Is Indie Smash 'Bellflower' Sexist? Sure, but Also Derivative

It's not a critique of men being savage but rather a pastiche of other films about men being savage

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Accusations of misogyny are frequently leveled this time of year against studio product like Transformers 3 and The Change-Up, but one very well-reviewed art-house film has recently come under attack for its alleged woman-bashing.

The film in question, Bellflower, is a very stylish, very low-budget Sundance smash that opened in New York and L.A. on Friday. In the unusual breakup story, two mutually supportive dudes with nothing but time on their hands, Woodrow (writer/director/producer Evan Glodell) and Aiden (Tyler Dawson), generally flaunt their brand of beer-and-bacon machismo. After a honeymoon period, their love interests, Milly (Jessie Wiseman) and Courtney (Rebekah Brandes), only manage to anger and irritate them.

So what, exactly, is Bellflower's stance on Woodrow and Aiden's hyper-masculine fantasies of destruction, and women in general? The question has troubled a number of critics, with some hurling full-on accusations of sexism at the film. In his Onion AV Club review, Keith Phipps says that Bellflower "becomes a film about men who hate women, and it comes awfully close to endorsing their point of view," while in response, critic Glenn Kenny asserts that "it doesn't 'come close' to endorsing that point of view, it absolutely embodies that point of view, it can see no other possibility but that point of view, it IS that point of view." Kenny highlights in particular the film's double standard regarding the character of Milly, whose "recklessness and irresponsibility" the film only tolerates up to a point.

Even the many favorable takes on the film have found it necessary to grapple with the film's treatment of its primary female characters and the general impression it conveys that the entire southwestern United States has been converted into a gearhead man-cave smeared with blood and motor oil. In his enthusiastic review, MSN Movies' James Rocchi writes that "this isn't a movie about female characters who only deserve to be hated and hurt by male ones; it's a movie about men who, confused, may only know how to hate and hurt, might only be able to imagine hate and hurt, and how this terrifies them."

Before progressing to "hate and hurt," Bellflower portrays more innocent adolescent behavior. Woodrow and Aiden are in the midst of building out their Road Warrior obsession. Having long since outgrown Hot Wheels and Legos (paying rent, or not, is the one form of adult responsibility repeatedly discussed by the film's characters), the two instead rig up functional, life-size flamethrowers and hot rods from parts on special order. (Glodell himself custom-built many of the items on display, including the flamethrower and the dream car that's christened "Medusa," as well as the camera that captures the action as if through a jaundice-tinted smear of gasoline.) Just as Woodrow and Aiden experiment with their doomsday prototypes, the film itself serves as a kind of field test for how spectacularly this men-will-be-boys ethos combusts when a few spoonfuls of grown-up heartbreak are added to the mix.

Early on, Woodrow squares off with Milly in a live-cricket-eating contest at a local L.A. dive, and falls for her as they inhale beer-and-a-shot combos afterward. Their relationship commences as a series of dares: Milly challenges Woodrow to take her to the nastiest, grungiest restaurant he knows of for their first date, and they wind up driving to a rundown Texas establishment that serves "day-old meat loaf"; he later impulsively trades the car, outfitted with a whiskey dispenser on the passenger-side dash, for a motorcycle. She says he doesn't want her as a girlfriend because things will go bad, as they always do, but, naturally, he won't let that deter him. The film eventually downshifts into an unsettling—and more or less nonsensical—mode after Woodrow, his facial hair trimmed into a bizarre configuration (the beard indicates that some time has passed), finds Milly in bed with another man. Scarred and brain-damaged after a motorcycle accident, the disconsolate Woodrow takes up with Milly's best friend, Courtney, who plays second fiddle to his imaginary torture-porn-ish revenge battle with his ex.

It seems that Glodell wants his movie to be critical of Woodrow and Aiden's worldview (certainly he must be aware that when they say things like "propane is for pussies," the audience's respect for them doesn't increase). But Bellflower suffers from the same uncritical thrall to the movies that its main characters do. Glodell's film has earned plaudits for its inventiveness and originality, but, especially as it descends further into the deliberate confusion of its final act, it appears to borrow liberally from a number of other turn-of-the-21st-century masculine-identity-crisis features.

Memento-like fadeouts punctuate as we seem to burrow deeper inside the protagonist's rattled skull. Meanwhile, Woodrow's injury pity parties, his woozy disorientation (which at one point leads him to vomit) and his wounded pride, strongly recall Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky; Bellflower's debt to Fight Club is even greater, particularly as it descends further into its lurid nightmares of anger mismanagement.

All the while, Bellflower impressively imitates the grimy look, feel, and sound of vintage exploitation pictures. If the feature is a much less explicit homage to the abovementioned films than Woodrow and Aiden's DIY doomsday machines are to Road Warrior, its apparent pillaging of these subjective head-trips for their manliest, mind-bendiest, and least substantive elements betrays a similar impulse toward cinematic chauvinism. That's why the film is unable to effectively critique Woodrow and Aiden's fixation on a movie character (Road Warrior's Lord Humungous) who, in the latter's words, "dominates his women." Bellflower comes off as condoning their scorched-earth behavior toward the opposite sex. It serves as a reminder that even the most acclaimed indies can have regressive ideas under the hood.