Bellflower is the kind of film that makes it very clear, very immediately that very bad things are going to happen to the characters, and possibly to the world before it’s over. This promise is first made through a warping, shuttering montage of backwards footage shown right at the start, presaging violence, blood, and fire. The promise is reinforced by a thickly smeared tone of dread so strong that it seems to manifest as literal grime coating the film. In reality the film’s uniquely grainy, vignetted look is a deliberate artifact of the customization the Bellflower team applied to their camera equipment. As you learn more about the movie, you’ll find that this adds a metatextual characteristic to the look and feel of a dramatization of what would otherwise be ordinary — if still painful– events that are here made frightening and downright apocalyptic by writer, director, and star Evan Glodell and his team.
At the heart of Bellflower is a prototypical love story of a couple that meet, have a romantic adventure that pulls them together into an accelerated relationship, and then fall apart in the worst way. Woodrow and Aiden are the two best friends who serve as the heart of the film, with Woodrow being the more shy and passive of the pair, and the focus. There is the feeling Woodrow doesn’t get laid a whole lot, despite being a sweet, decent-looking guy (picture a less effete Nick Swardson) that rolls with an ostentatiously charming buddy. The two spend their spare time (which seems to be plentiful, as there’s never even the hint that they’re employed) experimenting with and constructing a home-brew flamethrower to add to their stockpile of custom-built equipment and car modifications. It’s ultimately presented as a harmless hobby born out of the pair’s obsession with Mad Max, and centers around the sorta serious, sorta tongue-in-cheek goal of constructing a muscle car outfitted with all of the gadgets and weaponry necessary to rule the desert landscape when the inevitable apocalypse comes. Harmless as the hobby is, the two main characters can’t discuss the end of the world and play with fire and guns constantly without there being an edge of danger. The back-of-the mind feeling that these two are either proverbially or literally constructing the source of their destruction weighs heavily.
It’s during their break time between fuel tests and equipment fabrication that they spend time drinking at a nearby bar, and Woodrow meets Milly. An adventurous, daring girl (who we get to know through a cricket-eating contest), Milly exudes the right balance of sweetness and trashiness that captures Woodrow’s eye, and their first date ends up being an extended road-trip to Texas. Their sudden departures causes their best friends to bond and by the time they return and we jump forward in time, a number of sex and social lives are all mixed up together in this little group. Naturally, a little bit of cooled romance and adultery sends everything to hell. The thing is though- the layer of suspense that hangs over Bellflower is so heavy that even when the expected bad things happen, you still end up expecting more bad things to happen.
Bellflower takes its time setting up the romances and relationships between characters, but in a strangely unspecific way. Broad strokes and candid, naturalistic conversations eventually accumulate so that you have a very good understanding of each character emotionally without ever knowing anything very specific about them. The same is true for the dynamic between different characters, which are strong and believable, though no details of the history or background between them is ever illuminated. This makes the eventual collapse of everything you’re watching that much more difficult to witness, but yet gives everything a vaguely unreal quality.
Visually the film is the same way, employing tilt-shifted focal planes, extreme contrast, blown highlights, and a buttery warm color palette to create a dreamy vision of the American western coast and deserts. Finally, the fact that the car, the flamethrower, the performances, and even the means by which the film was captured are all clearly legitimate customized creations of the people we’re watching gives Bellflower that aforementioned metatextual edge that fully pushes it into a thematic uncanny valley. Something about so many elements of the movie being genuine makes one fear that emotional horror may escape the confines of the movie and spill into the real world. It’s a sometimes creepy and sometimes outright frightening ride of a movie, viewed through a Lynchian lens- the edges fall of to black, and one gets the feeling that in this world, as it is in a dream, all things cease to exist beyond whatever scene is being watched at any given moment.
Returning to the core relationship, Woodrow and Aiden vividly recall Aaron and Abe from Primer. There’s a realism to their exchanges, an un-cinematic rhythm that makes their friendship seem all the more real, while capturing the tension that exists between them. Instead of the physics and business jargon of Carruth’s film though, Woodrow and Aiden exchange “dude” and “bro”-isms, but with the same bedrock of awkwardness, envy, and loyalty. It’s a dynamic that will turn many viewers off, or leave them with no favorable impressions of the characters, even if they were transfixed by the film.
The story of Bellflower is one of spiraling descent, and it’s a story that eventually starts blending reality with imagination in a manner that is unclear until it’s over, at which point you can figure out with some degree of certainty where fantasy took over from actuality. What really matters though, is the emotional violence that unspools in the dark fears and fantasies we dream up when we’ve been hurt. If you’ve ever been scorned or abandoned by a lover, surely you know of the ugliness one guesses their ex-partner is up to or is capable of, especially when one imagines with their broken heart instead of their brain. Bellflower captures those masochistic fantasies and is at times just as hard to watch, even if it is beautiful. It’s the kind of film that explores one person’s pain writ large, to the point that their hurt spells doom for the whole world. Glodell’s film will stick with you long after you leave the theater, and though you may have the comfort of remembering that it was all just a dream, just a film, you’ll still catch yourself sneaking the occasional peek towards the horizon for signs of a mushroom cloud.
Note: Understand that whatever score I give to Bellflower is not necessarily an indication that it is “good.” I don’t know what Bellflower is. Whatever it is and whatever it did though, it did it as well as it could ever be done.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
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