In your mind, imagine the typical American household – no specific year or location, just something generic. You can smell the fresh cut grass, hear the sound of sprinklers watering their yards, see children running around in their yards, and a married couple who may sit on a patio and enjoy a cold drink. But, what do you think things are truly like if you were to step inside that home? What if one day you just randomly saw your neighbor’s mugshot appear on the news with words like “DOMESTIC VIOLENCE,” “HOMICIDE,” or “MURDER-SUICIDE” written in big bold letters beneath their names? What we have here in this week’s entry is an interesting and very bleak film that looks at the American suburban life and cuts itself under the flesh of the surface.. and completely disembowels it.
Director Douglas Buck over the span of three years created two short films for different festivals. One of which received awards, acclaim, and a reputation for being one of the most brilliant & disturbing entries at the time. 2003, just for context, was right at the time that the New French Extremity movement really began to come into its own with the recent inclusions of film like Gaspar Noe’s ‘Irreversible’ & Claire Denis’ ‘Trouble Every Day’. 2003 was also the same year that we also were introduced to Alexander Aja’s ‘High Tension’ & Bruno Dumont’s ‘Twentynine Palms’ – all of which I have covered or will cover soon – so this was an explosive time for traumatic films in the public consciousness.
“Family Portraits” is the same two shorts that Douglas Buck released, but he put them side by side and included a brand new third short to create an anthology that dwells on the ultraviolent, ultra-depressive lives of American families. The first short, “Cutting Moments” is about a husband and wife who are slowly becoming estranged while their son Joey is about to be taken away by Protective Custody. On his final days at home, the wife begins to suspect that her husband has been sexually abusing their son, and tries everything in her power to get his affection back. The second short, “Home” shows a boy and his mother being abused by his father, and then shows him as an adult with all the ideas of ‘love’ & ‘family’ that he had learned as a child. The final short, “Prologue” is about a woman who arrives home after being in the hospital for some time. She is bound to a wheelchair and is missing both of her hands – the story here comes in us learning what led up to this.
All three films are painfully realistic and typically include atleast one major scene of shocking violence and gore. Stylistically it feels like a combination of directors Michael Haneke & Dario Argentio – complete with intense series of long quiet shots, wide frames, almost a complete lack of music besides an occasional violin & bass track, and very minimal dialogue. Truthfully there’s perhaps 10 minutes worth of talking in this entire film. It’s genius in its ability to truly show & not tell its audience anything. You are forced to empathize and imagine what has happened and what is going to happen. It is enticing, visceral, disgusting, and painful.. but it’s simplicity in its setups and follow-throughs feel honest in a way that’s quite hard to describe.
It’s very brutal and truthfully has been haunting my waking thoughts since last Friday when I saw it.. but it’s absolutely amazing. While not technically as powerful as most major Extremity films, this one basically hits the border by being something that’s too intense for a dark drama & too visceral for a standard horror film. If you are interested in tiptoeing into extreme cinema, this might be a good launching point to consider.
Fair warning because the content of this film really is painful and traumatic, and I can easily imagine someone whose wounds from growing in these kinds of households being beyond triggered – but if you think that you can handle it, there’s a lot to marvel at in here.
“Family Portraits: A Trilogy of America” is currently streaming on Tubi, Amazon Prime, and is available on a special edition Bluray from Severin Films.
‘Til Next Time,
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