Gummo is not classified as a horror movie, but it sure is horrifying. One of the many sequences in the film sees a strange little boy named Solomon (Jacob Reynolds) enjoying a spaghetti dinner in a tub full of dirty bathwater. A half-melted chocolate bar for dessert. A giant glass of gleaming white milk.
Good lord. Why would anyone ever film this?
The bath sequence barely scratches the surface of the unsettling provocations contained in Gummo, which solidified director Harmony Korine’s place on the underground circuit as a visionary with an eye for odd, unseen and unsavory ways of life and the people who live them. Although his later films saw larger budgets and wider distribution (his latest, The Beach Bum, was released in April), none have been quite as successful in capturing the tone of a place you’d never want to visit.
The story is set in Xenia, Ohio, in the aftermath of a massive tornado. That’s less of a direct plot setup than an explanation for why everything is so torn asunder, physically and spiritually. Multiple characters live their lives throughout town. Tummler (Nick Sutton) and Solomon are young boys hunting stray cats to sell to a local Chinese restaurant; three sisters — Dot, Helen and Darby (Chloë Sevigny, Carisa Glucksman and Darby Dougherty, respectively) mull around town and are at one point abducted by a molester; a mute young boy wearing pink bunny ears goes around town. These moments are linked by a narrator whose voice sounds shuffled through multiple devices, like a demonic version of Linda Manz from Days of Heaven. Manz, coincidentally, has a role in this film as well.
Gummo is filled to the brim with existential horrors. Dinner at bathtime is the most physically disgusting moment (unless you have a problem with dead cats), and maybe the most memorable because it has a sense of playful awareness about it. Yeah, it’s gross, but it knows it’s gross and turns it up to 11. It remains iconic for a reason, but it’s not nearly as disturbing as the moment when a man prostitutes his mentally handicapped sister to Tummler, or when Tummler pulls the plug on his grandma because he finds her disgusting. These ceaseless moments of casual cruelty feel like they reflect unseen aspects of real life in a way most movies gloss over.
There is little relief in Gummo to balm the experience. Two young boys are seen selling candy door to door, and in the next sequence they laugh about making money, “selling candy, making money. Getting the greenbacks. Tease my friends with the money, make the money so we can tease women.” I guess they’re exhibiting a positive outlook on life? Beats hunting cats. At least Bunny Boy gets to make out with Dot toward the end while Roy Orbison’s “Crying” plays, although it’s cut with a scene of Solomon and Tummler murdering Dot’s cat.
Korine incorporates a a mixed-media aesthetic to create his world. He swaps at will between filmed sequences, candid moments caught on camera, still photographs. The result is a bit like an art installation you might happen into while at a museum, watch for five minutes and then leave after becoming confused — except here, the constant parade of depravity and depressing moments never ceases to escalate and / or get stranger. The three plot lines mentioned above — Cat Hunters, Sisters and Bunny Boy — do progress, but in fits and starts, interspersed with vignettes that show other townsfolk in various predicaments. By shaking up the traditional mode of cinematic storytelling, Korine is able to make his world feel gritty, real and all the more unpredictable.
There’s a prescriptive argument that Gummo is not a horror movie. Maybe not by strict definition of the genre. But I’ll never look at Crunch bars the same way again.