The movie business is beyond understanding even for me. It’s baffling how one does anything in the movie biz.
—Will De Los Santos, Indiewire.com
Boasting that it includes more than 5000 edits, Jonas Åkerlund’s feature debut offers glimpses—very fast—into life on speed. Spun is filtered though the crank-addled exploits of a kid named Ross (Jason Schwartzman), careening from scene to scene and moment to moment, not so much telling a story as conjuring an impossible-to-process experience.
According to Will De Los Santos (author of Spun, the novel, and co-screenwriter, with Creighton Vero), Ross is only partly based on his own experience. Indeed, Ross seems beyond words, at least any that might comprise sentences in a novel. On screen, he speeds about with little concept of who he is or even that he might have effects on anyone else. He grasps at desires that he might imagine having, like the perfect relationship he might have had with an ex-girlfriend, Amy (Charlotte Ayana). During the three days of this movie, He calls her repeatedly, from pay phones and borrowed cells, as if leaving semi-affectionate and wholly incoherent messages (“I’m sorry, I know I fucked up”) will somehow change the facts that he’s an addict and she’s left him. The only message she leaves for him is a request that he repay the money she lent him.
Ross first appears in mid-buy, hustled into the skuzzy living room of Spider Mike (John Leguizamo) and his jittery, mossy-mouthed girlfriend Cookie (Mena Suvari). While Spider Mike spazzes about the stash he’s just lost (again—this is a repeated performance), Frisbee (Patrick Fugit) sits in front of the tv, his thumbs frantic on a video game. Twitchy Ross and Nikki (Brittany Murphy) look on, huddled together on the filthy sofa, their eyes popping and their limbs flapping. They can’t quite focus on one another. Ross gushes, “I just want to get off.” They’re jonesing. They’re always jonesing.
Nikki gets a phone call from her boyfriend, the Cook (Mickey Rourke), a.k.a. the local drug manufacturer. She giggles and sighs, the camera close on her still lush lips as she declares her undying love. He’s in a teeny motel room, windows closed, WWE wrestling roaring on the tv. He’s got on goggles and a kerchief tied up over his mouth and nose, as if to keep the meth fumes from penetrating. But it’s a show: the Cook is high as a matter of course. He sweats. He grumbles. He whispers, in that way that along with his plastic surgery-ed face, has recently become Rourke’s signature.
Such sketchy behavior is the norm in Spun, which doesn’t make it any easier to watch. Everyone is routinely, even dully, self-absorbed, and the film’s general hyper-presentation—smash cuts, bump-and-zapping time-lapsing, skewed angles—is familiar from the skretchy speedfreak sessions in Requiem for a Dream. (And if you recall those sessions, you also recall their headachy effects.) The Swedish-born Åkerlund, well known for his smart, risky music videos (most infamously, Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up,” and most recently, Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”) has assembled an incredible array of visual effects, all suggesting just how unrepresentable junkiedom must be.
As well, Spun‘s version of junkie ethos, such as it is, recalls previous junkie films, including Panic in Needle Park, Drugstore Cowboy, Trainspotting, even the Frank Sinatra surprise, The Man With The Golden Arm. One difference here is that there are few moral lessons to de drawn. Ross, perhaps the film’s most egregious asshole, never quite comes to terms with himself or the damage he’s done. He’s even rewarded, after a fashion, by the commendation he receives from darling Nikki, who thinks he’s cute, maybe.
That’s not to say that her opinion counts for much. Ambiguity and anxiety tend to dominate the addicts’ days. When it appears that Spider Mike won’t be locating that missing stash anytime soon, Nikki needs a ride home, to the Cook’s motel room, and so she enlists Ross’ help in getting around, as he has a car, something most folks she knows have long since sold for tweak money. Ross is vaguely impressed by her short shorts, bra-tops, and black-rimmed eyes, but he’s also appropriately nervous about upsetting the Cook. He wears slick cowboy boots and poses like he’ll beat you up so much as look at you. (Again, not exactly news for Rourke watchers.)
Too bad for Ross that the Cook takes a liking to him, or his car, and calls him frequently during the movie’s three days in order to get him to take Nikki and her green-dyed poochie to the vet’s, or to take him shopping for meth-making materials and porn vids (the clerk at the video store is leather-vested Rob Halford, one of several “look how cool we are” cameos—Ron Jeremy as a bartender, Billy Corgan [who, with Zwan, also provides much of the film’s score] as a doctor, Debbie Harry as a “lesbian neighbor”). Ross may or may not be pondering this model of masculinity, but then again, it probably doesn’t matter.
Teamed with either Nikki or the Cook, Ross drags himself from high to high, dodging a couple of standard-issue corrupt narcotics cops (Peter Stormare and Alexis Arquette, both of whom, to be fair, inject remarkable malevolence into their performances) and cruising the streets in search of… nothing really. By the time the Cook decides to rescue a couple of convenience store clerks—L.A. Sad Girl (Julia Mendoza) and Giggles (Elisa Bocanegra), apparently and made up in homage to Allison Anders’ Mi Vida Loca—from the macho-strutting Angel (Nicholas Gonzalez), the whole brutality-as-sign-of-apathy-and-decay is pretty much done. The girls, of course, think their white knight is grand, and lob a few well-chosen insults at the now-downed aggressor. Okay, so it’s not exactly girl power. For Ross, it’s all good, ‘cause he’s just scored.
Perhaps the most effective wrench the film tosses into its own works is April (Chloe Hunter), a stripper and Ross’ sometimes sex partner, whom he ties up to his bed during the first day. When the Cook calls, well, Ross is outta there, leaving April naked and spread-eagled, duct tape over her mouth and eyes, and a louder than loud cd playing on skip, so no one will heard her muffled screams (save for the “lesbian neighbor,” and you can guess what happens regarding this threeway). A couple of times during his adventures, Ross either comes by or calls (“I’m sorry. Just look, baby please, don’t be mad. Please don’t yell”), only to leave April as she is, terrified and furious.
In a most bizarre way, this horrific spectacle grounds Spun. Where the other scenes manage a kind of spastic energy, despite or because of the bad teeth, bowel movements, and pimply faces the camera scrutinizes so assiduously, April’s captivity is just plain ugly—still, loud, and unnerving. Ross, for all his “cute” look and his amiable affect, is just like all the other self-indulgent and perpetually frightened liars who wander through the film. It’s a snapshot of a culture that, aside from its speed, rather resembles the broader one that, almost without fail, condemns it.