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Newmarket Films

Official Site

Director: Arie Posin

Producers: Lawrence Bender, Bonnie Curtis

Written by: Zac Stanford and Arie Posin

Cast: Jamie Bell, Camilla Belle, Ralph Fiennes, Rita Wilson, Carrie-Anne Moss, Glenn Close, William Fichtner, John Heard, Jason Isaacs, Allison Janney, Thomas Curtis, Justin Chatwin, Lou Taylor Pucci, Rory Culkin


In my 16 years as a nonprofessional reviewer and 12 years as an apprentice midwife I’ve come to learn that films like The Chumscrubber (including The Chumscrubber) are the most difficult and painful films to review. In spite of their numerous shortcomings and ultimate failure to arrive at the summit of their imagination, they radiate ambition and heartfelt good intention, qualities which I respect far more than I respect myself. In assigning such films mediocre or negative scores I am beleaguered by the guilt of one who admonishes a child for having too potent an imagination. And then I have difficulty sleeping at night. Nevertheless, because of my reputation as the grand patriarch of film criticism the burden once more falls upon me to supply The People, my dear literary family, with piercing and crystalline objectivity. I’m going to get ulcers, not that you care, to once again provide the details of heartbreaking truth.

The Chumscrubber begins with the mystifying suicide of a teenager in the tranquil suburban community of Hillside. Because of the social blinders already in place by the subdivision’s adults and the encompassing, directionless lassitude of their children, no one in Hillside appears affected by the death. Save, perhaps, one drug-dulled youth named Dean (Bell), best friend of the recently deceased, whose disassociated sadness and guilt leads to a series of hallucinatory visions in which his dead best friend appears as The Chumscrubber, a sinister, headless pop-culture character found in videogames, comic books, and television (the Trinity of modern evil). At home, Dean’s dispassionate parents (Fichtner and Janney) bombard him with both prescription and natural drugs with the hopes of crumbling the hermitage cocoon he has enveloped himself in. At school, those f-ing popular kids, Billy, Lee, and Crystal (Chatwin, Pucci, and Belle, respectively) try to threaten Dean into supplying them with his fallen friend’s hidden drug stash. When he refuses in an obligatorily acerbic and hip teenager-ish manner, those popular kids concoct the foolproof plan of abducting Dean’s little brother, Charlie (Culkin), and using him as a tool of blackmail. Because they’re young and brash, however, the group purloins the wrong Charlie (Curtis), pilfering instead the son of a local designer (Wilson) who happens to be engaged to the town’s psychologically evolving mayor (Fiennes). What transpires from here is a tense, gripping descent into unexpected madness followed by an ascent into prescient understanding with just the right amount of mordant social commentary exquisitely inserted along the way… is what I would like to write, because it would mean that The Chumscrubber is entertaining and urgent. But it simply isn’t.

Because: The film’s pacing is unfocused and ever-drifting; the narrative ambles uncertainly, like a blind and inebriated schizophrenic teenage girl, forever questioning where to place its energy. A tandem qualm is that The Chumscrubber’s cast is so sizeable that only a television miniseries would have been an adequate medium with which to serve these characters. So, not only is the audience left to deal with a large collection of similarly stock characters that lack adequate development to the last, but just as the film’s central kidnapping plot kicks into gear it is routinely disrupted by insubstantial bits of development and slight situations concerning secondary characters. And despite the fact that our gaze is forcefully pulled from the thrust of the picture, the second-tier characters never form into personalities worth the audience’s interest. That’s because two groups of people represented in the film—self-medicating, distant adults and self-medicating, confused teenagers—are stolid archetypes, and because we’re never given the opportunity to peer into the lives of any of The Chumscrubber’s characters for a significant amount of time. Because of the number of them conceived by Stanford and Posin (jump to Posin interview), we are left watching passé problems played out in the dark for an uncomfortable length of time. The film’s teenage protagonists, Dean and Crystal, for example, contain no inherent qualities but the aforementioned sense of confusion. There is no reason for their sadness other than the fact that their flawed parents seem to misunderstand and, on a level, hate them. They have no desires or direction or dreams save for popping pills and smoking cigarettes. As characters they may be empty and perplexed, sure, but no humans except perhaps the lobotomized are more substantially empty than these two. The adult characters are, chillingly, even more hollow, as they outnumber the teenage set by a wide margin and are given even less room to “develop.” Wonderful actors like Fiennes and Isaacs are given depressingly little to do, and most of their characters’ stories simply end, without any real change. Tonally, the film is equally flatline, as the characters reside in a dramedy that is neither amply dramatic nor is it amply funny. The situations lack any real tension and the dialogue is too listless to be either realistic or impressionistic. There is nothing too weird or too dark or too zany within The Chumscrubber that lends it any sense of life. Although it aims to expose the insidiousness of suburbia by painting it in sun-drenched beauty, Hillside’s inhabitants and too-literal locations instead burn all atmosphere from the proceedings with sterility.


Special attention, though, must be granted to the metaphors and imagery of the film, in terms of their unearned but expected ambiguous payoffs. Even though metaphors and particular images run throughout the movie and wind meticulously around each character, if, at their core, these figurative techniques contain no grounded significance then they are simply not effective. The Chumscrubber tries so, so hard to imbue itself with additional levels of context and meaning in these ways, but it does not succeed. Screenwriter Stanford and director Posin have purposefully wiped all pop culture (with the curious exceptions of well-known songs that the characters listen to) out of the picture (which is a large reason why the movie feels so sterile) in favor of their unique creation—The Chumscrubber—which appears in videogames, comic books, television, masks, posters, and so on, in the background throughout the film. Sometimes the characters watch the show on television or play the video game. None, even Dean’s brother, who plays the videogame obsessively, react to the cultural phenomenon that is The Chumscrubber. Because their reactions are nonexistent and because no one acknowledges its influence whatsoever it makes little sense that Dean would subconsciously project his friend’s visage upon The Chumscrubber and have The Chumscrubber finally prod him into taking action. It doesn’t matter that the word “chumscrubber” can be interpreted two ways (as one who cleans away the offal of gutted fish or one who scrubs his friends clean) or that the character’s headless visual representation is meant to signify that he was a teenager who “lost his head” but then picked it back up and used it as a weapon to fight his oppressors, because the fact that the character appears to contain no personal significance for Dean renders it meaningless. How invested is Dean in The Chumscrubber character? How important is it to him? Those questions are never answered, and because Posin fails to directly psychologically connect Dean and The Chumscrubber, the confused teenager may as well have projected his subconscious feelings onto any other fictitious television presence unique to the world of the film. Similarly, Michael Ebbs, Fiennes’ character, continually sees the image of a dolphin amidst the suburban landscape, and these dolphins bring to him a transcendental hope. At the end of the film, after The Chumscrubber manifests into the physical plane (somehow from Dean’s subconscious… in some way), it is revealed that the subdivision of Hillside, when viewed from hundreds of feet in the air, is shaped like a dolphin (which made the audience gasp in revelation). Now, Fiennes’ character is obviously tied to the dolphin, and the image of the dolphin does recur throughout the film, but what explicit meaning does the dolphin have to Fiennes’ character, or any other character in the film? Never is Ebbs ever revealed to have any interest in animals or in the ocean or oceanographic animals. Never is a dolphin tied to Ebbs’ work or his past or his desires. Never are dolphins discussed by anyone else to have any meaning whatsoever. So, then, why a dolphin—why not a shooting star or a flower or a giant squid? What is the significance of the dolphin as an image? Infuriatingly, I don’t know because the answer to the question is not present in The Chumscrubber; it is a completely arbitrary image awkwardly stuffed with forced meaning, which, disquietingly, is enough to satisfy most.


I know it seems like I’ve been inordinately harsh on The Chumscrubber, but, honestly, I have nothing but respect for the film. I’ve spent the last few hours of my life, after all, composing this review when, by all practical accounts, I could have been out in the world hunting slash. While I do feel that the film is uneven and underdeveloped and inferior to thematically similar works, like American Beauty and Donnie Darko and Edward Scissorhands, which will come to your mind while watching it, it is an ambitious failure, and I greatly admire it for that. The Chumscrubber has scope and vision, and multiple layers and even a message. It will make the viewer think about something, even if it is only about how badly it missed its elaborate mark, but that’s better praise than I can offer the majority of the films I’ve seen in my life.

—Nathan Baran

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