Stuart Gordon’s ‘Stuck’ Unstuck, by Michael H. Price
A general release has been too long in coming for Stuck, Stuart Gordon’s mordant and mournful film about a traffic accident and its criminal aftermath. I began picking up on the raves shortly after a film-critic comrade, Joe Leydon, caught the picture at 2007’s Toronto Film Festival and published a favorable review in the show-biz tradepaper Variety. Joe suggested a “carefully calibrated theatrical rollout” but added: “… difficult to tell whether [the] sardonically edgy pic will reach many mainstream auds before fast-forwarding to homevid.”
Now comes word of a Dallas opening, June 6, for Stuck – three months after a well-received showing at the American Film Institute/Dallas Festival. ThinkFilm, the distributor, keeps hedging about an opening in nearby Fort Worth. I have pressed for a film-fest slot or a commercial engagement in Fort Worth because that is where my newspaper’s core readership dwells. And because Stuck owes its dire inspiration to a real-world ordeal that took place in Fort Worth.
“Why, we couldn’t show a movie like that in Fort Worth’s very own film festival,” one leading light of the FW-based Lone Star Film Society told me last fall after I had recommended Stuck as a centerpiece for a November 2007 event. “We’re here ‘To Preserve and Present the Art of the Moving Image’ – just as our Mission Statement declares – not to dredge up any horrible memories.”
“Yeah, well,” I answered – once that “yeah, well” injunction kicks in, any such exchange is doomed to deteriorate – “an occasional reminder might do us all some sobering good. And besides, the film uses the local case only as a springboard. Changes the locale and fictionalizes a lot. More an inspiration than an explicit reflection.”
“I’d be careful how I used that term, ‘inspiration,’ if I were you,” came the reply. “Anyone who would find inspiration in such a ghastly occurrence has no business being allowed to make movies.” (Guardians of the Culture, take note.)
"Hmmm,” I said, unable to resist. “So then how do you explain the selection of [Sidney Lumet’s] Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead or [György Pálfi’s] Taxidermia for the current festival? Some pretty ‘ghastly occurrences,’ there.”
“Those pictures are fictional. Or outright fantasy. And besides, they’re not local.” End of discussion: Those superior debating skills get ’em every time.
One night in 2001 in Fort Worth, a nurse’s aide named Chanté Mallard was driving home after a night of overindulgence when her automobile struck a pedestrian named Gregory Glenn Biggs. Thrown head-first through the windshield, Biggs pleaded with Mallard to summon help. She drove home, instead, garaged her car, and left Biggs to die. With secretive assistance, she had the body moved to a neighborhood park, to leave the appearance of a hit-and-run fatality. Some loose talk and a tipster eventually led the police to Mallard, who landed a 50-year prison sentence.
The shock registered communitywide – Fort Worth, despite an increasing population and cosmopolitan airs to match, still likes to consider itself one of those it-can’t-happen-here towns – and resonates yet. Robert Wilonsky, who writes for the Dallas Observer branch of Village Voice Media, acknowledged Stuckwith a real-life snark: “Fort Worth, you’re stuck with this one” while appraising the film’s likelier commercial prospects along “the sick-and-twisted cult circuit.”
The ivory-tower critical conceit that crime-and-horror films as a class have no business addressing a “mainstream” audience is nothing new. Such figures as Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme and Sidney Lumet, who often draw upon such inspirations, appear exempt – but mention the name of Stuart Gordon or various of his signature pictures (also including Re-Animator and From Beyond), and the critical brethren will resort mechanically to such dismissive terms as “sick-and-twisted” and “campy.” One prominent critic’s response to Stuck at the AFI/Dallas Fest hailed “serious guilty-pleasure potential.” Another offered condescending praise as “enjoyably trashy” and “breezy camp.”
Gordon, of course, has no such sleazy bearings. His films since 1985’s Re-Animator, a confrontational elaboration upon H.P. Lovecraft, bespeak, rather, a willingness to jar his viewers out of a state of passive complacency in order to state a case for the Human Condition as an abyss of obsessive susceptibility. Allegory, underscored in red. The attitude seems made-to-order for the exploitation-film industry. This self-evident truth was especially so at that time, a generation ago, when the boundaries of the horror-movie genre were ripe for some serious gerrymandering – shortly before the major corporate studios began annexing the territory of so-called “grindhouse” cinema and forcing the genuinely audacious low-budget studios to retrench into either extinction or home video.
But Gordon’s moviemaking career has been more an extension of his loyalties to the dramatic stage than any bid for film-industry prominence or notoriety. Our one face-to-face visit, during a promotional tour for his 1987 film Dolls, proved more concerned with Gordon’s seminal involvement with the broadly influential Organic Theatre Company of Chicago. That connection, in turn, signifies deep ties to the present-day ComicMix ensemble.
But about that ‘Stuck’…
The tragic absurdities of Stuck were in place well before screenwriter John Strysik set to work on the tale. Its parallels with the Chanté Mallard case capture vividly the bleak paths of two ordinary citizens forced onto a collision-course by bad timing, bad habits, and a New Depression Economy. Tom (played by Stephen Rea) seems a bright middle-class businessman, rendered an outcast by a chain-reversal of fortune. Brandi (Mena Suvari) appears a dedicated health-care worker, though inordinately fond of drugs and strong drink.
Faced with joblessness and homelessness and a bureaucratic brush-off, Tom finds himself wandering the area where Brandi is attempting to drive home after a night of carousing. Their violent crossing leaves her shaken, but not so much so that she cannot ponder how a DUI-with-injury arrest might affect her career. She hides her car, and the victim with it. Tom lingers in a pained attempt to rally for an escape. Brandi enlists a low-life boyfriend named Rashid (Russell Hornsby) to dispose of Tom, who remains long enough among the living to account for the film’s more harrowing moments.
The film draws its greater unnerving power from the interest of Gordon and Strysik in the emotional tolls of violence, embodied in Mena Suvari’s depiction of Brandi as a caregiver-by-convenience – devoted to a career of going through the humanitarian motions, but incapable of responding with compassion or practicality to an emergency of her own making. Her panicked response seems pitiable until, by subtle degrees, Suvari reveals the vicious impatience behind her apparent distraction. Hers is a courageous performance, matched by Stephen Rea’s persuasive impersonation of a hard-luck fellow determined to beat some formidable odds. Russell Hornsby lends a cruel absurdity as a tough-guy poseur out of his depth.
Gordon and camera chief Denis Maloney frame the story with a dismal aspect reminiscent of Edgar G. Ulmer’s low-budget noir classic Detour (1947) – a similarly conceived, though more strictly contrived, tale of a hapless wanderer who finds himself entrapped by harsh circumstance.
Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price is responsible for the Forgotten Horrors series of movie-history books, from Baltimore’s Midnight Marquee Press. Price’s arts-scene commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com , and in the Times Leader of Wilkes–Barre, Pa.
In the interest of full disclosure, director Stuart Gordon and ComicMix’s own John Ostrander are collaborating on an upcoming Munden’s Bar story.