The first death occurs about midway through “I Blame Society,” Gillian Wallace Horvat’s very mean-spirited and very funny feature debut. After the deed, Horvat, who also stars (as a sociopathically dedicated filmmaker called Gillian Wallace Horvat) stares at her tear-streaked reflection in the ugly light of her bathroom mirror, and confesses to the GoPro strapped to her head that it has “precipitated a very drastic tone change” in her film.
To that point, she’s been shooting a relatively light-hearted if deeply self-involved documentary, riffing chirpily on the “compliment” some friends once paid her that she would make a pretty good murderer. Sure enough, the second half of “I Blame Society” skews ever bleaker and nastier as the body count climbs: Aside from all its other virtues, this film is a truly inspiring example of committing to the bit.
On its surface, it’s a bit we’ve seen before. A struggling indie director, facing peer indifference but armed with unshakable self-belief, takes matters into her own hands and makes a movie about a struggling indie director who faces peer indifference, etc. But Horvat is too righteously angry to go as twee as “Living in Oblivion,” and too canny to end up as nihilist as “Man Bites Dog.” (And while the title is perhaps a reference to “Repo Man,” Horvat’s film bears no real resemblance to that cult classic except in its similarly unhinged, escalatingly gonzo vibe).
Her satire instead takes extremely accurate potshots at industry sexism and the condescension of faux-feminist “allyship” — in particular during an excruciating meeting with two hipster indie studio execs (Lucas Kavner and Morgan Krantz) who supply her with ideas including: “strong female lead,” “intersectionality,” “breastfeeding in public” and “how you might think people are white but they’re not.”
But the sharpest takedown is reserved for herself, via her avatar “Gillian,” a validation-starved nightmare person, composed of three-parts vapid self-regard, two parts psychosis and one part film school textbook, complete with references to jump cuts and Joseph Campbell. Through Gillian, Horvat is taking aim at a filmmaking culture subjugated to the idea of the artist who will sacrifice anything and anyone for their vision. If that’s a description of a successful indie filmmaker, it’s also the definition of a maniac.
So Gillian has just been fired by her manager and decides to follow her bliss back to an old project. “I, Murderer” is about herself, interviewing friends and family about whether they think she would make a good murderer, while loosely hypothesizing on how she would do it. Her hypothetical victim is the girlfriend of her friend Chase (Chase Williamson, also the co-writer), whom Gillian hates and refers to as “Stalin.” Gillian’s boyfriend Keith (Keith Poulson) tries to act as a calming influence on her, gestures which she invariably interprets as unsupportive. “There is no movie that is worth hurting someone for … right?” he says. There’s an exquisite pause before Gillian replies, “If it’s a very bad person for a very good movie…”
The makeshift aesthetic, of timecoded video, split-screen Facetime phonecalls and shaky handheld footage is cleverly weaponized against itself throughout this “low-budget indie with lots of integrity.” Although there’s a credited DP (Olivia Kuan who also appears briefly as herself), “I Blame Society” is deceptively rigorous in its apparently self-made construction. Horvat even introduces a hand-cranked device later on, that allows her to incorporate the odd jerky tracking shot, and the suspiciously decent level of coverage she gets is explained in transitions that frequently show her picking up a second, maybe even a third camera from its hidden placement.
All this is pleasurably in-jokey for those in on its jokes. But while Horvat leans hard into the film’s metatextuality, she also displays unerring intuition and masterful comic timing in puncturing it. And however clever-clever she’s being, she never forgets to actually be funny too, as in the suicide notes Gillian fakes, which are tailored so well that friends of the deceased believe them to be real. “Modern life is empty,” reads one, “The millennials have ruined everything.” “The complete disappearance of the erotic thriller as a genre has left me nothing to live for,” says another.
“I, Murderer,” made as Gillian’s calling-card film, doesn’t go down so well. But “I Blame Society” surely must open some doors for Horvat. Partly because it so inventively delivers on its spiteful but tiny central premise that it will be a treat to see what happens when that wit and rigor is applied to a broader canvas. But mostly because this meticulously constructed movie which, virtually undetectably, carries its intelligent anger like a concealed weapon, is very convincing in its basic thesis: Gillian Wallace Horvat would make a really good murderer. Better — for society — if she keeps making films instead.