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Nicholas T. King
Looking back a few years later, Jefferson Roth tells the story of the last few weeks of her senior year at a Wisconsin boarding school when she and two girl friends, the naive Lisa and the outrageous Karen, use a pistol to turn the tables on men (boys, really) who make them feel weak, put upon, and desired only as sex objects. They stage a sexual assault on David, who's been hot and cold toward Lisa. Meanwhile, each of the three keeps trying to find love even while Karen wants to attack others: Jefferson falls for a cowboy singer, ignoring a boy she grew up with, Jeremy, who likes her; Lisa tries again to reach David; Karen puts herself at risk with an older man. Can it end well? Written by
Dark, despairing, with no balancing light. Difficult to see to the end!
There's not many movies where I seriously consider not seeing it all the way through. I watch 5-12 movies a week, new releases and classics, and typically I see them all through to the bitter end.
But 20 minutes into "The Smokers" I was fighting a most uncharacteristic urge to hit the Stop button.
And 30 minutes into the film I found myself in great sympathy of those animals who gnaw their legs off to escape a trap.
I picked up the film on spec because it had some good people involved with it. And I cannot hold them at fault for my discomfort -- all of the actors do their best with the material. (Thora Birch is a standout as the younger sister.)
But it is the material itself which is at the root of my desire to flee. What was (I believe) intended as a trenchant commentary on power, empowerment, and male-female relations instead struck me as a mean-spirited, dark and ultimately pointless exercise.
Perhaps if I were more familiar with the subjects of the film -- rich, bored, disaffected boarding school girls -- it would be more poignant for me. But I'm not a rich, bored, disaffected boarding school girl (nor do I think I ever shall be), just a film enthusiast with the ability to empathize with characters on screen if given half a chance. I ended up not caring two squirts what happened to any of these characters, and the vague message of the movie regarding the validity of the culture which produces rich, bored, disaffected etc. -- one of the characters tells her little sister "I don't want you to end up like mom" -- was insufficient reason to care about the film itself.
This film obviously comes from a very personal space, as many films which are written and directed by the same person do. Just as obviously, the director had it in the back of her mind that this film become a cult favorite -- the wild makeup is otherwise largely pointless.
An ardent feminist might claim that the source of my discomfort comes from receiving the barbs directed at self-serving men. To which I say pish. *And* tosh. The characters are empty on both sides of the sexual divide. I am a feminist (a humanist!) myself, and I feel this movie makes no contribution to insight regarding the opposite sex, and is in fact so confused and hostile that it can actually cause greater problems. My wife felt the same way.
Midway through the film, my wife and I debated whether or not to see it through; we decided to reach the bitter end, to see if *any* redemption was offered. But we also discussed what movie we should watch afterward, to take the taste of "The Smokers" out of our mouths. Something cheerier, like "Apocalypse Now".
And I found myself thinking of Kurtz's penned message: "Drop the bombs. Exterminate them all."
The horror. The horror...
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