The unscratchable itch.
How do you make a serial killer sympathetic? Easy answer: compromise your own morality. This is the reality that Errol Morgan (Nicholas Urda) and Ellis Archer (Andres Montejo) present themselves upon discovering the subject of their documentary isn’t the reformed ex-con guilty of a crime of passion they thought. No, Noel Rose (Aidan Bristow) is a murderer who’s gone unnoticed for decades with who knows how many victims to his name. He’s also charming, intelligent, and psychologically fascinating—traits that sell him as a feasibly effective subject as long as Errol and Ellis don’t accidentally implicate themselves in his proclivities. But where does complicity start? Is it when he tells them a violent story of which they have no proof? Or when he willfully provides them exactly that.
Presented as a faux documentary by writer/director Colin Bemis, Strawberry Flavored Plastic proves an intriguing play on Man Bites Dog through an American Psycho filter. Rather than have Errol and Ellis follow Noel as he kills, however, Bemis presents them as an outlet supplying this apparent monster a therapeutic sounding board. We therefore sense the fictitious filmmakers’ probable namesakes at the start (Errol Morris and Bret Easton Ellis) through unobtrusive testimonials devoid of their presence beyond the occasional question or cue so that the subject can wax on about the pseudo-philosophical notions to which he’s beholden. We meet Noel in a blood-splattered butcher’s coat talking about materialism after all, his Patrick Bateman psychopathy as humorous as it is unnerving. And Errol and Ellis fawn over every single word.
Why shouldn’t they? This is their shot at a big break. They hope their outside-the-box thinking will get their foot in the door so strongly that they constantly lie to themselves about what they’re doing. Rather than see themselves as facilitators and quite possibly cheerleaders in their effusive desire to capture every sordid thought that pops into Noel’s mind, they puff out their chests with the hubristic delusion that they’re capturing candid moments for the sake of science. They’ve invited a man they believe has killed numerous people into their lives as though he’s a trusted friend and not some complete stranger with an out-of-time cadence they literally just met. The potential to capture motive, guilt, and insanity somehow outweighs their own personal safety. It’s a calculated risk.
And then the uncontrollable occurs. Suddenly this obviously unhinged figure hiding beneath a meticulously crafted façade of absolute calm is unleashed in a way that places them in the getaway car. The decision to leave him behind and extricate their own bodies from the crime itself, however, forgets that their ignoring an assault ensures they’ll never detach their moral fingerprints from the scene. Now the idea of “subject” becomes more fluid. Now this film becomes bigger than Noel because its filmmakers have given themselves permanence within his sordid tale of aggression and impulse. Noel is transformed from anti-hero protagonist focal point to the antagonizing force he will always prove. We see it. He sees it. But Errol and Ellis are too close and likely too self-absorbed to comprehend.
It’s a captivating premise, one in which we find ourselves opening up as much room for Noel to earn empathy as a changed man as discover he’s the monster the story never wavers from presenting as absolute truth. So we follow their parallel trajectories forward. We experience the numerous times Noel must bow out of the project and seek actual help while Errol and Ellis reassure each other that what they’re getting out of this relationship is imperative to whatever the killer is. Bemis retains a necessary distance in this respect so that we learn not to question Noel’s compassion when the entire situation begs skepticism instead. That separation will be tested further once an as yet unknown entity with infinite red flags they each ignore is introduced.
It’s this revelation that sets Strawberry Flavored Plastic up to move into uncharted territory and deliver a payoff we can’t possibly expect. But it’s sadly used more as a MacGuffin instead. That which should finally force Errol and Ellis to confront the insanity of their project never does—it may actually help them embrace the insanity more. And how this addition to the plot affects Noel is even more suspect because it presents an avenue towards love and emotion he as a psychopath (or sociopath as he himself agrees is an apt label) shouldn’t be able to possess. Even so, the way it allows for a path wherein we can feasibly believe Bemis might allow for redemption and pity opens more possibilities that do excite whether they’re unrealized or not.
Call it wasted potential or red herring, my disappointment here is wholly mine rather than a fault of the film considering it never actually tries and fails to do what I hoped. It simply doesn’t seek to use this unexpected arrival as more than fuel to exacerbate the gradual fracturing between the documentarians and their subject that’s already occurring. It provides an excuse for the two sides to be apart as well as purpose for Noel to seek change—something so impossible that every attempt only makes him more volatile. What happens to this killer isn’t what ultimately matters in the end because we know who he is from frame one. The true purpose is watching just how irresponsibly dangerous Errol and Ellis are willing to become.
In those regards Bemis succeeds. He shows how blind we can be to the truth when ambition gets in the way. Here are two guys excited every time a new memory card from Noel comes in the mail despite the reality it probably holds an uncensored murder. They get so excited by the prospects of their wildly depraved work of art with an inexplicable side of heart that they don’t realize its release is impossible without all three of them going to jail. So it’s nice when Bemis takes some control out of their hands and gives it to the fire of fate instead. As Noel says, the image in your mirror is always an empty distortion. And only liars say they can trust themselves. Welcome to the burn.