Bringing subjects such as teenage bullying and, more controversial still, high school massacres to the big screen is always a perilous affair. As such, the decision of 22-year-old first-time Canadian director Matt Johnson to tackle both issues – and through the stylistic trappings of the found footage genre, no less – was a bold choice that had the potential to backfire spectacularly. The risk of sensationalising such a tragedy is a major concern, and the opening twenty minutes of The Dirties (2013) do little to dispel it. Luckily, as it progresses, Johnson’s debut reveals itself to be a far more complex and considered piece than one might expect, especially from such an untested filmmaker.
Johnson himself plays Matt, who along with best friend Owen (Owen Williams) is in the midst of preparing to make a film for a school project when the camera starts rolling. Matt is a major film buff and their proposed picture, ‘The Dirties’, is a revenge flick packed with attitude and homage, liberally referencing everything from Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999) to Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002). The brutal justice is to be visited upon a group of bullies that give both films their title, in the form of the fictionalised versions of Matt and Owen gunning them down in school. Far from the catharsis that they were aiming for, however, their finished project inflames the situation further and Matt grows ever more distracted by the possible reality of exacting bloody retribution on the high school gang.
It’s the latter, far more chilling sequence of events that puts into context exactly what Johnson is seeking to accomplish with his opening act. Brimming with film fandom, and treating its violence like traditional generic convention, both the narrative and the characters struggle to engage and may potentially alienate. Given the found footage conceit, doubts equally keep popping up about the impressive flow of its edit (was it actually produced ‘in camera’) and any number of unacknowledged cameramen. Slowly, however, The Dirties morphs into a shocking and thought-provoking piece of low budget cinema. It not only provides retorts to prior audience anxieties but serious seeks to interrogate the way in which violence is represented on-screen, and how this effects those who consume it.
Johnson proves a magnetic screen presence and the high school milieu – captured by shooting at a real school during term time – never falters. Neither does the utilisation of the found footage form, which is cleverly employed to explore authorship, performance, the fine line between self-awareness and self-obsession, and ultimately complicity. This is film that uses its medium to challenge attitudes regarding the psychology of American youth and the culpability – or lack of thereof – that should be ascribed to violent movies. It’s not perfect and not always successful, but The Dirties is an intricate, deliberate and relevant work that asks important questions and may just signal the arrival of a major new talent.