“You’re supposed to be my friend”
The low budget horror thriller Gut is a surprising work in that it isn’t surprising. Written and directed by New York’s School of Visual Arts graduate Elias, this psychological chiller has been released at a perfect time for diehard genre fans tired of the new torture porn style flooding the market. While most contemporary horrors try their hardest to be unique with twists and turns so obnoxiously convoluted that they bore instead of intrigue, Elias sticks to a more naturalistic approach depending heavily upon his characters’ motivations and evolutions. I often found myself ignoring the obvious in conjuring hypotheses of the killer’s identity, type of mental disorder was behind the carnage, and how it would all work itself out in the knick of time. All the while the film methodically unfolded to its own steady beat.
The pace admittedly began irking me around the midway mark to the point where I started checking the clock to count the minutes left. Watching the steady fracturing of best friends Tom (Jason Vail) and Dan’s (Nicholas Wilder) relationship wore a little thin as congenial smiles from their office cubicles turned to scowls of distrust and back again. Adulthood hit them both differently as the former became a family man with wife (Sarah Schoofs‘ Lily) and daughter (Kirstianna and Kaitlyn Mueller) while the latter continued his immature ways without an end in sight. So while Tom decided a change of hometown scenery might get him out of his personal funk, Dan had other ideas. To him, selfishly making his chum watch a snuff film was the perfect antidote to his malaise.
As far as the film is concerned, you can’t ask for a better icebreaker. Corny jokes and over-the-top antics on behalf of Dan in the workplace only go so far before something else is needed to spice things up. The two used to hang out all the time watching horror films with a couple beers for the blood and nudity they provided—why wouldn’t it get them smiling again now? It does to a point as their lunch breaks over diner burgers become more animated and the friendship a bit stronger, but the images conjured from the DVD’s depiction of a man gutting a naked woman with a knife before inserting his bare hand inside her are too much to simply shrug off as a ‘fun night at Dan’s’.
No, things between them get more strained, Tom’s home life becomes filtered through the horrific thoughts his girls may meet the same fate as in the video, and every step they make away from the screenings grows heavy by the unknown question of whether what they witnessed was real or not. Elias shoots it all with palpable suspense the first few back and forths, but unfortunately can’t quite sustain it with the addition of a second DVD, a murder that hits close to home, and the leads’ complete split apart. We become numb to the constant close-ups of both men’s sweaty, scared faces, uninterested in their fates while we’re busy deciding whether the films are a product of a third party or one of them either consciously or not.
As things escalate Elias draws parallels from his characters’ lives and the films they’re watching. We see Schoofs nude body in Tom’s bed and the diner’s waitress Sally (Angie Bullaro) in Dan’s. The sexual activity of both grows darker and darker as they descend into the soulless vacuum of nightmare the DVDs have cultivated, the sex step one on the alluring road to committing their own murders with the seeds of violence firmly planted in their minds. A new waitress pops up, Tom’s daughter Katie is seen playing with a neighborhood man’s dog, and every new figure entering the picture carries the mystery of either being just a periphery insert or an object of the men’s unraveling. When the friendship officially turns sour, it’s only a matter of time before someone strikes.
Gut has a keen sense of blocking so we’re only allowed to see exactly what the director desires. The snuff films are deliberately shot with carefully focused framing—the one scene inside the murderer’s lair with camera suspended above his victim proving a particularly chilling moment. We invest in Tom and Dan’s lives because of this direct style, the lack of superfluous information letting us not be confused or distracted from the central plotline. Elias isn’t trying to trick us through his story progression; his depiction is simply that of two suburban men and the tricks the mind plays when the monotony of the ‘safe life’ no longer proves enough. Trust built over decades becomes inconsequential when the person on the other end is no longer the one you once knew.
With fun performances from Bullaro and fellow waitress Eve (Maria Victoria), Gut ends up more entertaining than originally expected from an independent release of its kind. Schoofs’ dotting wife can come off a bit fake at times and the Muellers push Katie into annoyance rather than precociousness, but these are things you can look past. And while Vail starts strong before the suspense crescendos him into a mess of one-note neuroses and anger, Wilder’s Dan is a constant treat throughout. From the hammy stuff trying to make his buddy smile to the authentic solitary tear when things get overly dark, his emotions are worn on his sleeve and help make his broken man believable. He and Tom must inevitably converge into a final confrontation and it thankfully satisfies while still leaving many answers up to the imagination.