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Hard to Figure 'donkey-boy'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 1999

  Movie Critic

'julien donkey-boy
Werner Herzog in "julien donkey-boy." (Independent Pictures)

Sam Raimi
Ewen Bremner;
Chloe Sevigny;
Werner Herzog;
Evan Neumann;
Joyce Korine
Running Time:
1 hour, 34 minutes
Contains disturbing, implied violence, emotional cruelty, physical abuse and obscenity
The phrase "dysfunctional family" doesn't do justice to the cast of characters in Harmony Korine's "julien donkey-boy."

Julien (Ewen Bremner) is a schizophrenic who works as an attendant at the school for the blind. He lives with four relatives. There's his oblivious-to-it-all grandmother (Korine's grandmother, Joyce Korine) and his brother Chris (Evan Neumann), an obsessed wrestler who suffers psychological and physical abuse from his nasty father (Werner Herzog).

And there's also his sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny), who's pregnant and frequently pretends to be the family's deceased mother so Julien can call his mother on the phone. Julien misses Mom and tells Pearl all about it.

When the father isn't "motivating" Chris with such brutal tactics as hosing him down with cold water, he's blistering everyone with verbal abuse. When Julien recites one of his free-form poems, his father calls it terrible. At another point, he makes Julien slap his own face, again and again, simply for being stupid.

The theater of cruelty meets the working class. Flannery O'Connor slams into Jerry Springer, with Rainer Werner Fassbinder chain-smoking in the background. The movie is about suffering, anguish, misery and narrative non sequiturs. Episode follows episode, culminating in a sickening incident involving Pearl in a skating rink and what is meant to be a sort of spiritual deliverance for Julien. You do not leave this movie high on life.

Korine, who wrote the spiritually destructive "Kids" at age 19, and whose experimental directorial debut, "Gummo," barely saw the light of theatrical release, doesn't write or direct so much as indulge the savant-idiocy of his unsophisticated originality.

He's obsessed with creating realism – at least a scuzzy, depressing version – and he's disdainful of narrative forms and romanticization. His subject matter is frequently taken from America's lower-middle class, but he renders this milieu in sensational, surreal tones.

The stranger and more unusual the characters, and the less they're explained, the better. In "Gummo," for instance, Korine has a cameo as a drunk, gay teenager who's trying to seduce a black dwarf. And he's just part of the crowd.

Stylistically, Korine throws buckets of spaghetti at the wall, confident that some will stick. It takes a certain trust from the viewer, almost a hope, to make Korine's films work. One must believe the spaghetti has stuck to the wall and, along with such anti-establishment icons as German filmmaker Herzog and Danish director Lars von Trier, applaud hiply.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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