There’s something bracing about a filmmaker who is openly hostile to their audience, whether pushing the boundaries of simulated cruelty — as in Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs — or presenting nihilism as the default human condition, like Richard Bates Jr.’s Trash Fire. Of course, the most common form of audience needling is like that of A Serbian Film or Freddy Got Fingered: daring them to walk out.
Peter Vack’s gross-out comedy Assholes skews closest to the latter. Vack may have begun his career as an actor in low-key, mostly inoffensive indie comedies (Fort Tilden, Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle), but his debut feature as a writer/director feels like a purposeful distancing. Assholes is actively juvenile and scatological, with scene after scene testing the viewer’s stomach and patience. Still, there’s a hint of real pain and vulnerability that grounds the exercise, even as it gradually sputters into surrealistic incoherence.
Assholes is a character study of three nasty 20-somethings: Adah (Betsey Brown), a recently sober ball of anxiety; Adah’s solipsistic garbage brother Adam (Vack himself); and Adam’s submissive, lazy best friend Aaron (Jack Dunphy). When Adah meets Aaron in a psycho-analyst’s waiting room, the two descend into a sloppy, poppers-fueled romance, one guided by Aaron’s love of the eponymous bodily structure and mitigated by their virulent, visible herpes. As their wanton frolicking intensifies, so too does the film; close-up shots of genital sores and blistered lips are interspersed with graphic acts of anilingus and extended monologues about misery.
In that first third, Vack balances his instinct for base transgression with writerly wit. Take this moment, when Aaron is describing his porn habits to his therapist: “99 percent of the videos I watch are not even made in this country, which actually makes me feel cosmopolitan.” Or the incredible (probably improvised) sequence in which Adah and Aaron run around Times Square, harassing poor pedestrians who cross their paths. For a time, Vack’s film plays like something by Whit Stillman’s semi-literate, coprophilic cousin.
And then the narrative shifts: an elderly woman covered in shit climbs out of Adah’s anus, claiming to be the demon Mephistopheles (they call her “Mephi”) and in turn Vack moves from clearly defined jokes to hit and miss shock. Time jumps erratically, mythologies are invented and discarded, formats are changed. Some of this is funny, sure, but so much of it is simply exhausting. By the time our chocolate star-crossed lovers have transformed into literal anus-faced monsters (a special effect created with hilariously cheap masks) any sense of stakes or reality is barely visible.
But that sense is still there, even if it’s hiding deep under the rough.
The long, glorious history of shock cinema pivots around films that are infinitely more infamous than they are interesting. What separates something like the emptily violent, Japanese torture-porn film series Guinea Pig from the work of Nekromantik director Jorg Buttgereit (whose mix of the hyper-artificial and naturalistic would make for a good double feature with Assholes) is a willingness to ground the gross-out proceedings with real emotion. It’s easy to make someone gasp with disgust (which Vack managed to do to this writer once, with a close up of a lesion-infested cock), but it’s hard to make the context surrounding that disgust stick just as clearly in the mind. Assholes announces its intentions early: the opening scene consists solely of Adah delivering a rambling monologue that nonetheless sets out some very real pain: loneliness, self-loathing, alienation, unfulfilled lust. These people are exaggerated pricks, but they’re pricks for relatable reasons.
It takes a certain amount of vulnerability to project something this purely scatological and angry out into the world. Art is rarely a portal into the psyche of its creator but to put the time and effort into a feature film is to put years of oneself into the process. A quick Google search reveals that Betsey Brown is Vack’s sister, so when he’s filming her naked and tongue-fucking Jack Dunphy’s ass (and vice versa), the familial intimacy is almost as poignant as it is icky. Transgression this clear requires a willingness to be vile and gross and aching, a willingness to spew all one’s most upsetting thoughts and feelings out into the world. To be as open, say, as a gaping asshole.