VOD Review: Bruiser.
We look back at another film from the late George A. Romero which was…fine. Just fine.
This month we lost several luminaries in the movie business in rapid succession. Usually we like to honor the fallen by looking at their body of work, as we did with Carrie Fisher and Robin Williams, or as we will be doing this month with Martin Landau. Sometimes, though, we’ve covered an artist so often, it’s hard to say much new. Such is the case with the late, great George A. Romero.
We’ve saluted his instrumental role in reinventing the zombie genre. We’ve looked at his non-horror films, such as Knightriders. He had some notable non-zombie horror movies, but few moved the needle as much as his Dead Trilogy. While I enjoyed his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, it’s certainly not a classic. When I saw that he took a long hiatus after that film and returned with an original concept, written and directed by himself, I was all ears. Or eyes. We use eyes mostly for movies. Check.
Henry is an empty suit working for a men’s magazine called Bruiser. He hustles his ass off to please his unfaithful wife and his domineering boss. He’s up to his eyeballs in debt keeping the missus happy and has turned to the stock market with the help of an old college buddy, but his returns never seem to materialize. A sensational suicide in the media starts Henry down the path of dark thoughts until one day he wakes up with no face. The loss of his identity pushes Henry over the brink, and he starts taking his violent revenge on everyone who ever treated him like a nobody.
One of the hardest movies to review is the OK movie. It pulls off almost every aspect with workman-like efficiency. It has decent performances. It tells a coherent story, with maybe some nice flourishes. It has a few warts but balances them with some nice elements. It is a totally watchable movie. Bruiser is just such a movie.
There is an expectation that being a come-back vehicle for Romero, this film would either embrace his gritty horror roots or be a wild departure from them. Think of the Scream series from Wes Craven: just enough elements of the slasher genre to be recognizably Craven-esque, but filled with tweaks that subvert expectations. Instead, Bruiser is a well made but fairly unremarkable psychological horror movie with more psychology than horror. The tale of a man losing his grip on the social contract is more Falling Down than American Psycho. As such, there’s not much to make this film remarkable.
The comparison to American Psycho, which came out the same year, is telling. Both stories are about a wealthy white businessman whose life is a facade hiding dark fantasies. Patrick Bateman acts on his fantasies while Henry just imagines them until his transformation. Patrick acts, Henry reacts. Henry never feels in control of his story enough for his transformation to rise above the level of simple metaphor. He’s a stand in for the put-upon worker who chases the allure of money and celebrity to his ruin. Batemen is the logical conclusion of that pursuit. Henry is typical while Patrick rises to the level of archetypal.
None of this is to say that Henry isn’t sympathetic. Hollywood journeyman Jason Flemyng gives a solid performance as Henry. His expressive face shows much of the inner turmoil of his character, even when encased in a death mask. One of my favorite aspects of the film is the mask, which is handled adroitly. It has enough structure to appear stiff and alien, but also enough flexibility around the mouth and brows to allow Flemyng to emote through it. It’s a really nice design in what could have been a silly looking gimmick, and could have been iconic had the script been a touch more ambitious.
Bruiser is a subtle horror film that suffers for its timidity. The body horror/loss of identity aspect is respectable but doesn’t succeed in becoming Kafkaesque. When Henry transforms, he’s still mostly Henry. There is an initial sequence where you think the mask has rendered Henry not only unrecognizable but nearly invisible – his existential plight made physical. Unfortunately it doesn’t pan out. People still know who he is despite the mask. It could have been a fantastic metaphor for his life, but instead becomes just another masked face for a murderer.
As for the murder, Bruiser needed more personality on that front as well. The situations Henry finds himself in are tense and believable, but the resulting carnage is very tame. In most masked killer movies there is a gleeful anticipation of what horrendously appropriate manner he is going to off his victims. In Bruiser, the kills are all pretty perfunctory. The one kill that Henry sets up against his boss, played with a touch too much gusto by Peter Stormare, feels silly and has Henry drop a one-liner like he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man.
The final act of the film feels out of character. What had been mostly a clinical thriller about a man losing his grip goes gonzo for the last 30 minutes. We end up in a masquerade party with legendary punk-rock band The Misfits up on stage in full fright makeup. It looks a little like a scene from a Rob Zombie movie, minus the sadism and gore. Henry goes from a conflicted spirit of vengeance to a (literal) cape twirling baddie who feels lifted from a bad remake of Phantom of the Opera. While I was hoping the film was going to be more over-the-top, the sudden shift in characters and tone is jarring.
Bruiser is a decent film that almost clawed its way over the hump into memorable. I like the main character and the aesthetic of his mask. The story was handled competently when it was being played straight, and I ended up invested in both Henry’s plight and that of his bosses’ ex wife, played by Leslie Hope. Her character mirrors Henry’s in circumstances as she plays the light side of the coin to Henry’s dark side. They have good chemistry and at the end when you see her pick up Henry’s discarded mask, I was hoping for a thrilling resolution to her arc. Unfortunately, not much comes of it.
In the final accounting, Bruiser is a timid and middle of the road movie about a timid and middle of the road guy. I don’t know if George A. Romero was going for a meta reading of his work or was just trying to stay inside a safe mainstream horror movie frame. Either way, Bruiser is an entertaining watch that consistently fails to rise to the level of excellence that other films in the genre, or in the director’s catalog, capture. Much like Henry, you’ll forget this one soon after you meet it.