DIS (2017) Review
An ex-soldier with a criminal past takes refuge in the woods. A demonic figure seeks the seed of killers and the blood of the damned to feed his mandrake garden. DIS is an infernal descent into the root of the mandrake legend and a man who wanders too close to that legend and the unnamable terror behind it. What you sow you will reap.
Bill Oberst Jr., Lori Jo Hendrix, Peter Gonzales Falcon
From writer-director Adrian Corona comes DIS, an exercise in provocation. In other words, the onerous is on you, audience. If you’re not a fan of “art-house” cinema, if you don’t “get” the many onscreen ejaculations, the nudity, scatology, the rape and the torture; well, you’re just an ignorant puritan. I enjoy the darkness. I enjoy allegory, from a razor blade through an eyeball to Divine’s shit-eating grin in Pink Flamingos (1972). What offends me is a sixty-one minute movie that feels like a slow trip through a Xanax overdose. DIS literally has nothing to say, and it wants to shame you into doing all the work. DIS makes its declaration of principals right from scene one. A hooded psycho forcibly masturbates a chained, naked woman to orgasm. As she climaxes, he slits her throat, mixing her blood and other fluids into an infernal, alchemical potion. After that, the movie gets understandably more boring.
Art, like cooking, like geometry, is all a matter of degrees. If there is no story in DIS, the real egregiousness is that it also has no pace. Just showing something taboo is not enough to be daring, at least, not in a post-PornHub world. Great directors have to get into its politics, like Pier Paolo Pasolini did, or its cosmogony, like Tarkovsky with Stalker (1979), or even its purity of aesthetics, which Stanley Kubrick did so well. But this is just a series of things that happen, from the mundane to the profane, with no buildup. No sense of dread behind the glacial pacing, or what the more snobbish hipsters would call “ennui”. And this is a hipster film, without a doubt. This is Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, without the genre subversion. It’s the kind of crap Harmony Korine made twenty years ago.
But the movie does have its graces, namely the cinematography and Bill Oberst Jr. in the lead. If you don’t know who he is, you really should. Oberst Jr. is the kind of meat and potatoes genre actor who doesn’t get enough credit, on the same level as a Paul Giamatti or John Goodman. Hell, he even managed to bring dramatic weight to the detritus that was Scary or Die. Here Oberst Jr. plays Ariel, an ex-soldier with a criminal past, driven to the woods to mope about death, or something. Here, let me just grab the film’s IMDb synopsis: “a demonic figure seeks the seed of killers and the blood of the damned to feed his mandrake garden. What you sow you will reap.” Misquoting the Bible to infer literal semen. Ah man, hipsters. Get off my lawn. But Oberst Jr. commits one hundred percent to his performance, no matter what demented shenanigans the filmmaker forces him to do. He is especially impressive during the opening twenty minutes, which has no dialogue whatsoever. Oberst Jr. creates a lovely balance between ferocity and gentleness, vulnerability and grit, all with his face. It almost makes the whole experience of DIS worth it. Almost.
So let’s talk about the cinematography. Rodrigo Rodriguez’s work is damn good. It elevates the material, much more than said material deserves. From the lushes forrest vistas to the dank stone temple interiors, the visuals feel like a cross between Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and the Saw franchise. Unfortunately, the flashback sequences are presented in black and white. I blame director Corona for that decision, more than Rodriguez. No matter how much Antichrist the cinematographer channels into it, black and white flashbacks are as cliché as they come. This whole movie is an art-house cliché, the kind of pretentiousness film school students should stop doing after they graduate film school.
If dramatic storytelling is about juxtaposition, (“Hannibal Lecter is a positive, therapeutic force for Clarice Starling, too bad he also eats people”), than allegory is about parallelism. A classic example would be Luis Buñuel’s An Andalusian Dog, where he shows disembodied hands shaking a cocktail mixer every time someone rings a doorbell. It’s dream logic at its finest. The surreal image in and of itself is meaningless, but the visual parallel elegantly completes the thought. That’s the difference between the “weird” and the clever. What actual thought is behind a man in DIS slathering ejaculate on his face, before violating an unconscious woman? Is it meant as an excoriation against toxic masculinity, or is it misogynistic? I don’t mind if the audience isn’t meant to know, but I’m terrified that Adrian Corona himself doesn’t know. Film is too powerful a medium to be used so recklessly. If you’re in the mood for something far afield of the mainstream, DIS will be your cup of tea. For my part, I’ve seen better experimental films. I’ve also seen better porn.
DIS is currently available on VOD, in particular YouTube.