Be forewarned if you happen to maintain some childhood phobia of clowns, because they tote guns, contract hits, plot revenge and drink their highballs straight from the bottle in A Clown in Babylon. But don’t let your trepidation get the best of you and risk missing some quality indie filmmaking.
Nick Taylor’s gritty film is the best candidate for a classic cult film that I’ve seen in a long time, and surely that’s what he set out to achieve. It follows the path of a hardened clown-cum-private eye named Frank, who is haunted by the murder of his father, Jingles, and obsessed with seeking revenge on the perpetrators. Jingles was murdered in front of a young Frank, after an affair he had with a midget tight-rope walker who already belonged to a pair of evil clowns.
Along with his one-armed, alcoholic juggler compatriot, Bob, Frank infiltrates the clown underworld where he finds secret societies, strung-out entertainers, oedipal complexes and broken lives. Of course, even the beat poets are clowns. Though discovering the truth about Oswald, and unveiling the mystery behind Buddy Holly’s death, Frank comes to realizes how distorted truth and justice can become in a world wrought with decay and unhappiness.
Taylor’s film sounds ridiculous, but he is able to tame all of his outrageous characters and their predicaments into a film that coheres in everything but its distorted view of clown reality. Flashback sequences are brilliantly shot in a pale, rough style, then woven perfectly in and out of the narrative to fully develop Frank as a character. Taylor also effectively utilizes the jump cut throughout the film, toying with any notion of stability.
Clown’s screenplay is harsh and explicit, but superb acting translates the rather laconic script into a succinct plot. The only true breakdown of this film is an overdone, tiresome séance scene that tries to survive on mediocre flashbacks and innumerable lit candles. I actually found myself quoting the film, as I waited for this tangent to conclude: “This is a nightmare I get night after night, the clowns, the gunshots, the blood, it never ends and it’s never gonna end til they’re dead.”
There’s an undertone of religion and a questioning of mortality throughout the film, and Taylor toys with the notion that “we are not our bodies.” If his intention was to depict the fragility of flesh and uncertainty, Taylor certainly contrived a brittle world in which Frank must accept the truth no matter how horrifying or banal it might be. Hey, flesh is only painted on in clown world anyway.