Ready to feel old? Grindhouse turns ten come April. Though Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s grand distribution experiment was a massive financial failure at the box office, the film’s legacy (for better or worse) has grown since it was released into suburban malls, split into two pictures by the Weinsteins, and then struggled to emerge on home video in its original three-hour-plus cut (many fearing it would become a Whole Bloody Affair Part Deux scenario). Before ’07, many exploitation historians/archivists/archeologists didn’t even use the term “grindhouse” (which is really a venue reference, not a video store section, but whatever). Today there’s a whole faux-explo market that’s cropped up in its namesake’s wake. The double bill was dropped, but numerous entries mimicked the digitally inserted film scratches and vinegar syndrome discoloration of Planet Terror and Death Proof. Combining these post effects with stilted photography, the results are moviemaking time machines like Hobo With a Shotgun and The Sleeper. Parody pictures even emerged in the form of Black Dynamite and The Editor, combining trash cinema exaggeration with a ZAZ approach to joke-a-minute-comedy. In summation, it’s a thing now and it wasn’t before.
Unfortunately, too many Nuevo Explo works took all the wrong lessons from Q&R, opting instead to mimic the extreme affectation of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. For as fun as that film is, the Austin-set zombie freak out feels like it’s the product of a genre student born too late and in love with the idea of '70s drive-in fare and John Carpenter sci-fi/action hybrids. Where Tarantino was clearly aping the outsider art of B-Movie workmen like Jack Hill (and, as a result, produced something much more authentic* than his “little brother” Robert), Rodriguez made a movie more in love with the experience of watching old celluloid rather than watching old movies. This period and format overstatement became a crutch on which many young directors could lean, overcompensating for their lack of storytelling chops and visual acumen with a nostalgic focus on retro window dressing. It’s the same pitfall so many found footage filmmakers fall into; zeroing in on the trappings of a mode instead of fully developing the themes and characters that their movie is centered on.
Thankfully, Sean Brosnan’s My Father, Die channels the attitude of true exploitation filmmaking into a modern take on rednecksploitation. Yet where Rob Zombie’s been doodling cartoon takes on Southern stereotypes since House of 1000 Corpses, Brosnan’s tale of Mississippi familial revenge dares to gift his main characters with interior lives while still playing for the grimy shocks VHS rack junkies sign up for when sitting down with this type of stuff. Ostensibly a riff on the same “sins of the father” storyline Jeremy Saulnier so expertly crafted with Blue Ruin (which itself feels like an update on the type of movie John Flynn was making forty years ago), Brosnan’s biker morality play speeds along like an episode of Sons of Anarchy if Kurt Sutter actually knew how to write.
Rubbing our faces in the wanton cruelty of comeuppance that demands ethical examination, My Father, Die also delivers cheap thrills and pays attention to the textural details of its trailer park microcosm. It’s impossible to label the film “outsider” (thanks to Sean’s famous Bond father acting as co-producer), but it certainly signals the arrival of an exciting talent in an arena that seemed to have run out of wonder just before he stepped into the ring. By making an honest to goodness exploitation movie instead of merely replicating their artifice, Sean Brosnan’s delivered a true rarity in today’s VOD landscape.
The bayous of Louisiana are boiling when we first catch up with the dirt-poor Rawlings brothers. Chester (Chester Rushing) promises to initiate Asher in the cabal of fucking via their generous young neighbor Nana (Trina LaFargue). Unfortunately their father, Ivan (former British boxing champ Gary Stretch, looking like Bill Smith during his Run Angel Run days), considers Nana his property. It doesn’t matter that he’s still married to the boys’ slob of a mother, as this isn’t so much a man as he is a rabid animal, flying off in a fit of unrepentant punishment. The beating leaves Chester dead and Asher deaf and mute, but harboring a Biblical desire for blood. “Revenge is not a noble sentiment,” his constant inner child tells us via voice over, “but it is a human one.”
A silent decade passes, and Asher (Joe Anderson) still lives with the bedridden woman who bore him (Susan McPhail). Bad news arrives: Ivan’s been released from prison four years early thanks to good behavior and overcrowding. Asher immediately readies himself for battle, cranking out pushups and sawing the barrels off of guns like Travis Bickle. The clink hasn’t softened his father one bit, as he bludgeons a plainclothes cop to death after he makes a pass at him. Looking to strike fast and hard, Asher manages to locate Ivan's room and mow him down in the middle of dirty sex with a busty barfly. But the boy makes one mistake his father never would: he doesn’t finish the job. Now Ivan’s on his tail and looking to make sure that no part of him is left on this planet once he’s gone.
Everything about Brosnan’s movie is mean, but this nastiness is tempered with poetic elegance. Ivan is almost supernaturally relentless, decimating everything in his path. Crippled bikers pull automatic weapons and empty clips in Poor Pretty Eddie slow-mo, causing everyone else to duck and cover. A chopper chase during the movie’s climax is arguably better staged than a rather show-stopping moment of vehicular mayhem in Mel Gibson’s latest cinematic plea for forgiveness. But in-between these stretches of wanton brutality, Brosnan peppers moments of tenderness that are completely earned, as Asher reconnects with Nana (now played by Candace Smith), hoping to salvage some semblance of humanity from the past. The mix is surprisingly affecting and, at times, borderline hallucinatory, a golden hour** hothouse action showcase that never shies away from the horrific behavior its leads engage in.
It doesn’t all 100% work, and Brosnan’s literary ambitions sometimes seem out of place amongst otherwise gnarly material, but the commitment to such an aggressive tone shines. Instead of “missing reel” jump cuts, Brosnan acknowledges that the very best exploitation movies felt dangerously unpredictable. Though a harrowing rape scene may be too much for some viewers, the freshman writer/director knows what kind of movie he’s making and never once backs off, accessibility be damned. Don’t be fooled by the movie’s cheeky one sheet. My Father, Die is not joking around, and Brosnan’s looking to be the one who can bring a disreputable name back to “grindhouse” filmmaking.
*Which is still kind of a stretch, as all he really did was make a QT hangout picture that let him play with action filmmaking set-ups.
**The cinematography from Marc Shap is often striking.
My Father, Die is currently in theaters in NY/LA and on select VOD platforms.