The latest convert to the principles of Lars Von Trier’s technically austere Dogma 95 manifesto is enfant terrible and “Kids” screenwriter Harmony Korine, who made his directing debut in 1997 with “Gummo.” Following with “Julien Donkey-Boy,” he brings his abrasively grotesque vision to the American family, portraying the schizophrenic title character and his almost equally unhinged clan in a blur of violence, incest, unsound parenting and finally, tragedy. Largely improvised and shot using many handheld digital video cameras, at times attached to the actors, the operation is perhaps more interesting in theory than it is on the screen, and appears too shapeless to attract a significant audience beyond hard-line experimentalism enthusiasts.
While “Gummo” cultivated some shock value and culled its characters from Appalachian Mountain white trash stock, “Julien” takes place in the considerably less interesting universe of suburban New Jersey, undermining any disturbing impact the material might have had with a rambling, unfocused approach that wears thin fast.
An attendant in a school for the blind, Julien (Ewen Bremner) is first seen befriending a young boy in the woods whom he impulsively bludgeons to death, an incident never referred to again. Later, he returns to the home he shares with his pregnant sister, Pearl (Chloe Sevigny), and abusive disciplinarian father (Werner Herzog), who obsessively pushes Julien’s brother, Chris (Evan Neumann), an aspiring wrestler, to be the best.
Declining to develop anything resembling a narrative, Korine merely offers glimpses of the urban-Gothic family, some more revelatory than others. And despite the elaborate approach and layering of various editing and visual techniques, the result seems lazy and directionless.
Some of the more interesting sequences involve Herzog, who is an inspired piece of casting and the film’s most truly creepy character. Professing his admiration for “Dirty Harry,” insulting his daughter, forcing Julien to slap his own face, hosing down Chris or offering him $10 to put on his departed mother’s dress and dance with him, the character has a perverse edge that makes the others seem unformed.
The film is at its best in the scenes in which Julien gets out of the claustrophobic space of his home and interacts with strangers in public places, many of whom reportedly were unaware of being filmed, thanks to hidden cameras. This works especially well in the tragic final act.
While the film’s last 15 minutes have real dramatic impact, what comes before is somewhat numbing and lacking in narrative substance. Korine’s gambit is to trowel on weird interludes such as a visit from an armless neighbor who plays drums, an amusing performance by a magician who simultaneously smokes and eats a pack of cigarettes and a Baptist church service in which Julien is transported by the pastor’s words. But these touches fail to inject much nuance into the irksome family portrait.
Best known for his role as Spud in “Trainspotting,” Bremner uses his awkward physical presence and halting speech patterns to inhabit the schizoid Julien, who swings unpredictably between tenderness and violence and was based on Korine’s uncle. The normally impressive Sevigny is untaxed here by a poorly developed role, while other actors, aside from Herzog, fail to leave an impression.
“Julien” was shot by Brit cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who lensed arguably the best of the Dogma 95 films, Thomas Vinterberg’s “The Celebration” and Soren Kragh-Jacobsen’s “Mifune.” But while the mix of chaotic handheld sequences with freeze frames, stills, superimpositions and other devices creates a gritty visual texture, the raw technique and grainy 35mm blowup yielded better results when hitched to the more solid material of those earlier features. Korine infringes on the rules of the Dogma 95 credo especially in his wide use of music.