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Review: ‘Bellflower’

Star-crossed lovers in Evan Glodell's 'Bellflower' (Oscilloscope Labs)

‘Bellflower’ is an aggravating experience of extremes. It plays, initially, as a road movie, about a woman who impulsively goes on a long-distance trip with a stranger, a man whose existence appears to revolve around modifying his muscle car and building flamethrowers with his best friend. Then the movie shifts gears, becoming an ugly, bloody, extended, fractured mess that has something to do with domestic violence and jealousy and the Apocalypse.

The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and quickly gained notoriety for its low budget (reportedly $17,000), the handmade cameras used (built by writer/director Evan Glodell), and the live appearance of the filmmakers with the flame-spitting muscle car in tow (very impressive indeed). ‘Bellflower’ also divided audiences, with some rhapsodizing about its daring creative choices and others repulsed and/or unimpressed by those very same elements.

I saw the film at SXSW in March, where responses were again split. (Critical reaction since its theatrical release began have been much more positive than negative.) The first half or so of the movie is not without its charms. Woodrow, played by Glodell, and his friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson) are rough-hewn characters, unruly and immature young men who take utter delight in their mechanical tinkering, making frequent references to ‘The Road Warrior’ as they prepare for an apocalypse they are certain will be coming soon. There is raw beauty on display when flames shoot 30 feet into the night sky from an empty lot in an isolated landscape. And the simple-minded determination of Woodrow and Aiden to survive the apocalypse is impressive, even as it’s a bit scary.

Woodrow flirts with the lovely Milly (Jessie Wiseman), charming her into accompanying him on a road trip. She accepts his invitation, a decision that almost makes you wince because it seems so certain that Woodrow is a serial killer — or wife beater — in training. On their journey, however, Woodrow proves to be proud yet shy as he shows off the alterations he and Aiden have made to the car, a survivalist’s wildest fantasy come true, and he acts like a perfect gentleman. The narrative rhythms are jumbled, but it feels like an oddball independent romance. Woodrow and Milly are a good, quirky match.

And then, with a loud cry of grinding gears, the tone shifts, and the film plunges into territory that becomes sheer bloody torture to endure.

At first, the jarring descent feels appropriately gut-jarring, as Woodrow and Milly’s promising relationship goes south, very sadly and quickly. But then ‘Bellflower’ begins to overtax the visual scheme, become more jumbled editorially, and make absolutely no sense from the perspective of the characters who have been so casually established.

It’s as though the Apocalypse has occurred, but it’s all within the minds of the characters, who must then deal with the consequences internally and can only express their rage, anger, and fear by striking out at others. What comes across, however, is essentially ugliness for the sake of being ugly, and it’s pitched so relentlessly that it becomes off-putting and then tiresome and then boring to watch.

If you manage to stay firmly locked into Glodell’s rollercoaster as it flies off the rails, ‘Bellflower’ could be a turbulent and disturbing ride. From my perspective, having seen it more than five months ago, it remains one of the most distinctive, troubling visions that have been presented on the big screen this year, even though I think it crashes and burns before it reaches its destination.

Bellflower‘ opens Friday, September 9 at the Angelika Dallas and Cinemark West Plano.