Some years ago, I hailed novice Tristan James Jensen for being a startling talent at such a young age; his memorable film The Unearthing remains evidence of how good a first-time writer/director can come out of nowhere to land a solid punch. His compositions, pacing, narrative style, and content spoke of someone who’s studied the art and used his knowledge to create something that stood out in a dizzying field of up-and-coming folks just like him. His second full-length feature, Beguiled Company, finds him in a more urgent state of mind, absolutely striving to keep us in the moment with every trick up his sleeve; whether you like it or hate it, it’s an unforgettable film that pulls no punches.
It’s also a film in search of a story, as Jensen believes that the drama surrounding or ginned up by the denizens of Beguiled Company is enough to carry it through. He’s for sure got the structure down – start small, open it up a bit, then go for a full assault on the senses. But the superficial bombast which pummels the viewer from beginning to end says one of two things: This is Jensen going for the ultimate experimental piece, doing what he can with what he has, or it’s meant to push buttons and say something about us as a society. Beguiled Company is a mix of both, using handheld, guerrilla-style filmmaking to capture what it means to be young and aimless, looking for guidance and friendship but falling onto the easy path instead of one a little more righteous.
Jensen and company blast through social mores and civil expectations with all the subtlety and bluntness of a bazooka being used to scratch a fleeting itch. His avant-garde approach to following youngsters embarking on a life of crime and baseless hedonism is overly exaggerated and, quite frankly, mindless on several levels. The aforementioned “superficial bombast” comes when the film is at its most heated, involving shoot-‘em-ups, a visually-enhanced drug freakout, and a sexual encounter that ventures into the psychotic. Adding to the insanity are the actors themselves, whose performances seem to be in a netherworld encapsulating “amateur” and “Rob Zombie excess.” The film’s tone and our attachment to the characters are constantly thrown off, adding another level of tension by playing our inherent sympathies and prejudices against one another.
Ringleader Brenden (Chance Gilliam) starts off as a scorned dishwasher and Ketamine addict, soon elevating his way up to armed robbery and murder. Ilisha (Jess Tomasko), a homeless girl living in the back room of an abandoned building, comes under his sway and joins him as a result of him offering a couch to sleep on. Roommate Tino (Gabriel Hawk) and Tino’s girlfriend Sydney (Megan Thompson) are sort-of straight characters to the gone-sideways Brenden, but they’re soon faced with either following or getting out of the way. And sweet-natured college student Mason (Devyn Williams) sadly falls prey to Brenden’s rise to demagoguery, swept up in the immediacy of what Brenden is turning into but powerless to stop it. The balance in their lives is completely destroyed, with everyone losing a bit of themselves as they dig themselves further into a hole of violence and depravity.
Reservoir Dogs they’re not. They rip off Brenden’s former place of employment, a country club ballroom full of the 1%, and Jayce (Nick Schwen), the drug dealer keeping Brenden stocked with Special K… and Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange, which inspires Brenden to take the written word and turn into a real-life Alex the Large, replete with his pack of firearm-toting Droogs. Well, some of the firearms actually work, while Brenden thinks it’s a good idea to give his friends modified Airsoft replicas. It’s this kind of nihilistic, me-at-all-cost frame of mind that Brenden hides under the guise of his “let’s all strike back at everything wrong with the world today” speeches he uses to rile up his friends.
Where the film succeeds is in satirizing us as a whole, manifesting the way we see each other as The Enemy, embarking on crusades that last as long as it takes for the news cycle to turn over and give us the new outrage du jour. Does Brenden believe half the stuff he rails on and on about? Or does he represent how we’re made to feel angry about each new scandal or offense, whether self-perceived or on a wider scale? Is he the ultimate keyboard warrior, stirring up a misguided froth and leading others into the same before moving onto the next target? Beguiled Company’s point is made by one specific character who’s so hopped up (on drugs, the need to feel important, or the need to lash out at the BIG THING that’s happening) that he runs into a gunfight with a water pistol. The symbolism and absolute madness of this gesture (which bears a significant weight when you realize who’s playing this person) cement the intended parody of ourselves in an outlandishly and intentionally hilarious fashion, a move so brazen that it works, whether you think it’s genius or crazy.
Viewed in the light of Beguiled Company being a fast, disjointed, a bit overlong, politically incorrect, whirlwind, and wig-flipping social commentary, you can see the points Jensen’s making. No stone is left unturned in the effort to make us uncomfortable, using everything from our fascination with guns to police shootings to racially-inappropriate comments to our daily gripes with one another. There isn’t a single character that could be placed anywhere near what we would usually consider “normal”; the most innocuous of the bunch is still party to grand theft and murder, showing further that no one gets away clean. Jensen’s technique, which finds him employing all manner of storytelling devices, matches and enhances the wild hairiness of the film’s subject and subjects. You can’t help but admire his honesty and the take-it-or-leave-it ethic which the film espouses. However, we’re left wondering why this is all happening. In that, Beguiled Company falls apart, but it’s not something that you’ll shake for a good, long time.
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