Romero enters the 21st century

George Romero, who is now known as one of America’s finest filmmakers, returns to the screen with his first film in seven years, from his first original screenplay in fifteen years.

Those expecting another gorefest on the par with Day of the Dead are doomed to disappointment. This is a relatively bloodless exercise – though I think it says something about Romero’s work that I can say that about a film in which someone’s head is run over (on camera) by a train. Romero says it’s not a ‘scary’ movie either, though there are quite a few shocks and unsettling moments.

It’s best described as a fantastic allegory. Romero is once again doing what he does best: examining the nature of society in a fantasy setting, while throwing in some jolts for the kids in the balcony.

Jason Flemyng (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) stars as Henry Creedlow, a mid-level editor at the hot and trendy magazine Bruiser (a title suggested by Romero’s daughter Tina, who appears as a go-go dancer later in the film). Henry thought he had his life on the right track, but lately he’s feeling more like one of life’s victims. His boss Milos Styles (Peter Stormare of Fargo and Jurassic Park 2) treats him like shit, his investments aren’t panning out, and he’s in the middle of building a fancy new house he can’t afford.

None of this is lost on his wife Janine (the bodacious Nina Garbiras), who has lost all respect for him, thinking him lower than her yapping poodle. Angst and frustration build in Henry, leading him to violent visions. Apparently, his only real friends are his old college pal Jim (Andrew Tarbet, former ringmaster at Cirque du Soleil) and Milos’ estranged wife Rosemary (Leslie Hope).

At a company barbecue, which serves as another opportunity for Milos to be mean to everyone, artist/photographer Rose has prepared a unique entertainment: guests sit for life masks, which they are then invited to paint and display for other guests to guess the owners’ identities. Henry, feeling a complete loss of identity, is unable to decorate his own mask at all. His feelings of anger and disenchantment build further when he discovers an affair is going on between Janine and Milos – something that Henry feels unable to do anything about.

All this begins to change by the next morning to find his face has disappeared, his lack of identity reflected in the mirror as the blank white mask he couldn’t paint, now become his own visage! Romero was inspired to begin the screenplay by watching Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, and the strange imagery pays off here – Flemyng is truly bizarre looking in the mask, and turns in a great performance to match.

This inexplicable (and unexplained) event seems to free Henry from his inhibitions. Having hit bottom, without even a face to protect, he begins to stand up for himself – by claiming bloody revenge on all who have wronged him.

His acts of horrific violence make him something of a celebrity, the press naming him “Faceless” (perhaps a nod to Jess Franco here). His status escalates with a few calls to a radio talk show (as in Romero’s Martin), during which Henry admits his identity. Despite this, the police (led by horror vet Tom Atkins) are unable to catch him, as if his lack of a face removes him from their grasp.

The action climaxes at a company masked ball (planned by Henry), a wild scene set in a warehouse and featuring all kind of extreme characters, including exotic dancers, impromptu wrestling, and a performance by The Misfits.

The theme here is the ennui pervading much of society, the feeling that we don’t exist or matter. No wonder so many people are willing to risk humiliation for a few minutes on television. It’s gotten harder to stand out. Having a minor hit record used to be enough to raise someone above the crowd, but these days everyone is all too familiar with where these “stars” come from and how easily they can topple.

Romero reflects this situation – and the resulting violence – perfectly. The only flaw in his execution is a confusion of just how things work. I know it’s all fantasy, but is the rule that Henry regains his identity by losing his face? Does he regain his face by standing up for himself, or by killing people? This may not be muddled thinking, just Romero’s usual controversial way of doing things – leading the way by following his instincts.

Bruiser is currently awaiting release while production studio Canal+ sorts through the details of a merger. Hopefully it’ll be playing at your local theater soon. Meanwhile, you can learn more at the the official website.

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