Delicately balancing between horror and farce, Very Bad Things mines for laughs in a shallow grave, daring its audience to chuckle through realistic and unconscionable scenes of dismemberment and violence. The shock of the material overshadows a keen ear for the ironic and many intuitive correlations between bloodsport and genuine brutality, but don’t confuse this gruesome little number for a high-minded declaration of moral superiority. Instead, indulge your inner sociopath by snickering at the succession of transgressive sight gags, many of which exude sophistication and superlative comic timing, in spite of their ethical turpitude.
The pacing and performances on display are playfully excessive, maintaining an exaggerated mood to mitigate the conduct of the characters, lending a madcap disposition to their egregious actions. Even the everyday is embellished, illustrated by a feverish tête-à-tête over wedding vendor checks and the slam of a rubber stamp on marriage licenses in the opening scene. As our betrothed couple, Kyle (Jon Favreau) and Laura (Cameron Diaz), squabble over the groom’s forthcoming bachelor party and a battery of invoices, we get the sense that we’re observing a high-stakes sitcom, one that treats the mundane as fodder for misanthropic satire. Writer/Director Peter Berg sets this jaundiced tone in the first thirty minutes, gradually heightening the tension to test the audience, baiting us into accompanying his protagonists as they spiral into depravity.
The stag party sequence opens under the guise of cliché, beguiling with fades, wipes and double exposures, drumming up energy by way of Las Vegas’ superficial shimmer and garish, music video-inspired camera calisthenics. The bleary-eyed philosophizing of the groomsmen is equally distracting, lending little to the narrative aside from illustrating their intoxication and lack of introspection. Ironically, their forthcoming collective sin imparts personality and inspires catharsis, ushering their strengths and weaknesses to the forefront and, in turn, making them more human.
Trouble arises for our inebriated revelers with the entrance of their entertainment; a scantily-clad escort whose pelvic thrusts mirror the punches and grapples of combat emanating from the adjacent television set. As his partners in crime pantomime the on-screen battle in their deluxe suite, Michael (Jeremy Piven), fueled by cocaine and camaraderie, vigorously fornicates with the hired help, forcing her head into the tiled wall of the bathroom and unwittingly spearing her neck on a towel hook as he reaches climax. Surveying the scene, illustrated only through detached overhead shot, the party of five cower in fear at the sight of the suspended prostitute, trailing her corpse with their eyes as it falls to the marble floor with a bone-crunching thud.
After a few beats of frenzied terror, the gang puts her fate to a vote, agreeing to inhume the remains in the vastness of the desert, per the suggestion of the calculating and phlegmatic Robert Boyd. Christian Slater plays this insidious character as a fast-talking pragmatist, veiling his disdain for humanity beneath polarized shades, a precariously dangling cigarette and shit-eating grin. Observing his exhilaration as he plans the perfect crime is a sight to behold, conveying mixed emotions as he coaches his co-conspirators to abandon the “moral and ethical implications” and treat the lifeless body as a “109 pound problem.” Yet, this moral ambiguity fades as Boyd thrusts a corkscrew into the chest of an inquisitive security guard, blurring the line between innocuous comedy and terroristic affront to conventional morality.
This contradiction hits its apex as the accessories barricade the dying guard in the bathroom, ignoring his blood-curdling screams as they force their weight against the quaking doorframe. Peter Berg casts the tribulations of his panicked murderers in a comedic light, juxtaposing this jocularity against the desperation of the moribund watchman’s death gasps, using their selfish dread as the catalyst for the spate of catastrophes that lie ahead. This polarity makes for a twisted logic, one that spawns a palpable, unnerving discomfort, but it ultimately serves its purpose, providing these vapid characters with scenarios as ludicrous as their lack of conscience. The resulting picture is as vivacious as it is macabre, every bit of its droll gallows humor created with the utmost levity and bad taste.
Very Bad Things (PolyGram Pictures, 1998)
Written and Directed by Peter Berg
Photographed by David Hennings