In our regular column, Less Than (Five) Zero, we take a look at films that have received less than 50 logged watches on Letterboxd, aiming to discover hidden gems in independent and world cinema. This week Dominic Barlow looks at a feature from the major rival to Tommy Wiseau, Neil Breen, his bizarre Las Vegas-set Double Down.
Date Watched: 21st March, 2015
Letterboxd Views (at the time of viewing): 22
To see Double Down is to see Neil Breen. More than just its peculiarly unrugged lead actor, he is its director, co-editor, production designer, production manager, location manager, caster and caterer. Hence, he is unquestionably its auteur. Many will say the same, but only in those withering tones that commit Tommy Wiseau, Ed Wood and similar ‘disaster-piece’ directors to infamy, because Double Down appears to exist in the same state of enjoyable incompetency (just look at this fun fan trailer). What that impression misses is the embryonic link between creator and creation, which is very apparent in his 2005 debut. So-bad-they’re-good movies result from incompetent wannabes flailing at genre tropes, but for Breen’s work to be framed and understood, his particular desires and insecurities must be deciphered, and there is much to find in this zen-like melange of conspiracy theory, patriotism and lost love. Disregard whatever knock-off action film or fast-food sandwich the title invokes, because Double Down is a surreal, reconfiguring kind of cinematic experience.
“My name is Aaron Brand. I always thought I was doing the right thing in preparing for life.”
What sets Breen’s oeuvre apart is a deep, frustrated desire to surpass the immanent. This is an action he wants to express through himself, since he always self-casts as the incredibly skilled hero and romantic lead. In all of his completed films – to date: this, messianic eco-fable I Am Here Now (2009) and paranormal thriller Fateful Findings (2013) – he plays someone with impossible power over the meta-physical. Here, he is Aaron Brand, a covert agent with computer hacking skills that cause the governments of the world quiver. He also has a tragic compulsion towards solitude – many minutes unfold through watching him roam around the Nevada desert in a satellite-equipped car, tapping away at laptops and eating canned tuna. He tells us that he has a way to control any government computer, but we have only inserts of military bunker and satellite stock footage to assure us that’s what his random keystrokes are doing. The same goes for his home-made bio-terror product – one shot is him haphazardly tipping white powder into a lake, the next is a school of fish lying dead on the shore. It’s cause-and-effect editing in the loosest fashion possible, enacted by unvarnished physical acting on Breen’s part, and so hopelessly caught up in awkward real-world limitations.
“The public never knows what we’re doing. It’s all done in very, very secret ways. Can I have some water, please?”
It’s an easier trip to take when it becomes tangled up in Brand’s hazy state of mind. As we see in stilted and confronting flashbacks, his girlfriend-since-childhood is assassinated seconds after agreeing to marry him. Her bright red blood covers a water lily that he cradles in his arms, with no squib bursts in sight. It’s an awkward and stiff proposition from Breen, and the game begins to determine what meaning he intends and what comes about by accident. What much we do know is that he harbours a deep cynicism towards life on Earth, being so cowed by invisible technological and biological threats. Though he laments such dangers in unsubtle monologues, he and the film are besieged by distruption and strangeness. Brand, and Breen, wander through the different plot threads at random – hallucinating his deceased parents and a seemingly unrelated old sage in the desert, driving on the Vegas strip, assassinating a just-married couple and, at one strange point, possibly curing a girl of brain cancer. The few times he interacts with others, they are often non-professional actors, stiffly reading the lecturing lines Breen has given them. Few are here to do anything but lend an ear and state the obvious, and some of them die just as inexplicably as his girlfriend. They don’t even look glamorous doing it, since many are clearly non-professionals brought in for a few hours of shooting, and no-one is credited on hair and make-up.1 Yet through the interminable loop of events (appropriately accompanied by a repetitive, preset-driven score), his yearning for something greater sounds out in a gutteral cry.
“I can’t go on with this! I can’t go on with this! I’m an American! I’m an American! I love this country!”
But where do Brand’s – and likely Breen’s – real desires lie? At least, he lacks a true understanding of where he fits into his own country, even with direct phone access to the president (again, something told to us with narration and stock footage). What dissuades him is the sprawling effect of capital interests that even he has fallen prey to being a mercenary for hire, and in the monument to wealth that is Las Vegas, no less. It leaves his statehood adrift, and as far gone as his mind. To wind up this way while being so comically empowered is a bizarre parallel of the modern male intellectual, who is given especially large room to ruminate in the West. He could act on an ideology tomorrow, but it’s ultimately his psychological trappings that most complicate matters, not the societal and political structures he laments. He disorientates himself, waking up in the dirt to find messages left in blood on his own car, and visions of his would-be wife telling him where to go next. This happens again and again until finally he loses the will to follow through on the missions he’s been given. He loves the land he was born on too much, clawing it in his palms, desperate to connect to its idealised meaning.
“I am always caught between this world, and the next.”
However much this parallels Breen’s own search for identity, it’s undeniable that he has found a good medium for them to thrive in. The violent end found in this story is no end to his own. He is publicly raising additional funds for a fourth, a sci-fi called Pass Thru, to be released later this year, and his intriguing pitch video has him repeatedly stressing his desire to make a “legitimate” picture. He is aware of the midnight-movie pigeonholing people are keen on, and it’s understandable and exciting for him to even try to move on to something more prestigious. The unwitting roots in reality, after all, are only emboldened by the subsequent entries in his canon, with a switch to digital video and his opting to continue shooting in Las Vegas. Whether by inhibition or circumstance, he, like Aaron, is stuck in a staid present, and his fight to be a respected artist and free thinker continues apace. As the Letterboxd views for Double Down alone show, an appreciative audience, sincere or ironic, remains to be found.