Screenwriter Will De Los Santos could just as easily have left us twitching in confusion-- lingering pathetically like a doomed insect -- vibrating anxiously to a slow death on sticky yellow fly paper, but only minutes before he turns out the bleached lights on Spun, he gives us a glimpse into the soul of a speed junkie. He knows the soul well. It’s his own.
The revelatory scene represents a common practice for the film about a youngish crowd of losers hooked on a drug commonly known as crystal meth. In it, The Cook (the drug manufacturer - hence the name - and played by Mickey Rourke who surprisingly does some acting) reveals to his downward spiraling assistant and our protagonist, Ross (Jason Schwartzman doing something reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate), a memory from his childhood. Ross is of course asleep.
His mother found some puppies that he had brought into the house and as she was drowning them she looked over to the boy, full of potential, and said, “I wish I could do this to you.” BANG. There you have the makings of a junkie.
Sitting in the theatre, I said to myself, “Finally, now I can understand why the characters I have been watching ravage their bodies and brains with a chemical slop that constipates, manipulates, sterilizes, and victimizes them to the point where it becomes difficult to recognize a human being under the scabbed, oily skin and lightless eyes.” They have given up on actual life - whether from a crisis within the context of their own lives or simply because they are diseased emotionally, spiritually, or mentally, and this is the alternative reality they have chosen.
The scene represents an anomaly in the making of Spun that prevents it from accomplishing something that was within its grasp – it could have been a great movie, perhaps even one of the greatest “drug” films of all time. The scene is touching and introspective, as are many moments, particularly those involving Ross and his ex-girlfriend whom he romantically obsesses over, regardless of his obvious unfitness to be anyone’s companion in his state. The problem comes when the film switches gears abruptly. The movie suddenly enters into a madcap universe where comic police officers will snort up before busting an obese woman and her son for drugs, while the woman watches the events of her arrest unfold on the television as the cops are stars of a reality television crime show. It’s an amusing absurdity, but why here? Why now?
Spun does not know what to make of itself. It appears as though visually talented director Jonas Akerlund (famous at the present for making Madonna videos) was only sure of a few things when the cameras rolled – things are gonna be grotesquely ugly (Spun makes Requiem for a Dream look Hollywood), hideously loud, and frenetically choppy. I asked Jason Schwartzman why some characters were blithering caricatures while he and a few other of his cast-mates conveyed real depth in truly poignant depictions of a corrupt, broken sub-culture. He said he didn’t know. That’s Akerlund’s vision.
It’s a shame.
The film is almost like William S. Burroughs’ classic oddity which some consider a masterpiece, Naked Lunch. The book is neither good nor bad – it is. The words in the book are poetic like the smell of sewage is poetic. Strong. Rich. Pungent. Nasty. Raw. Powerful. All madly arranged in one ambivalent, entirely creative work that attempts not only to convey a feeling, but a sense of experience. Akerlund wants us to tweak (float on a methamphetamine high) without inhaling a single grain of the poison powder, and this is his gift. He takes us to a repulsive dimension where the term “underbelly” doesn’t even nauseate appropriately.
Therefore, it is difficult to gage the film in terms of the typical “was the film a pleasant, meaningful viewing experience” scale of worthiness. The material is so bleak and corrosive that it is impossible to enjoy the film – but no one dares expect you to.
Jason Scwhartzman and Mena Suvari both insisted that film carries an anti-drug message and they are correct. Speed is not glorified by Spun, it is demonized. “Drugs are boring”, Schwartzman said, and his character does nothing but fade farther and farther into the clutches of vile depravity as the film progresses. Along his tour through an unfortunately existent hell on earth, he encounters the likes of frantic dealer Spider Mike (John Leguizamo entirely committed) and lost soul Nikki (Brittany Murphy), among other clown zombies itching to get a fix. While characters buzz in and out of the lives of junkies, it is hard to tell what the connection is between each person beyond the beloved drug and the unspoken misery of being addicted to it. It appears as though freakish bonds are forged and apathetic love is exchanged but, as the movie depicts, a friend would just as soon cradle your frail body in comfort as shoot you in the testicles. Why? Because a junkie has only one true friend and The Cook supplies it.
& A with Jason Schwartzman
Q: What’s it like going out with a Jewish
girl? Schwartzman is dating actress
Selma Blair (Cruel Intentions, Legally Blonde) who has a Hebrew School
some reluctance to speak at all about his personal life) ….I don’t
know….It’s great….It’s nice to be with someone who appreciates
getting anywhere on the Jewish angle. See how I embarrass myself for you
people! Luckily another writer at the table jumped in.
Q: Did you ever have matzoh ball soup?
A: Fuck Yeah!!! Actually, that was my
ritual after playing a gig (Schwartzman is the drummer for the rock
band Phantom Planet). I would go get a bowl of matzoh ball soup and a
dig up a Jewish question for Suvari, but I will say that her eyes are
large and blue like great, alien oceans. Her teeth rest confidently in
their whiteness. She walks on two sticks and has sticks for arms. Her hair
is yellow like the wax from a Chanukah candle…melting. In response to a
question of mine she told me she doesn’t consider herself
“attractive”. I’ll do better next time.