Kansas Chaos

'Firecracker' is not nearly as clever as it wants to be

I'm always impressed by the spirit of the truly independent filmmaker. Directors like Jon Jost, Gregg Araki and Dylan Kidd who work completely outside the Hollywood system may not always make perfect films, but I respect that they're more interested in maintaining their vision than in getting top-name stars and high-end distribution deals.

So I'm predisposed to look favorably on Firecracker, a film made on the cheap in rural Kansas by Steve Balderson. Unfortunately, I'd have say that Firecracker is more an interesting failure than a testament to the power of the individual creator.

The film is an ostensibly true story about a murder that occurred many years ago in Wamego, Kansas. Mike Patton, the lead singer of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, stars as the alcoholic and murderous David.

David's mother, Sandra, is in the process of losing both her husband and her mind. Meanwhile, she can only watch helplessly as her two sons become the kind of study-in-opposites that shows up in short stories by freshman writing majors. David is the butch, mean, older brother, and Jimmy is the fey, musically talented younger brother. In order to establish his evilness, David likes to drink alcohol, yell at people and rape his brother, because brother-rapers are the worst sorts of criminals in the whole Midwest.

David also has a thing for a woman who sings at the carnival that passes through town each year. Strangely, this woman is played by Karen Black, who also plays David's mother. I don't think you need to be Sigmund Freud to figure out the symbolism in that one. Meanwhile, this chanteuse is being menaced by her young lover, Frank, who is also played by Mike Patton, who plays David, because, yeah.

It's this kind of heavy-handedness that dooms Firecracker, as it permeates not only the casting and plot, but the dialogue and acting as well. Some of the performers seem like they just walked out of a high school drama-class production of Oklahoma!, while others try desperately to capture the feel of a bad imitation of a David Lynch film.

Which is essentially what Firecracker is. There's the small town with the dark underside. Evil forces are symbolized by the arrival of a carnival. And a dwarf is used to add atmosphere. The thing about dwarfs is, when you put one in your movie just to evoke an eerie feel, you've pretty much admitted that you're out of ideas.

Still, Balderson plays some interesting games with film by having his carnival in color and his small-town scenes in black and white. This is an obvious homage to Wizard of Oz, a film which is actually way creepier and more engaging than Firecracker, but only because it includes a dog named "Toto." Brrr!

But it's not the Wizard of Oz elements that make Firecracker seem so derivative; it's the David Lynch tricks. The music sounds at times like an exact imitation of Angelo Badalamenti, the composer on Lynch's movies. The dialogue has the overwrought feel of Lynch's, and the basic story is right out of Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. The problem is, where Lynch finds a way to make his dialogue work, in Balderson's film, it just comes off as clumsy and pretentious.

When The Mysterious Woman Who Lives on the Plains says "Come ... I will show you the grave!" I'm put in the mind of Bela Lugosi at his campiest. And when the Small-Town Sheriff describes the Mysterious Woman by saying "People say she has powers ... I think she just wants to be left alone," I feel like she should preface that with "Excuse me while I present some pointless exposition."

There are other bits of silly and inessential symbolism tacked on, including references to everyone's favorite Bible story, the one where God tells Abraham to kill his son, and then God's all like "Kidding!" and Abraham is probably really steamed, but what are you gonna do--it's God? That's an important story for the Judeo-Christo-Muslims of the world, but maybe not the best thing to just plop into a movie about a murdering brother-raper unless it actually has some resonance with the rest of the plot.

However, in spite of its many annoying flaws, Firecracker is not a truly bad film. It's just not as smart as it thinks it is. If you can get past the clunky dialogue and derivative stylings, it's reasonably entertaining, and even fun. Plus, like Tod Browning's Freaks (another film that Firecracker either pays homage to or rips off, depending on whether Ari Fleischer or Scott McClellan is doing your spinning), there's lots of cool stuff to look at, like tattooed people with horns and tall bald guys and that ride that looks really fun until it starts spinning and then you realize you made a big mistake getting on it after eating that weird thing made of fried bread and tomato sauce.

Firecracker also does a good job of showing how hard it is for David Lynch to do what he does. It isn't easy to mix natural and caricaturish acting styles or to get dramatic effect out of dialogue that sounds like it was written for that unfilmed episode of Dark Shadows where Barnabas Collins rides a lawnmower across Iowa. While Balderson's attempts at this sort of thing fall flat, Firecracker is, nonetheless, a tremendous effort, considering the limited resources that went into it. If he can just get past his desire to be deeper than he is, I think we can expect excellent films from Balderson in the future. At this point, he's made a so-so movie, but he did it on his own and without compromise, and it's at least amusing, which is more than you can say for any current film featuring a giant ape.