The punningly titled Friend of the World opens with three prefatory elements before its narrative proper gets underway. The first is a quote from Dante, presented as text, and by its nature something of a paradoxical riddle: “The more a thing is perfect, the more it feels pleasure and likewise pain.” The second is a monochrome flashforward, as an unseen man (Nick Young) plays a cassette recording to someone (also unseen) whom he addresses as ‘Stringbean’: “Elephantidae,” the voice (also male) on the tape says, “How crucial it is to mankind’s salvation, allowing the strongest of us to be merged into one body. Reverse population. The gift of complete control. A peaceful life and death for the rest of humanity.” The third is a colour video flashback of a happy-looking woman (Kathryn Schott) on a bridge in the sun, as another woman (Alexandra Slade), glimpsed sitting on a cliff’s edge before a spectacular sunset, says in voiceover: “The world. A beautiful chaotic mess I find difficult to embrace. I’d give up everything to really live.”
If this strange polyphony of words, voices and text seems contradictory, incoherent, even impenetrable, the rest of writer/director Brian Butler’s feature debut will tease out their meaning, as it finds an improbable synthesis between opposed ideologies, and merges together two very different characters into a dialectical détente, expressed in the language of science fiction and body horror. The woman whose voice we had heard narrating earlier awakens in a large loading dock, surrounded by other bodies. Somehow she has survived a bloody massacre inside, not to mention a strange apocalyptic event outside – and now, locked in to this building, she will eventually pass out in a lift and be found by the man who had the tape player. She wakes up to see him looming over her, his face covered in shaving foam to emphasise his masculinity, and when he lets a bit of the white cream land directly on the supine woman’s face, there is an obvious sexual suggestion which, under the circumstances, smacks uncomfortably of rape. This is in a chapter formally headed ‘Boy Meets Girl’, and is as close to a ‘meet-cute’ as we will get in this uneasy romance.
These two characters could not be more different. The woman is young, black, lesbian, a maker of ‘experimental’ films, and her name – with an absurdity on which she herself makes express comment – is Diane Keaton, marking her as the closest thing that the Friend of the World has to a romantic heroine. Meanwhile, the man is older, white, heterosexual, a gruff, no-nonsense military general, whose name, with equally telling hilarity, is Gore. This extensive subterranean compound, all hard concrete and metal, is Gore’s domain, and everything that happens here is shot in black and white – whereas flashbacks to Diane’s girlfriend Eva are in bright colour, shown from Diane’s point of view, and indeed though her own camera’s lens. There is also a generational contrast between them. To match his monochrome lair, the cigar-chomping, weapon-toting neanderthal Gore seems a throwback to a past age – an impression only reinforced by the outmoded cassette tapes that he uses and the redundant, literally bunkered Cold War mentality that he maintains. It might even be imagined that this film is set in a bygone era, say the Seventies or Eighties – but for the digicam that Diane totes, and Gore’s later references to millennials and the internet.
Forced together, these two characters explore their environs and work through their differences in an attempt to discover common ground. Gore lays out for Diane a familiar genre scenario where the dead keep regenerating like “zombies”, all as part of a biological attack by the enemy aimed at bringing about the ‘end of the world’ (something for which he has documentary evidence, even if the paperwork is frayed). Gore insists that they both inject a specially developed antidote which will protect them from infection – but as the hallucinations which are one of the serum’s side-effects kick in, Diane not only confronts core anxieties about her own inauthenticity, and encounters the babbling, flatulent Berenger (Michael C. Burgess) and others in this underground facility, but also starts wondering if Gore might be more foe than friend on this face-melting, identity-blurring trip in the dark. Certainly the deranged general has designs on her, and whether it is because he hopes to start repopulating the fallen world, or just because he fancies her, one way or another he wants to get inside her. Meanwhile, in this Dantean underworld that Gore admits “must be hell”, Diane shares a pomegranate with him as Persephone once did with her chthonic abductor Hades.
A hybridised blend of Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), Friend of the World is low in budget, but big in ideas, mystifying the viewer with its surreally lysergic adventures in underland. Down in all those store rooms and corridors, there lurks a political subtext too – for as its liberal, pacifist heroine finds the macho fascist within, Butler’s film finds a very singular way to reconcile both sides of a polarised America.
strap: Brian Butler’s feature debut uses bunkered post-apocalyptic sci-fi/body horror to reconcile an imperfect, polarised world
© Anton Bitel