From its title all the way down to its shrug of an ending, Gut, the latest from writer/director Elias, really wants you to know what it’s about. The trouble with the film, though, is that it doesn’t seem entirely sure about what that actually is. This results in a slow, plodding, apathetic movie looking back to the audience with the question “You know what I mean…right?” Theme is important in making a film successful, but when said theme is so broad, confused, and generally aimless it becomes a hindrance to the effectiveness of the narrative and can dilute the entire experience into a wandering lecture on unclear ideas.
The general story of Gut concerns itself with two friends, Tom(Jason Vail) and Dan(Nicholas Wilder). Tom is apparently the more stable of the two, married with a child, but it’s really hard to distinguish which man is less awkwardly strange. Sure, Dan the bachelor, has a strange demeanor, acting like a self-conscious preteen trying desperately to impress someone, but Tom is just as odd in his lethargy and general distance from his family. Keeping with the odd, these two apparently have a penchant for checking out the latest in snuff films, as Dan presents a new one to Tom as a good way to spend a guy night. This escalates until both men embody their own version of obsession towards the content. Both versions of obsession includes a lot of handwringing, sometimes literally, and a lot of head hanging, nearly always literally. The result is a middle portion of the movie that features people standing about thinking and saying “Man, that video. Crazy right?”. This is the main issue with Gut, that fine line between ambiguity versus aimlessness.
Ambiguity can add intrigue and a sense of apprehension that horror thrives on. Pushed too far, with no real meat or direction behind it, however, leads to nearly the opposite response. Without enough substantial dread or involvement, ambiguity turns to aimlessness and becomes what a horror film can never afford to be: boring. For a large portion of the film, Gut has no real stakes. It is two men who have seen something awful thinking about that something awful and then dealing with the possibility they may have enjoyed it. It’s a character study with no substantial characters. Instead, we get broad pallets of “disturbed”, “angry”, “sad”. The audience never gets the feel of what these videos could do to affect the lives of the men. Instead we get an exploration of broad themes instead of a story. I say broad themes because any of the following readings could be defended as easily as the other: 1. The investigation of sexism and violence in a male dominated world. 2. An exploration of nature vs. nurture, chemical programming versus socialization. 3. A Christian morality tale about the dangers of pornography and masturbation. 4. Repression of homosexuality.
There are more readings of the theme, but the point is this: when a film waffles from broad, ambiguous/aimless themes with no support from the script and its characters, it results in an ill-paced confused piece of story-telling that never truly engages an audience.
There is also a difference between being a slow-burn film and being just slow. Gut is brave enough to spend time with the characters as they stew in their own thoughts and inner turmoil. The problem is that they don’t seem entirely sure what they’re stewing about. From extended shots that seem to last a bit too long to actors that appear to be literally waiting for direction on screen, Gut seems like it has a broad sense of what it’s talking about, but is only confident enough to take a meandering walk through some general ideas, never stopping to explore any of them in any detail.
On the positive side, the practical effects of the film, namely within the “snuff films” show some top notch work that is both skillful and unnerving. There are other moments, on a logistical level, that work on an impressive scale, especially considering the budgetary constraints the filmmakers undoubtedly had. There is also one scene towards the end of the film where everything that Gut has gotten wrong is suddenly very right. Our protagonist finally sees something that leads him to an emotional breaking point that, until this point, he has been devoid of. In that short sequence, the audience finally understands and can cling to the stakes of the film. Unfortunately though, that moment is but a fleeting reminder of what has gone wrong with Gut.