. This is an unsettling film. It is also an especially tasteless one. In watching this DVD, it may be useful to some viewers that Dumont can be found rationalizing his use of violence (and his violence as an artist) in an interview, in a director's statement, and in the course of the film itself.