Greetings from The Humungus! The Lord Humungus! The Warrior of the Wasteland! The Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla!
— Toady (Max Phipps), The Road Warrior
“What I need are two dumbasses to come up here and compete in the cricket eating contest!” The crowd at a divey LA bar bellows and whoops. When Milly (Jessie Wiseman) — blond, petite, and round-faced — steps up to accept the challenge, Woodrow (writer-director Evan Glodell) is moved as well. The camera shows a brief close-up of the insects, milling and chirping, and then the competition begins. He manages one or two, while she chomps down on mouthfuls, simultaneously cherubic and fierce as she stares him down. The crowd continues to chant and cheer.
This early scene in Bellflower lays out the stakes for Woodrow. He may have an ideal girl in mind, but he’s unable to articulate his vision, even with his best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson). They’ve moved from the Midwest to the coast because they imagined it would be “cool like in the movies,” and if that hasn’t panned out, they’ve made the best of it, refurbishing assorted vehicles and building a flamethrower in anticipation of an apocalypse. Their consummate car — a customized Buick Skylark named the Medusa — appears repeatedly throughout the film, a boyish fantasy of brutal power. As Aiden formulates it, they roll into an apocalyptic scene full of flames and smoke “in the most evil-looking, rumble bad-ass flame-throwing muscle car and one of us gets out with 100 pounds of brass and steel strapped to our back.”
The dream tends to stop there: neither Woodrow nor Aiden imagines consequences, only the ecstasy of destruction. And so they wander through their own movie, itself inspired by The Road Warrior, which they had on a VHS tape as kids, and “watched it like 100 times.” Revealing this snippet of background to Milly, Woodrow pauses. “I think I usually tell it better,” he says, “so I seem cool.” She’s reassuring, as the ideal girl should be. “No, that was perfect to make you seem completely cool.”
They’re on their first date, following the crickets contest, and they’ve driven to Texas, in search of the “cheapest, nastiest place you know,” per Milly’s request. “If I don’t get sick,” she’s told Woodrow, “I’m gonna be disappointed.” In fact, it’s Woodrow who gets sick, trying to fight a patron of that nasty place, who takes him out with one whomp to the face. A freeze frame that cuts to black emphasizes the moment, in a way that underlines the film’s close attention to texture: Glodell made a camera out of pieces from other cameras. The frame is wide and the colors are both saturated and washed out, burnt oranges and browns, smudged and DIY-ish.
As the look of Bellflower signifies the boys’ worldview, it leaves out the girls, who serve, predictably, as objects and inspirations. While Woodrow falls in love with Milly in Texas (even as she warns him not to, because “I’ll hurt you”), Aiden spends time with her best friend Courtney (Rebekah Brandes), making clear enough his crush on her, but not exactly acting on it. But this not-quite-relationship too is merely a plot point, only making Courtney a subject of conversation as the boys try to sort out their feelings for each other.
As Bellflower makes vivid the pain Woodrow might feel, it also shows the homoerotic dimensions of apocalyptic violence. That is, their erotic trajectories have little to do with sex, though they are a bit obsessed with it, in their dreams and flashbacks and projections, as sex is more a sign of ownership than intimacy. Aiden and Woodrow’s mutual erotics are partly about each other, but they see themselves (and each other) in terms of what they desire — or more precisely, about what they want, what they think they don’t have, what they think they can possess.
When Woodrow is inevitably disappointed by Milly, and duly hit by a car to boot, Aiden tries to help by reminding him that he is, more or less, The Road Warrior‘s Lord Humungus. And now that he’s visibly bruised as well as sullen and dim, Woodrow vaguely resembles that model of miserable masculinity. “I’m fucked up, I have fucking brain damage,” Woodrow complains, “I have shitty fucking scars all over my fucking body, my fucking heart’s broken, I’m so fucking pissed.” And as he pukes into a toilet in a saturated-colors close shot, you’re inclined to believe him. Aiden reminds him that he still possesses his flamethrower and his “super-cool” car (which Aiden has built for him). Woodrow turns his rage on Milly during a bloody, horrific, and fragmented sequence. In the end, her visual function is to show what’s inside him.
The plot of Bellflower — boy meets girl, boys loses girl, boy destroys the world — doesn’t pretend to be complex. But its allusions are dense and disturbing, and that makes the film linger in your mind. You might argue that it exposes (or constructs) a pathology of masculinity, that it examines the dynamics of action movies and boys’ delusions. It’s Super 8 without Dakota Fanning, Transformers without the CGI, Captain America without the primary colors, X-Men without the do-gooding. It’s mayhem and fear and destruction without redemption. That it ends on the boys shooting their weapons out into the desert, no target in sight. This is where the fantasy ends.