Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek) is bored and angry. As usual. It’s getting late, his face is bruised from a recent beat-down, and he’s scouting potential action at the End of the World Party. True, he’s already fucked most of the desirable girls at Camden College. But, as he puts it in voiceover, “I’m a vampire, an emotional vampire. I feed off of other people’s real emotions.” And so he pursues his prey. “Who would it be?” he wonders, in voiceover. The blond by the pool table.
She’s his best option now, if only because he’s already been rejected by the girl he thought he wanted because he thought she wanted him. Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon) imagined for a minute that Sean was nice, but quickly discovered that, in fact and in spite of his efforts to the contrary, he’s unpleasant, and that he slept with her roommate, Lara (Jessica Biel). And so, on this End of the World Party night, Lauren is also looking for a partner. More precisely, she’s looking to lose her virginity before the night’s over. Ignoring Sean with the sort of coldness that afflicts girls recently betrayed by crushes, she pretends to be interested in a film student’s pseudo-philosophical rap.
Lauren’s voiceover reveals that she used to want to get with Victor (Kip Pardue), but he’s nominally unavailable, supposedly dating Lara, who’s more “experienced” (she gets around, a mini-flashback revealing that she once “did the whole football team”). Determined to change her own life, Lauren drinks enough to pass out in the film student’s room, then wakes to find herself being videotaped by said student, as his buddy rapes her.
At the same time that these two movements come to tawdry climax, Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder) is trying to make his own predatory dreams come true. Having been rejected by Sean, he hits on a football player, who looks, maybe, like he’d be interested. Bad idea. Even if he was so inclined, Pretty Jock Boy can’t possibly engage in such activity his dorm room; he has a reputation. He makes a grand display of kicking Paul out the door, so the girls in the hall are sure to know that he’s Not Gay. Because, well, it’s important that they know that, you know.
All these bits of stories unfurl at the beginning of The Rules of Attraction, Roger Avary’s adaptation of Brett Easton Ellis’ 1987 novel. And if the stories sound vaguely familiar, if a little meaner-toned than some, they come at you in more surprising ways. They come at you forwards and backwards, intimating an arty simultaneity and, more to the point, the limitations (narrative, emotional, aesthetic) of linearity. So: as Lauren’s section (the first one you see) ends, the film speedily rewinds — on both visual and audio tracks, the latter creating a sinister, vaguely “The walrus is Paul” effect — until it picks up some anonymous someone who leads you to the next story, Paul’s, and then again, when his section is done, the film zips back once again to show the onset of Sean’s ghastly prowling.
The rewinding trick escalates after these first scenes, which actually constitute the end of the story. From here, the movie goes back in time to the beginning of the semester, before everyone has turned so miserably self-destructive and terrible to one another. The nonlinear structure and the rewinding might have seemed merely gimmicky (and there are other aspects of the film that are, including the drug dealers who assault Sean, as twitchy-thuggy-clichéd as they come), but here it makes thematic as well as stylistic sense. Paul, Sean, Lauren, and Lara live in a kind of accelerated isolation, afraid to connect and afraid to be alone, afraid to move and always in motion. (Perhaps the most compelling instance comes in the insta-recap of Victor’s European tour, a little over a minute on screen, accompanied by his restive voiceover, listing brief impressions: Amsterdam, Paris, Dublin, Barcelona, Switzerland, “like a Polanski film”).
Avary comes by his aesthetic excesses honestly, at least in the sense that he has apparently absorbed and now redeploys his own past. He co-wrote Pulp Fiction, then made the decidedly creepy Killing Zoe. As imperfect as these earlier ventures might have been, with Rules of Attraction, he’s found his ideal point of departure. He transforms the novel’s dodgy kids-on-collision-courses concept into a crisp, unnerving dissection of human desires and cruelties. Where Ellis got at different, simultaneous points of view in the usual way — brief, separate, sequential prose sections, each named for the character speaking — Avary goes for a less literal, more dazzling visual commotion.
A dark rejoinder to conventional “college movies,” The Rules of Attraction offers little in the way of broad humor or endearing characters, romance or resolution. And it will upset some viewers, its violence and malice lingering, without overt salvation attached. That’s not to say the characters don’t comprehend the abject nature of their milieu. But their self-awareness leads not to resistance, but to immersion. School is an endurance test, leading nowhere they want to go. Usually, they skip classes. When Lauren does attend a “tutorial,” her professor (Eric Stoltz, star of Killing Zoe) invites her to give him a blowjob, to guarantee her grade. Instead of going to classes, they party desperately (despite Lauren’s efforts to dissuade herself, by looking at medical textbooks picturing the effects of venereal diseases). Instead of imagining a future, they descend into a furious, ongoing present, focused on sex and drugs.
Paul, for one example, focuses his energies on Sean (brother of American Psycho‘s Patrick), whom he wants more than he can say. He starts believing that Sean’s occasional visits to his dorm room to listen to his “faggoty synth-pop cds” mean something, other than demonstrations of Sean’s vast boredom and derision. Frantic to catch Sean’s attention, Paul finds himself called away by his difficult mummy Eve (Faye Dunaway), who needs him to smooth out an engagement in the city, with her friend Mimi Jared (Swoosie Kurtz), where Paul watches the ladies be horrified by the outrageous, outraged performance of his friend Dick (Russell Sams). Alarming parental units is, apparently, the most affecting form of entertainment the kids can conjure. The familial upset lets Paul off the hook, however, and he rushes back to campus, in hopes of securing Sean’s attentions for the evening. Sean, meanwhile, quite willfully has no idea that he’s being so pursued, and when he does find out, dismisses Paul as cruelly as he can.
Sean is a half-assed dealer, apparently just to be one (“Sometimes I can’t believe the shit that drops out of my mouth”), which means he must negotiate not only with those savage local thugs, but more infuriatingly, with nonpaying clients. His visit to heroin addict Marc (Fred Savage) ends not in payment, but in the client’s self-preserving exegesis of “time”: Marc holds forth on clocks: “They interfere with your ability to adjust time to suit your needs.” This makes a kind of sense, or it might, if Sean wasn’t in a hurry.
Sean distracts himself, from himself, by believing that the lavender love letters appearing in his otherwise empty mailbox are from the luscious virgin Lauren. This makes her seem, momentarily, desirable, a vague source of redemption and bad poetry. The film allows him a single moment of rightness, stunningly devised. He and Lauren walk through a classroom building on a Saturday, coming from opposite directions, lost and looking, for what they may not know. As they approach one another, the screen splits, so that they appear to be walking into one another’s spaces, and as they meet in a hallway, the split screen merges, and they gaze on one another, two beautiful young people, in any other movie destined to be together. They speak and smile. It’s a lovely first moment, full of possibility, spectacularly framed by that dramatic camera trick, and then: gone.
The film does occasionally take time to take a breath, and more importantly, to make you take one. In fact, it rather screeches to a dreadful, if temporary, halt when one student commits a bloody bathtub suicide. Though her reasons remain a mystery to her fellows, you know she’s driven because she feels invisible, unnoticed by the callow object of her affection (and while she has many choices of callow objects, she picks the worst of all). Most disturbingly, the death sneaks up on you, makes you question your own response to it an to all that comes before and after. With this scene, the film most visibly constructs a fragile moral framework, quite beyond the comprehension of its protagonists, who remain immersed, exiting the film devastated yet unenlightened. Their fleeting associations only underline their losses. Attraction is not comprised of rules, only missed opportunities.