With his second film, a darkly comic psychological exploration of half a dozen urban dwellers in Vancouver, Canadian Bruce Sweeney emerges as a filmmaker to watch. A follow-up to the writer-director’s feature debut “Live Bait,” which won best Canadian film honors at the 1995 Toronto Film Festival, pic boasts terrific ensemble acting, evidently having taken full advantage of its lengthy rehearsals and improvisational methods. Nonetheless, prevalent caustic tone and the emotional intensity with which Sweeney dissects his characters’ problems — including sexual masochism, neurosis and anomie — will considerably restrict pic’s theatrical prospects. Still, an entrepreneurial distributor should try to position “Dirty” as a distinctive draw in major urban markets with built-in upscale and sophisticated viewers.
Sweeney appears to work in the serio-comic and psychological mode of John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh, a 1991 master class with the famed Brit director having reportedly influenced his own aesthetic sensibility. “Dirty” lacks the depth and veracity of Leigh’s best films, but like them, it digs deep inside its characters and discloses the inner workings of their psyches in a revelatory, serio-comic style.
Central figure (brilliantly played by Babz Chula) is Angie, a middle-aged though still attractive drug dealer, who fulfills the masochistic fantasies of David (Tom Scholte), a young MBA student who derives pleasure from being spanked. David shares a residence with new roommate Tony (Benjamin Ratner), a worker in a log company whose loneliness and desperate need to be acknowledged — and loved — brings out the worst in David’s personality.
Nancy (Nancy Sivak), who’s on the verge of declaring bankruptcy and facing its emotional ramifications, lives in the basement of Angie’s apartment. She too, like Angie’s son Ethan (Vincent Gale), and Angie’s old mother, Abbie (Abby J. Arnold), who’s visiting from Florida, is dangerously lonely and desperately eager for some meaningful human communication.
Most of these bizarre interactions take place in Angie’s ragged house, which becomes the physical and emotional center where all the characters are forced to recognize — and manifest — their idiosyncratic problems.
As scripter and helmer, Sweeney’s orientation is unabashedly Freudian — each of the six characters is engaged in what could be described from a mainstream perspective as “deviant sexuality.”
Sweeney may carry these sexual fixations to an extreme, but for the most part he shrewdly endows them with a peculiar but effective combination of sarcastic wit, emotional power and undeniable realism.
With the notable exception of a few unconvincing scenes, such as a dinner revelation from Angie that David likes to be strapped, “Dirty” benefits from the improvisational input of all the actors. Sweeney clearly subscribes to the theory that dialogue, not plot, is the real action, staging the various confrontations with an observant eye — and attentive camera — that records the most truthful, if often unpleasant, details. Sharply written dialogue cuts through the layers of false pretense that mark most routine conversations, until it reaches a level where each character is forced to face his or her innermost demons.
Providing the heart and soul of the film, the ensemble is uniformly good, with standout work from Chula and Scholte as the central couple, and Arnold, who is Chula’s real-life mother. Tech credits are proficient, particularly David Pelletier’s crisply invigorating camera, which in almost every scene seems to dive right to the most crucial and painful detail.