Charlie (Matt Fowler) is at a particularly stressful time in his life. He’s barely able to cover the rent for he and his girlfriend, Jen (Lacy Hornick), who are sharing a house with his best friend Ryan (Chris Ehling) and Ryan’s girlfriend, Christie (Sunny Williams). To make matters more annoying for all involved, mutual friend of Ryan and Charlie, Max (Kyle Duncan Graham), is a deadbeat who has no problem crashing on the couch and contributing nothing to the rent situation.
Still, working for a cigarette company has its benefits for someone who likes to smoke as much as Charlie does, and when company rep Sugar (Renee M. Sher) offers Charlie a couple sample packs of a new blend known as “Ultra Extreme,” he can’t say, “yes” fast enough. And they’re certainly a new experience, as Charlie begins having intense dreams and fantasies. Problem is, he’s also coughing up a lung every morning, and Jen has had enough, forcing him to quit. Only he doesn’t want to quit, and the cigarettes don’t want him to either.
Nicotine Stains is both a brutal and grotesque gore show and a story about the worst case scenario for quitting smoking ever. As Charlie’s withdrawal kicks in, and other pharmaceutical concerns of his arise, he becomes a raging beast of a man. There’s having a short temper, and then there’s whatever Charlie is going through. It’s not healthy, for him or anyone else.
As I mentioned, that means gore, and this film goes to some pretty rough places by the time it finishes up. Not just goes there, but gleefully wallows in its depraved viciousness. When Charlie is driven to violence, it’s not like the case of a guy who just snapped under the pressure, but more like the unleashing of a monster that’s been patiently waiting for an opportunity to lash out.
Which, depending on your interpretation, may have everything or nothing to do with the cigarettes he’s smoking. The film certainly sets up a potential connection, but as it rolls along, it becomes clear that Charlie has issues beyond what might be happening because he’s smoking a new cigarette. His outspoken distaste for Max, for example, predates his new blend.
And I like that there’s some ambiguity with Charlie’s character motivations, or at least mental health, because it gives the film a couple more layers to work with. Without it, you could more easily dismiss this as a guy who really can’t handle nicotine withdrawal. Where’s the “quit smoking, don’t turn into a raging psychopath patch”? Because he could’ve used it.
Tonally the experience can be pretty severe. The extreme nature of the violence and gore is not something that is hinted at all that much early on, so when things go dark, they skip straight to “cringingly brutal.” It’s a gear shift that shocks with its severity, and can be quite uncomfortable and jarring on top of what is being depicted.
Of course, much of the rest of the film can feel slow. Maybe it’s the contrast coming from the brutality, and the fact that the overall conflicts aren’t all that engaging, that can make certain aspects feel like a repetitive slog. Max is a deadbeat, and Charlie needs to quit smoking. That’s it, everything is connected to one or both of those.
Ultimately, the success of this film is going to reside with the audience’s willingness to go on the ride even if there’s potentially little there beyond some rough, grotesque moments. For some, that’s more than enough. Others might want more than just a mental decline for one character to hang their narrative hats on. I think the film can get twisted, and gorehounds will find much to delight in, but the space around the juicy bits isn’t as compelling as one would hope.
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