Take this film for what it is (an uneven and extremely low budget thriller and morality play) and you may find yourself enjoying the effective acting displayed within and bruising social commentary concerning the self-absorption and sometimes outright shittiness of humankind. It’s Danny Boyle’s “Shallow Grave” meets “Lord of the Flies” meets early Quentin Tarantino with a distinct lack of the technical verve Tarantino showed even early on into his career.
That said, this is one of the more psychologically harrowing and disturbing ‘black comedies’ of recent times. Dark humor, or just plain dark? When the douchebag college kids glue their weed-peddling captive’s lips and hands together and force him to squat with his pants pulled halfway down and shit into a bucket, I was struck by the indignity of it all. “Scarfies” remains relatively compelling despite the almost nil production values and contemptuous cast of characters because it starts out with a somewhat sympathizable ‘what would you do?’ scenario until it takes a sudden plunge into the darkest of places, where sadistic mind games and senseless violence overtake rationality and basic human decency.
The film follows a group of college students who squat in an abandoned house that incongruously has electricity. Initially they are relatively carefree, partying and drinking like there’s no tomorrow, bonding and making love and getting high. Impulsive frat boy-type Alex (Taika Waititi) uses a monumentally awful pick-up line on the object of his affections, straight-laced Nicola (Ashleigh Seagar) and coaxes her into his bed, while Scott (Neill Rea) and Emma (Willa O’Neill) make moon eyes at each other but don’t act on their mutual attraction. Graham (Charlie Bleakley) has a crush on Nicola, but waffles around it and acts generally irritating.
It’s all fun and games until the five students open and jammed-up door in the basement of the squalid building and find a collection of pot plants, all primed and ready to smoke. After a fierce debate, they sell the lot and blow the entirety of their drug money on various electronics and personal vanities. So when the dealer (Jon Brazier) shows up volatile and royally pissed at the loss of his crop, they lock him in the basement. And that’s when the real fun begins.
Movies and literature continually show that kids are scary as hell. So why shouldn’t a group of well-groomed, outwardly innocuous college youngsters be any different? It is Alex (Waititi,) however, who makes me suspect that his brain is made of bits and bobs and cogs that render him not quite a person, at least not in the spiritual sense. Despite being good-looking, calm, seemingly ordinary, and well-liked, Alex possesses the heart of killer, a sense of apathy and sadistic glee at his misdoings, and the self-confidence to coerce his frightened roommates into obedience and stunned silence.
Graham, however, while initially appearing to be a ineffectual innocuous type (pining pitifully for Nicola and crying at the slightest provocation,) proves to be the kind of guy who held your hands behind your back as you got punched in the gut in high school. He enjoys the high-stakes excitement of having a prisoner to heckle and hurt, so he follows the smugly cruel Alex’s lead in what is essentially torture, culminating in a electronic device to control the prisoner’s behavior through electric shocks.
“Scarfies” is not really a comedy, except in the sense of ironic human indecency. However, it is an interesting study of human behavior and the innate sense of self-interest exhibited by people everywhere. “Better him than me.” How many times have we innately said that to ourselves, believing that it would be ultimately preferable that someone else take the fall for us? The acting and the story are better than you might expect, and there are a few laughs to be had among the dark sense of foreboding and transgression.
If nothing else, you’ll watch to the end hoping the ‘protagonists’ get what they deserve. Taika Waititi definitely shows early promise in a precursor to his work as a director. His not only smug and self-satisfied, but (in this reviewer’s humble opinion) downright sociopathic character’s face needed punching. Make no mistake, this movie is no masterwork of cinema, but if you like cynical social commentaries that pull no punches in regards to how they view people (superior to apes? I think not!) you’ll probably enjoy this movie. Just don’t expect a laugh riot or a glossy Hollywood film.