Henry Creedlow's shitty life consists of a wife who barely pays any attention to him and is having the house renovated, a little poodle that annoys him to no end, a very successful friend who invests some money for him, only for the return to come back insultingly low, a disgusting, insulting boss who makes everyone who works for him at his magazine, Bruiser, feel like trash, especially Henry, and fantasies of committing suicide and violently killing all of those who walk all over him like he's nothing. During a company pool party as his boss, Miles Styles', house, Miles' wife, Rosie, makes a blank mask out of a plaster mold of Henry's face and tells him to give it an identity by painting a unique design on it, but Henry can't think of anything. Later on, he sees his wife, Janine, playing with Miles'... "yardstick" at the bar, and when he confronts her about it on their way home that night, she not only doesn't deny it but uses the fact that he didn't do anything as an example of how weak-willed and pathetic she thinks he is. She goes on to say that she wants to go places, whereas Henry is going nowhere. Left at home by himself that night, Henry drinks heavily and, the next morning, goes through his same old routine... until he looks in the mirror and sees that his face has been replaced by the white, feature-less mask Rosie made for him. When his and Janine's once-a-week maid shows up and begins stealing valuable items from the house and money from his wallet, he confronts her and fatally hits her with her own goods-filled bag. As he hides the body, Janine arrives home and Henry overhears her talking to somebody whom she plans to leave him for on the phone. Following her to the Bruiser office, Henry now knows that the other man is indeed Miles, but before he can kill them both, Rosie catches them having sex in the conference room and photographs them. While Miles chases after Rosie, Henry confronts and murders his unfaithful wife and manages to elude the police, who are questioning Miles. Heading back to his house, hiding from the police again, and finding evidence that his friend, Jimbo, has been stealing money from him, Henry decides he's had enough and embarks on a journey of murderous revenge against all those who have ruined his life.
(I apologize for the images in this review, which are sometimes either not exactly appropriate for what I'm talking about or aren't there at all. This movie is so obscure, I'm lucky I could get what I did.)
Henry's "mask" is definitely the film's most memorable image and the heart of its main theme. For starters, it is a striking and unsettling image, becoming even more so when he paints it in various ways later on, but more importantly, it represents how he's been stripped of identity by everyone around him and, as the film goes on and he takes back his life, he's painting the design on it that he couldn't think of before. How exactly it went from being just a mask that Rosie made from a mold of his face to actually being his face is something that I pondered and I toyed with the thought that maybe it was simply there in his head, that the revelation of Janine's affair and her pure contempt for him the night before caused one of his fantasies to take permanent hold in his mind. It seemed to fit as, while people acknowledge that he looks different, they don't bring up the mask specifically, meaning that they might be commenting on an anger and rage in him that they hadn't seen in him before. But then comes the scene where Rosie finally sees him for the first time since his face changed and remarks, "That's not a mold I made," to which he says, "It's all me." In other words, he really did lose his face and has now gotten it back along with his identity, a notion I really don't like because it makes the core theme, which is already shoved in your face repeatedly, way too literal for me. But you know what's really frustrating? At the end of the movie, after everything he's done to reclaim his identity, Henry is seen working in an office for another loathsome employer and the last shot is him turning to face his boss, the blank mask now back, suggesting that he's got to do it all over again (in the scene index, the scene is even titled, "The Cycle Continues) and that his taking a stand was all for nothing. He seems to have more guts now with how he talks to the boss, granted, but it still feels like nothing was accomplished. Maybe that's the point, that you always have to fight to keep your identity, but, regardless, I don't care for it because it begs the question, "Is this going to happen every time somebody acts like a dick to him?" If so, there are going to be a lot of dead bodies lying around!
The first time I saw the movie and it came to the introduction of Henry's friend, Jimbo, (Andrew Tarbet), I found myself wondering why the guy seemed so familiar to me until it suddenly hit me, "It's Booker from The Famous Jett Jackson!", which was a Disney Channel show I watched a lot when I was in middle school. However, the character Tarbet plays here is the exact opposite of the bumbling but likable deputy sheriff of Wilstead, North Carolina. At first, Jimbo seems like a decent, likable guy (save for how he doesn't remember his secretary's name and his fairly unsympathetic opinion of a man who shot himself on a radio show that morning), and one of the few friends that Henry has, promising to take care of his money problems and calling him to try offer help for him when hears of Janine's death. However, Jimbo's suspicious comment about an unexpectedly low return on an investment he handled for Henry ("You make it sound like I short-changed you") turns out to be foreshadowing of Henry's later discovery that he's been stealing money from his bank accounts and mutual funds. Henry confronts Jimbo about it at the local tennis club, asking him how he could do this to him after they've been friends for ten years, and Jimbo says that it was Janine's idea to steal the money and she kept the rest of it for herself. Jimbo tries to make things even by writing Henry a check for the entire $30,000 he's been cheated out of but when Henry makes it clear that he's not interested in money, that it won't make them anywhere near even, Jimbo pulls out a gun and shoots at him, saying that it's his fault for not noticing it sooner. Henry manages to kill Jimbo, who was just as unremorseful as everyone else, and disposes of his body. In the end, the only good bit of advice he gave Henry is to shoot someone other than yourself when you get really angry, which is what Henry does.
I know you can't see his face but this is literally the only
image of Atkins in this movie I could find.
One other noteworthy character is another one of the few people who's decent to Henry, Tom Burtram (Jeff Monahan). Even though they work together, they barely know each other, but there is still something of a kinship between them since they share a mutual dislike of Miles and are both trotted on by him at the office. Tom stumbles across the aftermath of Henry's murder of Janine and while he does threaten Tom not to say anything to the police, he also tells him not to be like him and take any more crap from people. You find out that Tom actually considers Henry possibly the best friend he's ever had and doesn't tell the police anything when they bring him in for questioning as a suspect. When he admits this to the winning model, who's trying to blow him in his hot tub, it actually saves Tom's life as Henry is about to kill him because he thinks he talked but when he overhears him, he relents and even makes it clear on the radio show that, like Rosie he had no involvement in the murder. Tom, meanwhile, decides to get out of town while the getting's good... with or without the model, who's not happy about the idea.
Aside from all the despicable characters, Bruiser's very look makes it unpleasant to watch. First off, like all of George Romero's films since the millennium, it was filmed in Canada, specifically Toronto (where Romero lives and, although it's never specified, is possibly where the movie is set), and more often than not, films shot up there, especially those with very little money, tend to have a bland, generic look to them and this is no exception. It looks like a TV movie (the very cheap-looking, occasional CGI scene transitions don't help matters), and a very murky one, at that. While the exterior scenes look okay (fortunately, it's often nice and sunny in the exterior scenes, rather than gray, overcast, and depressing, as it can get in Canada), the interiors are filmed in a dark, ugly manner, with highlights of a nasty, amber-brown color in the lighting. Even the interiors of the Miles' rather posh mansion have this look to them. It's very uncomfortable, but not in a cold, clinical way; rather, it's a very seedy, scummy way, which I guess fits well with the characters of Miles and Janine, the latter of whom is having her and Henry's house remodeled, making it even more uninviting in how it looks with all that plastic hanging up and that button to a saw on the floor that Janine's dog has learned to press. Some shots in the movie are nice to look at, like some of those inside the Bruiser offices and when Henry confronts Jimmy at the tennis club, but for the most part, the movie is as unpleasant to look at as its characters are to watch.
George Romero has always been known for injecting political and social commentary into his films but, as he's gotten older, he's gone from being able to skillfully inject it into movies that are, first and foremost, entertaining, to only caring about the commentary itself. He's become so heavy-handed with it, in fact, that his films are no longer fun and you feel like you're being preached to, making him feel like a pretentious old man. Now, that said, I'm not going to dislike a movie just because it feels pretentious, mainly because it'd be awfully hypocritical of me, as a couple of my favorite filmmakers, Christopher Nolan and David Cronenberg, can often veer off into self-indulgence (especially the former). What matters to me is if a movie either entertains me or, at the very least, keeps me interested enough to where I can overlook its pretentiousness, and Bruiser, which seemed to be the start of Romero's habit of repeatedly whacking you over the head with what he's trying to say, doesn't, making it all the more tedious and hard to sit through. Obviously, the movie's main idea is that of identity in the modern world, how we define ourselves, and how that can be both hard to obtain and easily taken away... and boy, does Romero shove that idea down your throat constantly. There are so many lines that allude to this, like Henry's raving at Janine that he gave her everything and she's taken his identity, Rosie's question to him as to whether or not he can make others see him when presenting him with his mask to decorate, his comment to her that he's always been invisible, which is why he'll have no trouble evading the police, and on and on. While I do kind of like the idea of Henry slowly creating his own persona and identity as the film goes on by decorating his face with flesh-color makeup and then various, lurid colors, as I said earlier, the idea of his face actually becoming that blank mask in reality rather than in his mind makes the main theme far more literal than I think it should be. But I think what really got me was when Henry was reciting to himself as he made himself up: "The man had gone to market, to buy a diamond ring. The man who never noticed, that he was not a king. He choose the brightest sparkle, a diamond made of glass. The setting bright and gold, was crafted out of brass. The man spent all his money, the jeweler was a cheat. He told the man that royals, wore diamonds on their feet. The man went proudly walking, inside his shoe the ring. And no one ever told him, that he was not a king." At that point, I was so bored and irritated by this movie, to the point where it was sucking the life out of me, that I rolled my eyes and thought, "Romero, cut me a break."
It's especially frustrating when Romero perfectly alluded to the film's main theme early on. As the opening credits roll while Henry goes through his morning routine, he listens to a radio program where a guy calls in and talks to the asshole host about how he wants to kill himself, saying that it wouldn't affect him if he lived or died, and talks about how he lost the house he inherited from his father to the bank. He then says, "A guy spends his life working, paying what he owes, doing what he's supposed to do, can't leave his house to his only kid. What kind of mark has he made? You shovel shit all your life, and you don't even leave a mark? It's like you shouldn't bother. It's like you've never been here at all." Then there's a gunshot, indicating that the man just followed through on his threat of suicide... which doesn't affect the host at all. All while this is going on, we see that Henry knows how the guy feels and has his first fantasy, which is about killing himself. Later, when Henry is going through his routine the morning after he learns of his wife's infidelity, somebody calls in talking about the suicide, saying that he made an impression, for the first time in his life, he's been noticed... and eventually reveals himself to be said guy, saying, "I'm risen from the dead, and this time around, I'm not taking any shit from rat bastards like you. You treat us like garbage. Like we're nothing. Like we're not even here. Well, you can't turn a man into nothing. You try, you're the one that's gonna pay,"... just as Henry sees his now blank face and begins to embark on his murderous quest to retrieve his identity. I don't think Romero would have had to have reinforced his theme any further after those perfect parallels, don't you think?
I think many people see Romero as a master of truly gruesome horror but, if you think about it, outside of his living dead series, his films typically aren't that gory and that goes for Bruiser. While definitely a violent movie, the murders are almost completely bloodless. The first three deaths in the film are actually Henry's fantasies and the first, which him shooting himself through the bottom of his chin, is probably the bloodiest part of the movie with the splatter on the wall behind him. The second one is him fantasizing about beating up a woman who cut in line ahead of him while getting on the train to head into the city and placing her head on the track. He proceeds to beat up her husband, who jumps him, and knocks him down, as her head gets crushed by the train. You hear a nasty crunch when that happens but you don't see anything, as the transition back to reality obscures the aftermath. And finally, the third fantasy is of him killing Janine as she drives her car into the garage by grabbing an axe and smashing through the windshield at her; again, you don't see anything. The first actual murder is of Henry and Janine's thieving maid, whom he knocks over the couch by whacking her across the head with her bag full of stolen items. As he hides her body and puts things back the way they were, you see that some blood was splattered on the couch cushions, and as he hides from Janine with the body, having wrapped it in plastic, it starts to convulse before finally expiring, which does get to Henry when he sees it. His murder of Janine is one of the film's most brutal, as he wraps his tie around her neck after catching her underneath the conference table and then, after smashing out the window with a chair, throws her out while she's tied to an extension cord, breaking her neck and leaving her hanging there. Jimbo's death is long and drawn out, first causing him to trip over a stool in the tennis club locker room, seemingly causing him to break something, and then picking him up, slamming him against a locker, smacking him across the face with one of his documents, and pulling a gun on him, causing him to lose his balance and fall to the floor. Trying to save himself, Jimbo tells him to give him his briefcase so he can write Henry a check for all the money he's stolen from in and Henry does give it to him... by flinging the briefcase at his broken leg. When Jimbo pulls a gun out of his briefcase, Henry dodges the shots and shoots him back, square in the chest, causing him to slowly bleed to death before he can get another shot off. Henry dumps his body in the river, along with his new, expensive car that he bought his money, just as he did the maid. Fittingly, Miles' murder at his costume party is the most painful and elaborate, with Henry bribing some people into putting him into a special harness that's lowered down from the ceiling above the dance floor. Miles is enjoying himself, until Henry aims a special laser, meant to pop open pinatas, right at his balls. Defiant and unremorseful to the end, Miles sees Henry in the booth and once again calls him an ant, prompting Henry to shoot the laser right through his head, reciting the Bruiser motto, "We make heat," before he does.
The music score by Donald Rubinstein (brother of distributor Richard Rubinstein and who's worked with George Romero before on Martin, Knightriders, and Tales from the Darkside, both the show and the movie) is just as melancholic and downbeat as the movie it accompanies, often sounding like a bluesy jazz whenever it accentuates Henry's pitiable situation. Honestly, though, that's all I can say about it, as the music has no memorable themes and all of the pieces run together for me. There are also a number of songs on the soundtrack, including some by the Misfits, whose music video for their song, Scream, was directed by Romero in exchange for them appearing in the film. Like the score, the songs that they sing during the climactic party scene run together to me and I can't tell one from another, although that said, I don't think they sounded all that bad, especially whichever one is playing when Miles gets his. Otherwise, save for a shitty cover of Take On Me by Wohlstandskinder that plays during the first part of the ending credits, I can't tell you much about any of the other songs on the soundtrack, which play during the pool party, when Miles and Janine have sex in the Bruiser conference room (it's a generic, salsa-like number), and at his and Rosie's house after Janine's death (I swear, I heard something there that sounded like a cover of Stevie Wonder's Superstition).