That awkward moment when he humanizes the school shooter

‘The Dirties’ is a low-budget, ‘found footage’ film tracing two high school students who deal with bullying and fantasize about taking revenge.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but the opening screen of the film makes it quite clear where it will end up.

The Dirties Opening Title Card

It’s almost jarring how quickly The Dirties shifts gears from this ominous title card to introducing Matt and Owen, who joke and laugh as they play around with their friends and their new wireless microphones. Infusing a meta-reality like quality, they are shooting a film about taking violent revenge on the bullies in their school. In the reality of the movie, it was this footage that was later found and we are currently watching.

Matt Johnson is played by Matt Johnson, who also directed the film – an unscripted, low budget affair that takes on an almost documentary like feeling at times, due to the fact that much of the cast was not aware they were going to be in a film until after their scenes were shot. In a memorable scene towards the end, Matt asks his mother (his actual mother, who did not know she was being filmed at the time) whether or not she thought he was ‘crazy’.

For the first fifteen minutes it plays like a comedy. Matt and Owen give incredibly realistic performances as we are treated to a goldmine of film references and funny interactions that feel decidedly like you’re just hanging out with some friends. I think some reviewers have mistaken the pop culture content of the film as an indictment of violent movies or of Hollywood in general. I think it was Matt’s way of making these characters relateable, which to me, they were. 100%. I also used to run around with my friends shooting movies. I felt like I could have been watching myself and my friends.

Which I think was the real point of this film. The characters are so incredibly likeable, I almost forgot that what I knew was coming was coming. Almost like a sinking ship, the comedy of the opening slowly gives way (though never completely disappearing) to stark, silent, pregnant moments in which Matt’s grip on reality becomes palpably tenuous. The teetering back and forth between a stupid grin and a sense of dread heightened the emotional impact, and as I watched I found myself thinking ‘Please don’t do it. Please don’t.’.

I didn’t want to think my new best friend Matt could be capable of actually going through with it.

The bullying scenes are extremely uncomfortable, but they manage to avoid feeling exploitive or cartoonish, in keeping with the brutally realistic core of the whole piece. Reality doesn’t lay all the answers at our feet, and I think it’s a mistake to search this film for a morality lesson, or insight into how to stop these tragedies.

“When something happens to you on camera, it’s like it’s not really happening,” Matt explains as he edits a video of himself being pummeled into the ground. It’s clear that Matt has developed this detachment as a coping mechanism to deal with the rage and sadness of being picked on. The answer to why he turns to violence while others might not is a larger concern that feels almost outside the scope of the film, which at it’s heart, is as much about youth and high school as it is school shootings.

Matt Johnson has said in an interview that he was inspired by watching some home movies made by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the columbine shooters, and that he was struck by how normal they seemed. How much he related to them. If making this film was his attempt to recreate that same strange empathy for his fictional, on screen alter-ego, I think it worked.

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