Playing like a Hollywood found-footage teen movie by way of Funny Games‘ Michael Haneke, Matthew Johnson’s The Dirties explores high school violence from a refreshingly original angle. Johnson presents us with bullied teens who plot revenge not from the typical position of introverted maladjustment but rather with an excited self-awareness—after procuring the blueprints for his high school, one maybe-killer reads journalist Dave Cullen’s Columbine.
The book matters, but it’s the fantasy-generating medium of cinema that inspires protagonists Matt (Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) to step back and reimagine their lives; they’re making a movie titled, yes, The Dirties, in which heroes Matt and Owen kill the school bullies (dubbed “the Dirties”). Their video camera serves as a powerful tool, enabling them to dictate the terms of their own reality—but it’s exactly this ability that begins to push Matt into a realm where his movie’s story might become too real.
The Dirties is not an indictment of filmmaking, but it castigates the self-centered insipidness of a society obsessed with recording itself. Johnson anchors the film in the POV of Matt and Owen’s found footage, so we’re forced, uncomfortably, to live inside the characters’ alarming heads. Viewers are given something of a proxy in Owen, who doesn’t share Matt’s murderous desires, yet it’s Matt’s perspective that drives the film, a perspective that equates killing the Dirties with an action hero wiping out the bad guys in a grandiose climax.
Matt’s fantasies are not even the primary red flags of his mental imbalance—more alarming still is that he seems totally unaware of Owen’s creeping discomfort with his almost-serious bloodlust. Murderous inclinations aside, Matt is likable, not disaffected, and in him Johnson has crafted a disturbingly plausible picture of what a teen shooter might look like: not a hostile youth, just a kid who’s lost touch with the border between reality and fiction. That the film maintains a comic tone during much of Matt’s plotting only adds to the eeriness, as we’re reminded that it’s troubled Matt, the character, who is meant to be directing the footage that we’re watching.
We’re in a cultural moment where myth-making technology is accessible and ubiquitous. The Dirties questions the costs and benefits of this arrangement. Certainly, when everyone can be at the center of his or her own story, we’re discovering that we can empathize with characters we might not have before; in too many other films, Matt would be a simple villain. Yet The Dirties also understands that the corollary of this greater empathy is the fostering of a horrific narcissism, a belief that only the storyteller can be the “good guy.” Many movies need good guys and bad guys, and so many movies fall short of providing a nuanced portrait of reality. The Dirties, however, is not one of them.