In 1997, the New York Times named “Gummo” the “worst film of the year” –– which is understandable. Harmony Korine’s directorial debut has little-to-no plot. The movie is filled with disturbing imagery, and at times it feels like viewing a grainy home video. But of course, that is all the more reason to give it a watch. 20 years later, “Gummo” remains a striking and original piece of independent cinema.
The film is set in Xenia, Ohio, in the aftermath of a violent tornado –– an environment established briefly in the film’s opening. This film exists in a liminal space, caught halfway between a dystopia and a stagnant Midwestern town. Throughout the movie, Korine strings a series of dark vignettes together through the actions of Solomon, the film’s adolescent protagonist and narrator. He travels alongside his older friend Tummler. “Tummler sees everything,” Solomon says. “He’s got what it takes to be a legend.” The two wander around town aimlessly, riding bikes and hunting stray cats.
A group of young sisters –– the oldest played by Chloë Sevigny –– also appear. They live by themselves in an old house. A shirtless boy with a bunny hat appears multiple times. Early on, he urinates off of a bridge onto the freeway below.
“Gummo” has a loose feel to it. Other ‘90’s independent debuts shared a similar structure; Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” and Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” were both slow moving and light on plot. But “Gummo’s” tone is much darker, and often repulsing. Korine fills the world with bigotry, hedonism, nihilism and sexual perversion. Old men prey on young girls outside of the supermarket. Young children wander around by themselves yelling obscenities.
In one scene, Solomon and Tummler approach a kid named Jarrod Wiggley. Rumor has it that Jarrod has begun to hunt cats; if it’s true, he’s a threat to Solomon and Tummler, who sell their dead cats to a local butcher. “I do it mostly at night,” Jarrod says, his voice weak and anxious. The audience shares his discomfort. He goes on to explain in detail the experiences of living with his catatonic grandmother. “I hate that shit,” Jarrod says.
“Gummo” was shot on location in Nashville, Tennessee, Korine’s hometown. Many of the characters in the film are played by non-actors, and a decent amount of the film’s dialogue is ad-libbed. Korine kept the cameras rolling continuously, and the candid dialogue made its way into the final cut.
This all adds an element of realism, mixed in with the absurdity and avant-garde tendencies. “Gummo” is not far removed from real life, which makes it all the more affecting.
But despite the grimy and disturbing moments, Korine manages to weave humor and charm into “Gummo.” A shot of Solomon lifting weights in the mirror set to Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” or an exciting scene in which a grown man aggressively wrestles a chair to the ground, will amuse audiences. “Life is beautiful,” Solomon says.“Without it, you’d be dead.”
Is this the main point the film is trying to make? That’s left unclear, but by the end –– as Roy Orbison’s “Crying” plays, set to a scene of the sisters and Bunny Boy swimming in the rain –– “Gummo” is transcendent. It’s disturbing, and maybe pretentious, but definitely not the worst film of 1997. On its 20th anniversary, “Gummo” remains a captivating work of art.