Director: Stuart Gordon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If you’re like me, you have a few films that you seem always to be chasing. I’m not talking about the films that got away, but the ones that nearly got away. Zero Effect was the first film in memory that I kept chasing around the movie listing pages until, at the edge of sloth, I finally made up my mind to get in my car and go see it on the final day of its run in my city.
Stuck is another one of those films. It played the festival circuit last year, including the Chicago International Film Festival. I had heard some good things about it, and I always like to support my homeboys, especially Stuart Gordon. Alas, I couldn’t fit it into my schedule. I most regretted missing that film over all others. Then, it showed up for a theatrical run at the Music Box Theatre. I didn’t get around to it. Then it moved to the Midnight Movie slot at the Music Box. Again, I was a no-show. I had begun to rationalize that seeing this film on the big screen wasn’t that big a deal. The DVD would come to Facets eventually, and I’d rent it (if I could still remember it).
Then I saw that the tiny, nearby Wilmette Theatre was showing it. Before I could think about it, I packed the hubby into the car, and we went to see the 1:20 pm show—except it wasn’t showing at 1:20 on that day. Rather than wait for two hours, we vowed to see it the next day. I got home from work, did a quick clothing change, and yakked at the hubby to get ready. He didn’t want to go. Damn, well, I’m going, I said. And I did. And while I don’t think DVD viewing will hurt the experience of watching this somewhat cheap-looking film, it’s satisfying to finally hook that fish the way I always intended.
Stuck is based on a true story. In 2001, Chante Mallard, a woman in Fort Worth, Texas, was believed to be drunk when she struck Gregory Biggs, a homeless man, who became lodged in her car’s windshield. She drove home, locked the car in the garage, and left Biggs to die. This story intrigued Gordon, who said in an April 2007 interview, “…lately I’ve been thinking that what happens in real life is much more horrifying than anything you can dream up that exists within the supernatural world. So King of the Ants, Edmond, and now Stuck is kind of a trilogy.”
Stephen Rea plays Tom Bordo, an unemployed project manager who is thrown out of his SRO for nonpayment of rent, given the royal run-around at the state employment bureau, and is prodded awake from his spot on a park bench by a policeman who tells him to move along to a mission a very long walk away. With the kind of day he’s been having, the only way left to go is up.
Brandi (Mena Suvari), a nurse assistant at a nursing home, has been celebrating her imminent promotion at a dance club with her friend and coworker Tanya (Rukiya Bernard), her boyfriend Rashid (Russell Hornsby), and the Ecstasy he drops on her protruding tongue. Rashid and Brandi have come in separate cars, and when they leave the club, they agree to meet up at her place, a small rental home in a poor section of town. She phones him on the way and asks him to pick up some snacks to satisfy her munchies. Her cellphone signal dies, and she punches at the keypad at the same moment that Tom is crossing the street pushing a shopping cart that Sam, another homeless man in the park (Lionel Mark Smith, who also appeared in Gordon’s King of the Ants and Edmond), gave him for the few items he was able to snatch from his room before leaving. Gordon’s camera slows as Tom and Brandi watch the disaster in the making. Her car strikes him, sending him halfway through the passenger side of her windshield.
Brandi, shocked and shaken, keeps driving, trying to avoid looking to her right. Eventually she looks at the seat beside her, which is slowly reddening from a steady drip of blood. Brandi grabs tissues from a box and dabs at the blood in a deranged attempt to clean it. She sideswipes a car. She finally stops and looks at what she has wrought. Tom, unconscious and shredded, hangs limply over her dashboard, his legs flat on the hood of her car. Brandi heads for a hospital, gets out of her car, and tries to drag Tom off her hood. An ambulance door opens, and she hears voices. She races back behind the wheel, drives home, and parks in its detached garage. Brandi gingerly retrieves her purse from the seat next to her, locks the overhead garage door in place, and goes into her house. Rashid arrives, and eventually learns that Brandi hit a pedestrian. When he hears that the man she hit was homeless, he laughs and says no one will care. They have loud sex to some loud rap music, as Tom, now awake, listens in pain and despair.
In the morning, Brandi picks up the phone. She almost calls 911, but changes her mind and calls 411 for the phone number of a cab to take her to work. She enters the garage to see if Tom is dead. He is not. He asks her to help him, promising not to make trouble for her. She leaves, promising that help is on the way. He honks her car horn. She goes back into the garage and hits him with a 2 x 4, knocking him unconscious again. She catches her cab, goes to work, realizes that she left her cellphone in the car, and determines to deal with her problem once and for all, with Rashid’s help.
Struck is a tightly suspenseful horror film that could have been played as a very black comedy. The wonderful Carolyn Purdy-Gordon does a brilliant job of playing Brandi’s vaguely menacing boss with the darkly comedic accents for which her husband’s films are known. Brandi’s panic at the possibility of not getting her promotion and raise, fed to a frenzy by Purdy-Gordon’s insinuations, put her on the insane path to murder. Hornsby infuses Rashid with a false bravado that is great to watch unspool as Brandi, who believes he has wasted dozens of guys, insists that he smother her “problem” with a pillow. Watching him move the pillow toward and then away from a prostrate Tom, who has managed to free himself from the car and is playing possom, is comically nerve-wracking. Another scene of a gay man looking for his Pomeranian, which has slipped through a hole in the garage and is chewing on Tom’s protruding leg bone, is a winch-inducing comic vignette.
However, it is both the strengths and the weaknesses of Rea and Suvari that push this film beyond the sickly absurd. Suvari, as a young woman who can cope with cleaning feces-soiled beds and demented patients, has a near breakdown over the accident. Her Brandi is rather blank and unself-reflexive. Other characters keep saying she doesn’t look all right, but in fact, she does. She’s not much different from one of Gordon’s evil, mindless zombies from Re-Animator, but she has no comic flair at all. In one scene that should have been played for laughs, Brandi walks in on Rashid with another woman (Sharlene Royer) and has an all-out cat fight that ends with Royer naked in the hall. Hornsby and Royer roll playfully with the scene, but Suvari is shrill and violent.
Matching her perhaps unintentional earnestness is Stephen Rea. As one of the finest actors working today, he infuses Tom with a pitiable sadness at the beginning and a desperation that is nothing short of compelling as he fights for his life. In one scene, he is trying to grab Brandi’s cellphone to call for help. He can’t quite reach it because he is impaled on a windshield wiper. This grueling scene calls for him to lift himself off the wiper blade. As he tries it again and again, I felt the pain and found myself lifting out of my chair trying to help him raise himself high enough to escape. Again, Rea’s fine performance faces us with a real situation that deflects even the darkest humor from gaining much of a foothold.
I’m not sure Gordon was striving for this more serious tone, but I, for one, thought it worked. When Tom and Brandi confront each other for the last time, they show what each of them is made of. Brandi tells him she doesn’t know why she wouldn’t help him, and that’s basically true. She’s not much different from him at this point in their lives; she’s near the bottom of the heap and trying to climb up. Her flaw is her oceans-wide self-pity. She could be capable of being the responsible leader of the nurse assistants, but she is, at base, deeply irresponsible. Tom, on the other hand, has lived longer and known better things. He lives in a world of petty rules that he tries to reason against, but ultimately obeys. Only when his life is at stake can he rise to the challenge of defending himself.
Stuck is slightly snobbish, putting Tom on a higher moral plane than just about everyone else in the film. But this is a minor flaw. Stuck is a superior horror film that is all the more horrible because it’s true.