A 40-something man wearing thick glasses and an expression of general indifference enters an earth-bound airplane, the interiors of which are wide and desolate. He squats down in the middle of the abandoned vessel and stares out of one of its many windows. Once back outside, it is revealed that the man is on a tour of an aircraft boneyard. So begins ENTERTAINMENT, the fourth feature from writer/director Rick Alverson (and first since his excellent Tim Heidecker-starring break-out, THE COMEDY). A man, deteriorating slowly by the day, walks alongside the remains of the world and its industries, which are disappearing at a much more alarming rate – an integral theme introduced in this first sequence that will compel the rest of the sparse though affecting narrative to come.
Gregg Turkington stars as the man in question, a comedian whose name is only vaguely hinted at a couple of times, but who we can nevertheless assume is intended to be Turkington’s most widely-known persona Neil Hamburger, who is touring the Mojave Desert playing shows in the seediest of venues, bringing along a clown (Ty Sheridan) as his opener and attracting only pure vitriol along the way. But to be fair, the comedian himself invites such outrage; his act is straight-up anti-comedy, and any form of unwanted audience participation is met with projections of his own ugliness. Let’s put it this way: one can hardly blame the woman (Amy Seimetz) who throws her drink onstage following a tirade of the most toxic variety for which she is the sole target.
But this is a Rick Alverson film, and predictably, what we see of Turkington offstage is far more disturbing than what he exhibits to the public. The frequent, unanswered phone calls to his daughter, awkward visits with his cousin (John C. Reilly), dream visions of himself as a cowboy in white, and addiction to late-night Mexican soap operas hardly scratch the surface of this man’s complex psyche. There are insights into what lies within that will keep even the most seasoned horror fanatic up at night, including but not limited to nocturnal encounters with strange men and pregnant women in sleazy restrooms. One may never feel truly at ease in a public place such as this ever again. Where Hitchcock claimed hotels, showers, and mothers, Alverson’s got bathrooms, backyard pools in the Hollywood hills, and comb-overs.
It would be difficult for me to not at the very least admire the director’s unique, even necessary vision. Based on the two features of his I have seen, his approach can be surmised as pushing comedy – and indeed, the notion of what is “entertaining” and what is not – to its breaking point, pushing it so far in that very direction that it becomes an utterly horrifying spectacle. It’s a bit more difficult to pinpoint this one than as was the case with the director’s earlier work, coming off much like a Lynchian examination of self-exile and untreated mental illness, but therein lies the key to accessing its madcap brilliance. It’s not easy, but it is genuinely distinctive.
Lorenzo Hagerman handsomely lenses the comedian’s trek across the barren wasteland, his stunning widescreen frames capturing not only the desert landscape in all its expansiveness and the insignificance of man when posited within it but also the subtle grandeur of Turkington’s naturalistic features when wallowing in the utter dourness of solitude. A single frame can contain so much sadness and even some kind of cosmic terror, absolutely fitting for a film with this much to say but which appears, on paper, to be so much more simplistic than it actually is. Alverson’s history as a musician serves him well once again, with the film’s pivotal moment arriving a little over the halfway point when the comedian ventures out to the middle of the desert to record a video with a couple of young(er) YouTubers, but walks away – into what else but complete and utter nothingness – before the camera can even start rolling. Leah Devorah’s “Animals in the Zoo” scores this scene, which encapsulates what the film is really about as well as its last frame does, and it is one of the most personally affecting I’ve happened upon in recent memories. Without going into too much detail, it leaves me speechless and then some.
ENTERTAINMENT delivers on what we claim to expect out of most movies but in a consistently unconventional manner. It has a few awkward laughs, it’s got bucket loads of tension (Michael Cera’s brief appearance inspires enough pure discomfort to supply an entire, separate film on its own), and even features a sort of empathetic melancholy. I think the reason it won’t sit right with a lot of people is because it approaches cinema as a mirror into the soul, and dares to reveal things about ourselves that we would never hope to admit to. We react because deep down, we understand, and Alverson knows it. Oh, does he ever.
This is as important a study of depression and suppressed anxiety as any, portraying the inevitable breakdown following the latter of the two with such painful realism that it may be wise to take a couple breathers throughout. I sure needed them. As much as this is initially structured to be some kind of endurance test committed to celluloid, it offers more than enough points of resonance to justify the amount of patience that it requires. Many will surely dismiss it as being a film about nothing, or merely a critique of showbiz and the plight of the artist, which is about as redundant as you can get. Alverson’s cinema is about vicious cycles contained within a distinctively American context; the dream is dead, as are we, but we’re still here. Lost souls, wandering about, searching for purpose, and surrendering to ourselves when we find nothing.
The inverse of THE COMEDY until it isn’t; one senses the comedian feels some kind of regret for his actions both on and off the stage, unlike Heidecker’s Swanson who feels nothing at all because he doesn’t have to, but like that character he feeds the void rather than challenging it. The “Animals in the Zoo” scene is perhaps the most difficult because it seems for once that Turkington may be looking inward, and yet in the end he chooses to ignore the notion, and thus “order” is restored. Alverson’s characters have always scraped by sluggishly, only this time, he finds real sadness in the excursion. This is a largely subconscious work of art, open to a certain number of reasonable interpretations that will no doubt transform across a variety of individual spectators, and one with a substantial enough emotional palette to support the full weight of its cynical outlook on the world as we know it. There’s plenty of truth here, and very little of it is pretty. It isn’t often that a non-genre outing is significantly more effective than the majority of horror films, but here we are. At the end of time, the end of emotional honesty, the end of entertainment itself; this is what Trish Keenan must have meant when she pondered where youth and laughter go. And like the late Broadcast vocalist also said, let them know.