'A Clockwork Orange,' 'Last Tango in Paris,' 'Requiem For A Dream,' 'Enter the Void.' These are just a few fantastic movies that use shocking or disturbing imagery and totally earn it. Edit out the brutality or the frank nudity and you don't have the same movie.
Franck Khalfoun's 'Maniac,' like a pipsqueak runt in the back of the class shouting, "me, too! me too!" would no doubt claim its use of sickening gore and first-person perspective isn't an exercise in perversity, but a bold and daring test to see how far one can push an audience, and a springboard for conversation about violence towards women.
Don't believe it for a second.
I would never argue that a movie should be banned or censored, but I firmly believe it's at times like this when we should take directors like Khalfoun aside and tell him he's a hack, a phony and should be ashamed of himself.
Taking its broad strokes from an infamous low budget VHS mainstay (William Lustig's 1980 film of the same name), this remake stars Elijah Wood as a deranged killer who stalks and scalps his female victims, then dresses up mannequins and talks to them. He befriends a conceptual artist who likes some of the older, reconstructed mannequins he keeps strewn about his place, and the fact that he is unable to have a real relationship with her sends him from crazy murderer to, um, crazy murderer. (There's really not much room for this character to have an arc.)
Defenders will say 'Maniac,' “gets inside the head of a killer.” That could be true if this film had an ounce of realism to it. The portrayal of mental illness is about as deep as you'd find in a Woody Woodpecker cartoon and Elijah Wood, whom I otherwise admire as an actor, is way out of his element here. Like a tiny, rudderless ship in rough seas, Wood is just braying, mincing and emoting all over the place, receiving little-to-no guidance from his inept director.
Khalfoun's sole interest (apart from making you gag as flesh is torn from skulls) is to try and figure out a way to keep his first-person gimmick going. Wood only appears in mirror reflections (production costs?) except for the moments he's actually killing. (The idea, I suppose, is that his spirit is “floating” during these joyous moments.)
The most troubling moments are when Wood's character is staring down, following and, ultimately, assaulting women. Since “we” are the camera “we” are complicit, it isn't fun and, unlike, say, Michael Haneke's 'Funny Games,' it isn't meaningful. It is simply crass – exploitation under a false safety net of allegedly saying something deep. All it says is that no one on this production has any ideas, so instead of being original they will be vicious and cruel and call it art. This is the epitome of bulls---.
There are a few moments of the film that are, indeed, framed and lit well. You can hit pause and take a screengrab and have an interesting background image, I suppose. But this isn't a photography exhibit, it is an attempt at a feature film. A failed attempt at that.
'Maniac' opens in select theaters on Friday.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.