Have you ever looked up from your delicious vegetarian lunch on the patio of a swank downtown eatery only to discover some hairy wack job with a digital camera filming your every move? If so, congratulations! You’re somebody special, and we should probably get together for dinner in the near future. Would you mind terribly if I brought my own Wal-Mart digital video camera on our date? I promise I won’t film you. Not while you’re looking, anyway. What goes on when your back is turned is between me, my camera and the waitress who’s in on my elaborate plan to control your life. Call me, okay?
Still with me? Wonderful! If that horribly constructed attempt at witty fiction didn’t trigger a particularly devastating case of the heebie jeebies, then director Seth Landau’s impossibly paranoid thriller Bryan Loves You should do the trick quite nicely. It’s an Orwellian nightmare for the YouTube generation, a vaguely surreal landscape sprinkled with hidden security cameras, secret stalkers, and sinister religious fanatics. Making the most of his very limited budget, Landau has crafted a genuinely affecting narrative that takes full advantage of society’s new found interest in digital voyeurism. A socially aware horror movie?
You don’t say!
Writer/director Seth Landau stars as Jonathan, a small town therapist who suddenly becomes interested in the inner workings of his local neighborhood cult of creepy mid-western Caucasians. This particular collection of religious zealots blindly worship the Almighty Bryan, an almost mythological figure who was savagely murdered by the one man he could not control. Jonathan’s anti-Bryan sentiments don’t go unnoticed, of course, and our hero soon finds his rather mundane existence slowly coming apart at the seams. Will Jonathan become yet another drone in Bryan’s ever-growing army, or can he escape with his beliefs and his life intact?
While the film is presented as a collection of home video and security footage documenting Jonathan’s descent into the bowels of a sinister religious organization, Bryan Loves You actually has very little in common with such like-minded efforts as The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast, though I’m sure the comparison will be made by others. This increasingly popular technique allows Landau to not only sidestep the cheap look of most no-budget horror productions but to paint a frightening picture of just how deep this cult’s roots run within the community as well. Every building under their control is wired with an endless supply of security cameras capable of capturing every insignificant moment that transpires under their watchful electronic eye. The result is an eerie, unnerving experience that seems very relevant in this age of user-generated content and wonky CNN iReports.
Furthermore, Landau and crew have added some nice artistic touches to the overall presentation of the picture, including a very smart sound design and a bleak, minimalistic approach to set decoration. The latter is very instrumental in creating that incredible sense of unease I raved about earlier. The sparsely-dressed sets are impersonal and cold, giving you the same icky feeling one generally receives when stepping inside a hospital or an unlicensed back alley psychiatrist’s office. Was this intentional or the unfortunate side effect of a tiny budget? I’m really not sure, but its very effective nonetheless.
Bryan Loves You also sports a glistening trophy case full of genre-related talent, including Tony Todd, Tiffany Shepis, George Wendt, Lloyd Kaufman, and Brinke Stevens. What separates this flick from the usual “Look at all my snazzy cameos!” fodder is how Landau utilizes the talent he’s assembled. By casting them in atypical roles, he allows his celebrity types to disappear into characters that aren’t necessarily suited to their strengths. I don’t know about you, but I always get pumped whenever I see typecast actors turn in performances that might be a step or two out of their comfort zones.
However, despite a strong performance from none other than King of the Ants scene stealer George Wendt, it’s genre beauty Tiffany Shepis who walks away with my highly coveted Who Knew You Could Act Award. Angry, mean and fully dressed, Shepis proves she’s capable of more than just disrobing and dying. It’s a smart move, I think, one that may help her land meatier roles in the future. At least I hope so, as I think she’s grossly underused right now.
Aside from some spotty acting from it’s supporting cast and a clumsy action sequence towards the film’s finale, Bryan Loves You is an enormously entertaining sophomore effort from Take Out director Seth Landau. It shows an incredible amount of versatility without sacrificing the filmmaker’s stark visual style and his ear for smart, realistic dialogue. This is an oddly personal film for Mr. Landau, I think, and I’m sure it allowed him to exorcise quite a few demons in the process. And in my humble opinion, Bryan Loves You cements Seth as one of the smartest microbudget directors working today.
That’s what my mother’s creepy porcelain doll told me to say, anyway.