The Rise and Fall of an American Scumbag

Characters in a movie don’t need to be all good all the time for them to be relatable. But a film whose characters are meant to be utterly despicable in every imaginable way has an uphill battle. If the characters are too vulgar or off-putting, the viewer will not finish the film. On the other hand, if those same characters aren’t loathsome enough then the story will come across as hollow. Rules Of Attraction, directed by Roger Avary, based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel, is exclusively about deplorable, shallow college students and how their selfishness affects everyone around them. On the opposite side stands #horror, about a group of pre-teen best friends and the slasher prowling around their grounds. The kids are spoiled, rich, and bored with nothing affecting them. While the characterizations are similar in both movies, Rules Of Attraction has no qualms about showing its people doing horrible things and forcing the audience to watch. This uninhibited take allows viewers to experience a darkly comedic tale. #horror by comparison still wants us to empathize with its young leads and thus holds back, so they never do any outright horrible deeds. By not fully embracing the dark ideas present, the whole production is futile. Thankfully, The Rise And Fall Of An American Scumbag manages to avoid those pitfalls by mastering the recipe for flawed, engaging characters.

Johnny (Dakota Bailey) is a substance-abusing hitman who low-level kingpin and dealer Pat (Alaskan Cinder) sends to kill the vigilante Wheeling Deals (Larry Bay) after he kills one of her drug dealers. Young lovers Billy (Darien Fawkes) and Candy (Marla Rose) murder his father for the insurance money and rob some of Pat’s contacts so Marla can stay high. This sends Johnny on their trail. As everything collides, the body count rises.

“…a substance-abusing hitman who low-level kingpin…sends to kill a vigilante…after he kills one of her drug dealers.”

The Rise And Fall Of An American Scumbag marks Dakota Bailey’s ninth movie, including shorts, as writer-director-star-producer-editor and director of photography. For some people wearing that many hats would be daunting, but Bailey proves to be a virtuoso on all fronts, only stifled by a lack of resources. The directing is stylish and energetic, weaving in and out of the five stories with ease. The editing is fast and furious to match the frantic pace with which the characters are trying to escape their dead-end lives. The soundtrack, by punk band Skullcrack, is hard-hitting and enjoyable.

Bailey is the best actor of the bunch, as he brings a lot of empathy and charisma to Johnny. But the rest of the cast does a solid job, with the exception of Marla Rose as Candy. She isn’t believable as a strung-out junkie and, unlike the rest of the cast, she fails to imbue her character with that sense of valiant struggle or a vibrant inner life.

However, the lighting is somewhat awful throughout. The use of night vision in the outdoor sequences comprises probably half the movie and doesn’t allow for a comprehensive color palette. It also means there isn’t much depth of field to any single scene, so the visual style is a bit flat. The meager budget explains some of the limitations, but using some table lamps or string lights wouldn’t have cost much and could have avoided the garish washed out look that dominates most of the movie.

“…manages to avoid those pitfalls by mastering the recipe for flawed, engaging characters.”

The writing is where this movie shines brilliantly, though. Bailey writes each character with a distinct voice, and while no one gets out clean, they are fascinating people to watch. Billy is a sociopath of the highest order, barely even concerning himself with Marla, as she is nothing more than a pawn to him. Johnny’s a talented killer, but his drug issues keep him from reaching his full potential and Pat is interesting, in part because female drug kingpins are under-represented, but also how she manipulates everyone to her wants and needs, even as she fails to see people exploiting her.

While there are some lighting issues and one miscast actress, Dakota Bailey’s vision is never dull. A hardcore punk rock sensibility runs rampant throughout The Rise And Fall Of An American Scumbag which meshes nicely with the kinetic directing. The well-written characters, vile though they may be, are fascinating to watch and the acting brings them to gnarled, ugly life in a believable way.

The Rise And Fall Of An American Scumbag (2017) Directed by Dakota Bailey. Written by Dakota Bailey. Starring Dakota Bailey, Larry Bay, Alaskan Cinder, Darien Fawkes, Marla Rose.

8 out of 10

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