For people who live in cities, like so many filmmakers, the country can seem a wild and unknowable place. Remember the dangers posed in those horror movies when kids go away for a weekend in the woods, or, in Deliverance, when grown white men go away, and mostly don’t come back. The risk posed by such travel comes up again in Abattoir, where the country is not only wild and unknowable, but also home to madmen.
To be clear: Abattoir — in select theaters and on VOD on 9 December — is awkward. It pitches, rolls, and yaws among various registers, from Howard Hawksian talky one minute to grisly, like a Clive Barker movie adaptation, the next. This is nowhere so clearly represented as in our principals, Jules and Grady (Jessia Lowndes and Joe Anderson). The former is so steeped in a mid-century cub-reporter patois that you expect her to break into an Andrews Sisters’ tune at any moment — this even though the film appears otherwise to be set in the present day. Poor Lowndes has her work cut out for her, belting out a series of cut-rate Front Page bon mots, which doubtless looked good on paper.
“Doug [a rival reporter] has got ‘crime.’ I have nothing,” Jules laments, shaking her fist at the Metro Daily’s glass ceiling. When she gets what she wants — in the form, alas, of a mad drifter who kills her sister for reasons known only to the voices in his head — she declares her conviction to plunge into the heart of the matter. “I need the why,” she asserts, the implication being that she already has the who, what, where, and when. (There are reporters and then there are reporters, you know?) “Guys like that don’t give exposition,” her sidekick Grady retorts on this occasion. Where Julia could give Lois Lane a lesson on reportorial pluckiness, Grady has a thing or two to tell J. J. Gittes about being a disaffected gumshoe.
Together, the pair seems like they’ve been parachuted in from completely different genres, and this is Abattoir‘s problem in brief.
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No small amount of love has gone into the making of this picture. This is not just evidenced by the dialogue, so attentively over-written that the actors can barely deliver it at all, let alone convincingly. Affection might also be detected in its costumes, sets, and props, but this work is performed without regard to their broad effect. What am I to make of Julia’s carefully crafted FDR-era dress and demeanor, and how do I reconcile this with the fact that she drives a meticulously restored ’60s-era Plymouth? These many pieces are charming, but hardly create a consistent mood.
There’s a reach on the part of Abattoir‘s makers that exceeds their grasp. It’s an ominous augur for anyone who sees the movie expecting another Chinatown, Hellraiser or His Girl Friday (or Silence of the Lambs or Poltergeist, The Killing or The Wire, or any of the countless superior films and TV shows Abattoir shamelessly imitates). Taken on its own dubious merits, though, Abattoir isn’t without redeeming elements, among them the dilemma Grady accidentally poses in his too-cleverly meta retort to Julia. Can lunatics provide exposition, and if so, what stories are they likely to tell?
The answer to this first question, as so often holds true in matters of the mad, is yes and no. The killer has little insight as to why he killed Julia’s sister, but offers more regarding who and when. Jules returns to her sister’s house a week after the crime, only to discover it has already been sold and, more peculiarly, the room in which the murder occurred is… gone. Julia’s worked the real estate beat at the newspaper, so she knows enough to conclude that this is unusual.
Her next discovery comes directly from the killer, who says he was acting on orders of the conspicuously villainous Jebediah Crone (Dayton Callie). It happens that Crone is based in a remote village named New British, Jules’ hometown. A Biblical theme starts to unfold with the subtlety of a Gallagher routine, as Crone is associated with a shadowy construction firm named Revelation Holdings, which is especially good at getting distressed properties out of escrow and contracting quick, discreet room-removal renovations.
This is all very interesting, but for Jules, it doesn’t quite bottle up the ends. Madmen, it turns out, are at once too good and not good enough at providing exposition. The killer is inclined to offer vague, dire pronouncements. “When a person dies unexpectedly,” he sighs, “they leave behind a tear in the fabric of our world, like a fracture,” as though that fabric had been whole originally. As unreliable as Jules finds this narrator’s testimony, it stirs her to pilgrimage, and she sojourns to New British with Grady in reluctant tow. He imagines himself to be her law-enforcing protector, and though she questions this assessment, everyone except the two of them can tell that they’re hopelessly in love.
This much is obvious. Other questions remain unanswered. Who are the mad, and what are their stories? How different are they from the stories of lovers? The main difference is that the mad are alone. “But what about those like me,” the madman muses in the movie’s opening credits. “Born in the dust, whose home was the road?” Jules’ investigation into the goings-on at New English triggers a recollection of her own period of solitude concerning her formative days in the small town, characterized as they were by the pathologies typical of backwater settlements in cinema.
Jebediah Crone, the preacher, is himself not only mad but also jealous and cruel. Without getting too much into it — we’re veering close to spoiler territory here — he has a lonely fate in mind for Jules, an eternal penance in which she will constantly replay the isolating traumas of her early life. Again, the tension between madness and exposition: in this story’s metaphysics, country life is characterized by this mindless eternal rehearsing of past trauma. Remote from the orienting influences of urban civilization, quotidian ambition, and romantic coupling, reason devolves into shock and cathexis. This is the state of nature, and Abattoir‘s point seems to be to remind us of this, to warn us once again of the mad terrors that lie at the borders of human company, that lurk on the verge of wilderness.