The Surreal Revenge of the Sociopath

The IFC Series Bullet in the Face is nothing if not intentionally surreal, but does "surreal" always work?

Bullet in the Face

Director: Erik Canuel
Cast: Max E. Williams, Kate Kelton, Eddie Izzard, Eric Roberts
Length: 135 minutes
Studio: IFC Originals
Year: 2012
Distributor: Shout! Factory
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Release date: 2014-01-21

If the IFC dark comedy series Bullet in the Face can be summed up in a single word, that word would be “Surreal”. By creator Alan Spencer’s own admission (on the DVD commentary track), he came up with the ideas for the series while drinking and hallucinating and thus wrote a pitch that was so remarkably over-the-top that he never expected it to be made.

To Spencer’s surprise IFC not only accepted the pitch but ordered an entire season, not just a single pilot episode. While Bullet in the Face certainly is remarkably weird, the final result, much like Spencer’s previous series, Sledge Hammer! the laughs can be hit and miss, both because the surreal darkness often overshadows the comedy and because the surreal melodrama often results in complete buffoonery.

The plot of this six-episode first season revolves around a sociopathic criminal named Gunter Vogler (Max Williams) who hates absolutely everybody and is willing to kill absolutely anybody. Anybody and everybody, that is, except for his girlfriend, Martine Mahler (Kate Kelton). Unfortunately for Vogler, Martine may not feel exactly the same way, considering the fact that she puts the title bullet in Vogler’s title face during a jewelry heist.

Vogler awakens to discover that he is not only alive but is now wearing the transplanted face of a police detective he killed during that same heist. In a twist that could only happen in a surreal action comedy farce, the now-refigured Gunter Vogler has been recruited into the police department of the violent city of Bruteville to infiltrate and take down the two warring mobs run by Eddie Izzard and Eric Roberts. This is not to mention the fact that Martine is also involved with both of the mob bosses, much to Gunter’s chagrin.

As the season progresses, the show becomes increasingly ridiculous and even offensive, but somehow increasingly more difficult to put down. Williams’ over-the-top performance, ridiculously farcical German accent and twisted smile make Gunter Vogler come off as some kind of unholy combination of Klaus Kinski and The Joker. This can be annoying much of the time, but it somehow manages to become somewhat endearing, too, as Vogler slowly (and slightly) becomes less crazy criminal and more capable cop. Part of this evolution in reception may have to do with the fact that Vogler is a strange guy in a surreal land in which every other denizen is equally surreal (if not equally sociopathic).

Nitpicking a show like Bullet in the Face can be difficult, considering the farcical bazaar of the bizarre that this show really is. Virtually every criticism can be responded to with the simple words “That was intentional.” However, intention doesn’t always make for genius.

True, Spencer intended to formulate a great deal of comedy by hinting that the cop whose face Vogler now wears was in a homosexual relationship with his (and now Vogler’s) partner Lt. Karl Hagerman (Neil Napier), but the impact still feels vaguely homophobic. Yes, Spencer intended to gain notice and (perhaps) controversy with the sacrilegious aspects of the program, but the obvious nature makes this no less an “easy” joke. Without a doubt Spencer plays with a great deal of misogyny, but the final outcome is no less misogynistic. Unquestionably Bullet in the Face intends to use its copious blood and violence to enhance its weirdness and farcical nature, but its so remarkably obvious an inclusion that it’s hard to truly consider this much of a win.

Whether the season ends satisfyingly is in the eye of the DVD viewer, of course, and may depend greatly on taste. However, the show is hard to look away from and even those who don’t particularly like the show by the third episode will likely want to finish the sixth episode just to find out where the hell this television oddity is going. Unfortunately, there are a few episodic, non-story arc episodes that must be sat through to find the answers to the central questions in this saga.

This single-disc’s sole special feature is Alan Spencer’s commentary which, much like the show itself, is surreal, funny and hit-and-miss. Often Spencer will make viable observations of the zeitgeist and offer intelligent exposition of the making of the show. What impact did the Colorado movie theater shooting have on the making of and airing of this series? What motivated Spencer to make Izzard’s character agoraphobic? Spencer does (mostly humorously) answer these questions, but he is much more likely to digress and instead talk about the amount of time he has spent in strip clubs or the “Very Special Episode” of The Facts of Life that he wrote.

Sure such a commentary isn’t exactly a film school student’s extra-credit, but it is much more entertaining than your average by-the-numbers commentaries that appear on many DVDs. Further, Spencer matches the vibe of the show, which can be infectious and hilarious. Equally as often, however, Bullet in the Face feels a bit too obvious and falls flat under its own weight. That said, even when this collapse happens, one would be hard pressed to look away from the surreal wreck that is Bullet in the Face.

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.