Bottom of the World (2017)

Well, here's another random movie from several years ago that no one remembers that I randomly decided on a whim to watch. I had originally wanted to finish my J-Horror arc by writing something on Marebito, which is one of my favorite J-Horror movies and has become one of my favorite movies in general after rewatching it and thinking about it more, but as is often the case it turned into a far too ambitious piece of writing and I had to set it aside to maybe come back to later. Though I'm also still not entirely sure what the point is that I want to make with my analysis of that movie.

But anyways, I decided to write a post about something that I don't really care about. Much like with Observance, Bottom of the World caught my eye because I liked the whole vibe of the movie's synopsis. I've always liked the idea of a dreamy horror movie set in a road trip through the southwest, maybe because I spent a formative period of my life in the Central Valley in California and have a bit of an affinity for road trips through long stretches of nothingness in the desert with nothing other than a few small towns dotting the landscape that feel like they don't actually have anyone living in them. There was another movie I watched years ago called Southbound that was like an anthology of short horror movies set around this exact premise of a road trip through the southwest, but I remember it being kind of shitty and never watched it again.

I have yet to see any movie that is as good as Wild At Heart at capturing the vibe of the vast vacuous patchwork of small non-place towns that dot the American landscape. The United States is a weird country because it's quite big and diffuse, with cars being a necessity in a lot of places, and there's a whole lot of it that has absolutely nothing going on even in the inhabited areas. The US has a history, but most of it the further west you go is closer to the history of the frontier and manifest destiny, where the British roots of the East Coast (particularly New England) or the density of different European immigrant cultures in New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia start to fade away and you're left with little more than a history of settler colonialism. The frontier that once was has long since been foreclosed and there's little left in a lot of it other than the ghosts of all the peoples, cultures, and even civilizations that were wiped out.

Early on into the movie I was thinking that maybe I would have more to say about it, because for the first half or so of it, I think it does a decent job at capturing this vibe. The hotel that the two main characters stay at has the slogan "charm of yesterday, convenience of tomorrow", which is such a perfect way to summarize what this section of the movie felt like. The hotel is a real place, the El Rancho hotel in Gallup, NM, and is actually an interesting and sadly under-utilized setting for the movie. The hotel was itself built in 1937, during the period where the western US created an identity for itself out of nothing that largely revolved around its main industry at the time: Hollywood. Famously, many Hollywood celebrities of the day, particularly actors who starred in westerns, stayed in this hotel, and lots of westerns were shot around it. It was also built along the famous Route 66, a symbol of this same period of time in American history of heading out (south)west to escape from the old midwest/east coast America. Specifically, the Dust Bowl and all the other calamities of the 1930s where the US was pretty much going to shit before the war economy allowed it to defer collapse by about another hundred years.1

It would have been really neat to utilize this location more and the motif in its slogan of liminality, existing in a time that is neither past nor future but also not the present and promises the best of both worlds. "Charm of yesterday, convenience of tomorrow", doesn't that just sum up exactly America's misguided post-war optimism? It so perfectly captures the era when it was built, the heyday of old Hollywood, the contradictions of post-war 1950s America where the country was simultaneously futuristic but also wanted to reinforce and even create out of nothing some sense of an American identity, and the westerns that were popular at the time and epitomized all of this along with 50s sci-fi films. And just to add even more famous classic Americana on top of this, the hotel itself and the film's premise of being stuck in a small town in the desert that you can't leave is basically Hotel California by the Eagles. I mean, this stuff writes itself.

There's a shot in the movie that I particularly like where the main character goes up to the front desk and rings the bell, which echoes very loudly and for a long time as the camera snap zooms out to reveal that the hotel lobby is completely empty. The main character goes outside, and there's no one around. He tries to make a call and the hotel lobby doesn't hear him. Making this switch from eerie but mostly normal small town to suddenly being strangely empty was where I was hoping it was going to go, and it would have really gone a long way towards trying to craft a better dreamlike atmosphere than it ended up doing. I've had so many dreams like that of wandering through some small town in the desert that seems like it should be populated, that even has the markings of there being people living there, but it's just completely deserted. Again, to me this stuff writes itself.

Another thing about it that I liked in concept, in relation to the theme I had in my head of meditating on the vast emptiness of the American west, was the preacher character who shows up in the first half of the film. It's another thing that is so uniquely American and so tied to the history of this country, all of these charismatic preachers across the country, establishing their little flocks with interpretations of the Bible that could be charitably called quirky or at worst be called outright con artistry, in places that are completely devoid of anything else that could foster a sense of community or culture. Not only that, but the preacher is a televangelist, yet another uniquely American and uniquely awful and vacuous thing about this country, something just begging to be incorporated into a Lynchian nightmare in the desert of the American unconscious.

But, speaking of Lynch, this movie clearly is, um, inspired by David Lynch insofar as it has a lot of imagery that is "Lynchian", but it doesn't really do anything with it and halfway through all of the vaguely interesting stuff the movie had built up to that seemed like it could be taken somewhere interesting just falls apart and it suddenly becomes clear that the movie just does not at all get David Lynch or surrealism. It ends up feeling like a kind of by the numbers horror movie where there's some crazy twist by the end of it that ruins the whole movie and makes it way less interesting, but the director or writer or whoever has seen a few movies and is trying to copy what other movies have done.

David Lynch himself has said before that what makes dreams interesting in film is that you can use them and use dream logic and surrealism to get across certain ideas, certain moods and textures that you can't get across in the waking world, because these are things we understand but that we don't quite have any conventional language for. I can't remember what video the source of this quote is from, but trust me he's said this before. So it's very irritating to watch a movie that is clearly inspired by David Lynch and then halfway through get the twist that the first half of the movie, the sort of interesting part, was a dream, and then the rest of the movie it's sort of ambiguous if it's still a dream but the way this twist is handled is so clumsy and stupid that it felt like I was being talked down to and having everything over-explained to me. The ending especially really over-explains, with the twist on top of the twist being that the main character is actually the other main character, Scarlett's (played by Jena Malone), cousin. And actually the main character (Alex) is dying, or already dead, or something, and Jena Malone's character murdered him.

To the movie's credit, this was at least set up in the beginning when Scarlett tells Alex that the worst thing she ever did was torture her cousin, who is completely paralyzed and non-verbal. But the twist is just so stupid and so over-explained and feels so much like something that would be in a conventional thriller movie in the 2000s trying to copy M. Night Shyamalan that it makes it feel like one big waste of time to watch. Like you've been tricked into thinking the movie is going to be more interesting than it actually is and by the time you get halfway through you've already had the rug pulled out from under you. When the movie reveals outright that the character dreamt the whole desert sequence and I saw that it was only halfway through, I had an actual "ah fuck this shit is only halfway through" kind of moment.

Another thing I haven't mentioned yet is that the main character is played by the main actor from The Bye Bye Man, which is kind of a meme for being a really shitty and stupid movie. Honestly, I probably would say I like The Bye Bye Man more than this, because The Bye Bye Man sucks, and is really stupid and bad, but it's not trying to be anything else other than a shitty horror movie and it's at least kind of entertaining to watch with a group of people. But the actor, Douglas Smith, is either not taking roles that he can excel in or he's just a bad actor, because by the last 20 minutes of the movie I was almost laughing at how stupid the script got and how badly he was delivering his lines. Though to be fair I found it really hard to suspend my disbelief throughout a lot of it because I kept getting flashbacks to The Bye Bye Man and laughing to myself a bit.

Anyways, I don't know why I wrote this much about a movie like this that I wouldn't recommend. I guess writing this post has ended up being an excuse for me to talk about some stuff that I would like to see in a movie and that I had hoped this movie would do, but it didn't and just felt like kind of a waste of time.

I will end this on a quote from the movie that I enjoyed, as an actually insane person who has had this thought many times:

"I'm obsessed with the idea that I don't exist, that you or any of this doesn't exist."

Footnotes:

1

Funny how history repeats itself with all the environmental and economic catastrophes we're experiencing a hundred years later. Except this time there's no frontier to flee to. At our backs is the ocean and in front of us is yearly, "unprecedented" wildfires.

Created: 2023-07-24 Mon 02:31

Last updated: 2024-03-05 Tue 22:36