One of the best things about the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is that the guy in the wheelchair is an asshole. Too often the disabled are presented in entertainment as saints or wonderful people, and since they’re just regular people like the rest of us, I have a hard time believing that to be the case. I bet crippled people are just as horrible, rotten, mean spirited and selfish as everybody else you’ve ever met. So why can’t they be serial killers as well?

Late Bloomer is a Japanese film from 2004 (still without US distribution) that posits that question, but with surprising empathy and emotion. Masakiyo Sumida, a severly disabled mute, plays himself as a man whose sexual frustration and loneliness lead him to commit murder, first against those close to him and then absolute strangers on the street. There’s an exploitation element to having this guy, whose palsied frame is mostly confined to a wheelchair and who can only talk through a high tech Speak n Spell, exposing what seems to be his darkest inner moments of agony and doubt. Watching him squirm in his wheelchair, spastically gulp down beer, sloppily shove food into his crooked mouth, you’re both repulsed and fascinated. But the sense of exploitation falls away as you realize how the film brings you into his world and eventually into his head.

Shot in black and white on what looks like consumer digital, Late Bloomer‘s handheld camerawork almost makes the movie take on documentary proportions. The fact that characters in the film video tape themselves and Sumida, and that these tapes are mixed in with the footage, and that Sumida is playing ‘himself’ makes the boundaries even fuzzier. The camera itself sometimes seems as palsied as Sumida, jerking around, not qute finding focus, especially as the movie goes on towards the series of murders. This is what it must be like to see out of Sumida’s eyes.

Late Bloomer has a great build up to the first murder, but then it takes a bizarre turn that left me unsatisfied. Sumida’s psychosis sets in when a university student becomes one his helpers and he falls in love with her. It’s obvious that she can never reciprocate, and the fact that he has a stash of porn films disgusts her (‘You’re just like the others!’ she yells, pointing out that the desexualization of the handicapped is part of the sainthood we try to impose upon them). She abruptly leaves the film, and then for the last half the focus shifts to her undeveloped housemates as Sumida begins his rampage. This sudden change left me feeling completely narratively disengaged from the film; maybe that was the point, as Sumida found himself alone in his madness, but it served only to make me wonder when the hell the whole thing was ending, since it felt like a final reel gambit.

Sumida’s performance is almost the definition of fearless. The camera lingers on his misborn form as he lolls about, making noises as his wet, rubbery tongue slips seemingly involuntarily from his mouth. There’s no doubt that frustrations the filmic Sumida feels are similar to the ones that the real life Sumida feels, which makes every ugly, uncomfortable moment hit the audience like a punch in the gut. There’s no veneer, no artifice (except once we get to the murders… I assume), so we’re never kept at a distance. We’re let painfully close in, closer than many people might like to go.

If there’s one reason that Late Bloomer seems to have disappeared after its initial festival run a couple of years ago is that the seemingly exploitational elements of the film – having a real crippled mute playing a serial killing crippled mute – distance the mainstream while the movie itself never gets as gonzo as the description ‘A Japanese film about a serial killing crippled mute’ might lead you to expect. This isn’t Miike territory, and it’s not My Left Foot territory either. It’s in a strange area in between, a movie whose extremity is emotional instead of visceral, but whose unflinching gaze on a wrecked human body will alienate many. As will the film’s soundtrack, which veers between hardcore Japanese punk and extreme noise.

Late Bloomer is a highly experimental film, so I understand writer/director Gô Shibata’s decision to unlatch from the obvious narrative direction, but it was a decision that left me behind as a filmgoer. Shibata goes to so many edgy places in style and form that I think he could have afforded to keep his story structure a touch more conventional, but any time I’m critiquing a film for doing things in unexpected ways I have to also admit more than a little admiration for that courage.

If you seek out Late Bloomer for sick midnight movie thrills, you’ll be resoundingly disappointed. If you seek it out for a sometimes harrowing examination of the real tolls of isolation and loneliness, you’ll be rewarded with a movie that never blinks.

8 out of 10