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A Snapshot of American Decay at it's Finest || Gummo (1997) Movie Review

After a much needed two month hiatus, I am back and more ready than ever to cover some gross, disturbing, sinister cinema. And to start it off, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings regarding Harmony Korine’s cult classic snapshot of American decay and boredom – Gummo.

Gummo (1997, dir. Harmony Korine) follows the various lives of citizens in Xenia, Ohio a few years after a catastrophic tornado hit the town. Of these lives, the audience primarily follows two cat killing boys Tummler and Solomon (played by Nick Sutton and Jacob Reynolds) and secondarily follows three sisters Helen, Dot, and Darby (played by Carisa Glucksman, Chloë Sevigny, and Darby Doughtery). The narrative of Gummo is incredibly fragmented, working more as a snapshot through average hick-living and American decay rather than providing the audience with a designated plot. For example, many of these fragments consist of scenes that feel as if they’re genuine, candid conversations and interviews Korine simply found while in the process of shooting for the film. Interviews such as the skinhead brothers, the albino, and the boys with blurred faces give Gummo an authentic feeling mockumentary experience about ordinary individuals combating boredom in a small hick town.

As the audience follows Tummler and Solomon, we experience activities such as cat killing, glue sniffing, having sex, and breaking into the home of their crossdressing rival Jarrod (played by Daniel Martin) who has been stealing their cat killing business. For more context, this “business” is killing or finding dead strays and selling them to a local butcher who, in turn, sells the meat to a Chinese restaurant. It’s established early on that Solomon looks up to Tummler as a role model, stating, “Tummler sees everything. Some say he's downright evil. He's got what it takes to be a legend. He's got a marvelous persona.” However, out of the two Solomon seems to remain the main focus of Gummo with the film more regularly following his experiences living in Xenia and many voiceovers being a sincere and dark monologue presented by Solomon. Likewise, out of the two I might argue that Solomon is shown to have more present morals, values, and humanity than most of the other cast despite his young age (I might guess Solomon is between 13 and 15 years old while Tummler seems 16-18). For example, as Tummler and Solomon are out hunting stray cats they come across a black cat with a purple collar. As Tummler lifts his BB gun to shoot it Solomon pushes the gun down and states, “Don’t kill the bitch. It’s a house cat.” Solomon realizes that not all cats in the neighborhood are fair game and seems to see their actions as purely exterminating dozens of unneutered strays from polluting the area, as if they were rats. In other words, he doesn’t seem to find joy in cat killing as many other characters do but rather a paycheck to get glue. There is another instance of humanity which includes Solomon and a girl named Cassidey which will be discussed later.

I’m unsure how much of what Korine included is genuine candid experiences and how much is scripted. But, the scenes audiences know are scripted are so well written that I wouldn’t be surprised if the candid-scenes were scripted or improved. Korine has an excellent understanding of writing believable and natural dialog. There were many times the dialog was so on-par to how a real child living in Appalachia might talk that I needed to pause the film until I could cease my laughter. One of my favorite examples of this is the junkyard scene in which two young boys (perhaps between the ages of 5 and 7) are dressed as cowboys and playing with real guns (don’t worry, mom, it’s unloaded). A mute character called Bunny Boy (played by Jacob Sewell) approaches the two who quickly turn to berate him for “smelling like fucking piss.” As they do, the boys gun down Bunny Boy who plays along and falls to the ground. As the rabbit lays dead, the boys continue to poke and shoot at Bunny Boy, stating things such as, “This shitty ass rabbit stinks…He smells like pussy! He smells like an asshole!”

However, there are also lines such as, “I don’t like rabbits coming into my fucking house! I kill!” which have serious undertones behind them that I believe is an example of how Appalachian culture might be seen as “disturbing” to outsiders. In fact, as the boy says the line I can’t help to think to myself how many times a father, uncle, or grandfather has threatened to kill something (or someone) in front of the child, making it seem normal or as if killing can be taken lightly. And yet in the same breath my West Virginian instinct is to say, “There’s nothing serious behind saying those things.” I think this also goes hand-in-hand with how different the culture of Appalachia is which is showcased very well in Gummo. While Xenia, Ohio isn’t part of the Appalachian Mountain range, there are still several striking similarities between the culture of Xenia within the world of Gummo and the culture of deep-Appalachia, especially in regards to American decay and what I might term “hick society.” I argue for this film to be considered part of the Appalachian film canon – which is something I have made up based on my experience watching movies set in Appalachia that showcase real Appalachian life (how many more times do you think I can put “Appalachia” in this review?). As a small, hick town girlie myself, I can say with confidence that I have never seen a film that depicts young country boys better than Gummo. Not only in its dialog but also in every activity or “hobby” the boy characters participate in, Gummo captures country boyhood very well.

One of the things that surprised me most about this film was the way in which the female cast is treated – and it’s a good surprise. Typically when diving into films from the Disturbing Movie Iceberg nearly every film follows heavy themes of sexual and physical violence towards women and children – but primarily women. It’s very common to pick up any movie from the iceberg and know that you’ll be seeing at least one woman brutally raped and tortured. However, Gummo sways from this formula with no explicit scenes featuring the exploitation of women. Although it dances on the outskirts of the topic with moments such as a girl being interviewed about the first time her father molested her and Cassidey’s situation, there is never anything explicitly shown or heard. There is a moment towards the film’s conclusion where Helen, Dot, and Darby are lured into a car by an old man who plans to molest them, however this never ends up happening. The man is able to put his hand on Helen’s thigh before all three girls become aware of what’s happening, beat the man all together, and are easily able to escape the situation. Korine’s decision to not follow the mold of girls being raped for the sake of shock value make me love this film even more. Also, Solomon’s mother (played by Linda Manz) who could have easily been written off as completely terrible, toxic, and abusive is instead portrayed as a widow in grieving who loves her children and is trying her best to take care of them since the father’s death but obviously struggles sometimes. Solomon’s mother might be my favorite character of the entire film because while she’s not always an ideal mom she is a realistic mom and shows compassion and love in her own strange way. I think she’s a delightful (and the most sane) character to include in the band of misfits and cat killers.

I believe the Cassidey situation needs its own paragraph as the entire scene and the decisions Korine made fascinate me. Cassidey (played by Bernadette Resha) is a young girl with down syndrome who is being forced into prostitution by a man she lives with – some sources say this is her husband however Wikipedia states it’s her brother and while watching I believed it was her older brother as well. Within the film, Tummler and Solomon pay the man to have sex with Cassidey. Tummler goes first and the audience sees and hears nothing of his experience with Cassidey. Instead, the camera is focused on Solomon who is waiting. The camera continues following Solomon as he enters the bedroom and we’re introduced to Cassidey. Their interaction with one another is, dare I say, incredibly sweet and it seems as if they’re friends. Cassidey tells Solomon he has girl hands which he denies and Cassidey immediately assures him that he does. Additionally, the way Solomon looks at Cassidey and how softly he decides to touch her hands and cheek suggest that he has genuine feelings for her. Their time together in the film ends with Solomon asking Cassidey if she loves him and finds him attractive. Although it’s assumed that the two continue forward and have sex, the audience is never shown the sex between these two, instead leaving the memory of them to two nervous kids awkwardly interacting during an intimate moment.

At this moment, rather than focusing on the shock of Cassidey’s situation, the two are simply just nervous children who are experiencing their own unfair hardships which they have no control over. I might be reading into the scene between Cassidey and Solomon, but I found it to be sweet, intimate, and a surprising palette cleanser in the middle of the film. I also love Korine’s decision to make this scene something intimate rather than shocking and disturbing. I believe this is another great example of how Korine establishes humanity in his film.

I believe Gummo as a whole does well to establish the humanity in characters which many might label as dirties, trash, hillbillies, or so on. It’s common for disturbing films to completely throw humanity out the window as it gets in the way of being as depraved as possible, but Korine seems to enjoy reminding the audience that the cast of characters are, in reality, still human through his methods of storytelling and cinematography. In other words, I think this portrayal of a bored, backwoods town in Appalachia can be described as tasteful or artful in its approach. I personally never felt as if Korine was exploiting, demonizing, or purposefully embellishing any part of the culture presented within Gummo as I have with horror movies who demonize the area and paint a sinister, apathetic, and uneducated depiction of Appalachian culture (I’m looking at you Wrong Turn). In fact, much of the film feels more genuine and natural than anything else, in some cases the footage feeling as if a candid conversation is accidentally being caught on tape. This theory is solidified by the fact that some candid footage includes blurred faces and altered voices of those being interviewed.

I give Gummo 5 out of 5 coffins – and that’s coming from someone who adores cats.

For those concerned, no real cats were harmed in the making of Gummo. However, there is a short clip of home movie footage which shows a real dead cat, although it is already past the bloating stage of decay.

Overall, Gummo is a brilliantly made piece of cinema and I’m surprised it’s not part of the Criterion collection yet as it’s an award winning cult classic. Listen, if Salò (also known as The 120 Days of Sodom) is part of the Criterion collection, there’s no reason Gummo shouldn’t be. I believe Korine to be a very skilled filmmaker and storyteller and he’s a director whose work I would love to watch more of. Films such as Kids and Mr. Lonely are definitely on my watchlist now. I recommend this film to anyone who likes a little bit of rawness and edge to their movies; those who like to see visible grime, dirt, and deteriorating architecture and the people who live there. IMDb categorizes this film as a drama-comedy which I wholeheartedly agree with. As much as the film makes you laugh it also makes you stop and listen to deep and provocative monologues and conversations taking place on the forgotten fringes of society.

The only gripe I found with this film didn’t even come from the film itself – in fact, I had no complaints at all with this film – rather people who wish to label this as “disturbing cinema." And yes, this is going to be the part where I give a cathartic rant which I spared for the very end for those who don’t know what I’m talking about or don’t care.

The Disturbing Movie Iceberg is something I have referenced a few times on this blog and it’s something that I will continue pulling movies from to review. How an iceberg chart functions is by a range of tiers organized from most well-known and safe topics at the tip of the iceberg (or, sometimes the sky above the iceberg) and an inclusion of more seedy, obscure, or depraved topics as one goes lower into the waters beyond the iceberg. According to one reddit user’s more popular rendition of the Disturbing Movie Iceberg, Gummo is placed at Tier 4. This means Gummo is placed at the same intensity as titles such as Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, Where the Dead Go to Die, and Snuff 102. I would not place this film all the way down at Tier 4. It is not the same caliber of disturbing as Where the Dead Go to Die, which had moments that were genuinely difficult to continue watching.

If I had to edit the iceberg, I would honestly move Gummo up to Tier 2 with films such as The House That Jack Built, Tusk, Raw, and The Hills Have Eyes. And yet, I still feel like I would define many of the films in Tier 2 as “more disturbing” than Gummo. I honestly have no idea why Gummo is part of the list at all. It’s not a horror movie and it’s not disturbing. But it is a sincere drama-comedy mockumentary that is charming, contains wholesome moments, and showcases intimate snapshots of small town living after a catastrophic event put the town in ruins. It’s not only the disturbing factor that makes me believe Gummo should be higher on the list, it’s also the fact that it’s an award winning film with a budget of 1.3 million USD and has a DVD release through Warner Brothers. Again, typically with an iceberg the further down one goes, the more obscure the subjects should be. As a comparison, Slaughtered Vomit Dolls is in the same tier with a budget of $100,000, Where the Dead Go to Die was done entirely out of the passion of a single person, and many of the others in the same tier are either so homemade that there was no budget or so obscure and foreign that it’s impossible to find a budget for the films. Gummo simply does not belong in Tier 4. This isn’t a gripe about the movie, I ended up really loving the movie, it’s just a gripe at the person or people who put the iceberg together.

Perhaps as I explore Tier 4 further, I might change my mind as I believe Black Metal Veins (also on the tier) might end up similar to Gummo in the sense of it being a depressing and decaying slice-of-life mockumentary. However, overall I would never define this film as a “disturbing” experience. I found the film to be very humorous and it knows when to be serious when it needs to, but there was never a moment where I thought, “I can’t watch this with my family” the way I have with other films such as Pink Flamingos which is much more obscene than Gummo in every way yet placed a level higher at Tier 3. Make it make sense. One day I’ll craft an iceberg of my own so I can stop feeling frustrated over the bad takes of others. Then everyone can just be mad at my bad takes.


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