Gummo (1997): United States – directed by Harmony Korine
Rated R by the MPAA – contains profanity, sexual content, disturbing violence, all involving kids
Certain movies are disturbing, including a lot of horror movies, but they don’t depict events that we ever imagine actually witnessing. It takes something extra for a film to be unsettling. To be unsettling a film must depict the disturbing aspects about something not very far removed from everyday life.
Gummo is about the town of Xenia, Ohio, not far from where I went to college for a year. It’s a small town, known quite well for getting destroyed by tornadoes. Some amateur footage of tornadoes opens the film and shows up again later. The entire town was upset by a 1974 tornado that killed 34 people and destroyed half the town’s buildings.
This is a small town, pretty much what you could call a redneck town full of white trash. I’m not sure what anyone in the town does for a living, besides kill cats to sell to a local store owner or deal drugs. The film never really explains. It never really explains anything, nor does anything happen. Gummo is basically a series of moving photographs, skits almost, about some residents.
I was relieved to discover that it’s fictional, though most of it is filmed with hand held cameras or using archived-type footage, leading one to possibly believe that it could be a documentary. There are characters in it, but it’s hard to judge the acting since everyone just dissolves into this small town. Some of the major characters include a couple of young white kids, one perhaps 12, the other maybe 16. They kill stray cats, sell them to a store in return for a little money and glue to sniff, and the store owner sells the cats to the Chinese restaurant. There are a lot of dead cats in the movie.
There are also a trio of sisters (I think) who take care of their own black cat. The older two are quite insecure and want to impress local boys. This includes putting duct tape over their nipples, then yanking it off to increase the overall size, as well as enhance the puffiness of the nipples. There are a bunch of white kids and older folk who don’t do much else other than beat each other up for fun and destroy chairs. There’s a kid who takes care of his elderly grandmother while she’s being kept alive by machines. He enjoys dressing up like a girl in his spare time. There’s a black little person and another white kid who may be gay.
All of the above characters have little vignettes shown with no white-wash or makeup. It’s the naked truth of how they live and what they do, and it’s often pretty disturbing and unsettling. The worst story consists of a man who charges kids a few bucks for sex with his mentally disabled sister. There’s a lot of swearing, as well, but swearing isn’t usually as disturbing as it is when young kids are spewing pretty vile phrases and insults. These and the dead cats and the general attitude and lifestyle of all the characters add up to a rather unpleasant portrait of this small town. But it’s not entirely dreadful. There are certain soft and semi-heart warming moments, though these are often tainted by the surrounding scenes.
The film was written and directed by Harmony Korine, who also wrote Larry Clark’s Kids, another ridiculously uncompromising and upsetting film about young kids and the things they do. I liked Gummo quite a lot, I think. It’s calm and peaceful, melds lullabies like “Jesus Loves Me” with Slayer, and engaged me like few films have recently. I can imagine some naysayers would dismiss it as being pretentious and difficult for the sake of being difficult, but I would counter that it doesn’t really have to make sense or have a point. Sometimes I prefer things that way. In fact, in some ways Gummo almost seems like a film I might have made.