Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), who went to school here in the late 60s and taught at the university as artist-in-residence several years ago, will return to screen his latest film Stuck (2007) tonight in the main theater of the Orpheum at 11PM as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival. Based on a shocking true event that occurred in Fort Worth, Texas in 2001, Stuck tells the story of how fate and circumstance can transform a seemingly ordinary person into a frightening monster. While many horror fans will no doubt appreciate Stuck for the way it deftly plays with the conventions of the genre, it strikes me that Gordon’s film – with its overt reference to George Bush – uses the story as thinly disguised social and political criticism. In doing so, Stuck manages to find a perfect balance between dark humor and the grotesque, while exhibiting the relentless quality of a nightmare.
Brandi (Mena Suvari) is a nurse’s aide in a retirement home. She’s the personal favorite of one of the elderly men who messes himself continually. The administrator, Mrs. Petersen, thinks it’s time to get rid of him, but Brandi embodies the selfless caregiver. Petersen, played by Carloyn Purdy-Gordon (the director’s wife), dangles the NA captain position as bait to manipulate Brandi into working on the weekend. The stress of ministering to others all day creates a need for Brandi and her co-worker friend, Tanya (Rukiya Bernard), to unwind at a nightclub after work, where Brandi’s boyfriend, Rashid (Russell Hornsby), slips a pill into each of their mouths. “Trust me,” he tells them.
Tom (Stephen Rea) is down on his luck. A former project manager, he’s fallen on hard times. Tom slips out of a flop house where he’s unable to pay his rent. He escapes with his clothes, leaving his suitcase behind. His trip to the employment services agency becomes a exercise in futility. For some reason, Tom is not in the computer system, which becomes its own self-justification for failing to help him. A homeless man named Sam befriends Tom, giving him something to drink and a shopping cart for his clothes. Gordon’s humor is such that Sam warns Tom to be careful if he plans to sleep in the park – not because of criminals, but because of the police, who congregate at the nearby doughnut shop. Sure enough, Tom is awakened by an unsympathetic cop, who forces him to move on – an event that will have profound implications.
The parallel plot threads collide to create the film’s inciting incident. On her way home from the club, Brandi, high on alcohol and drugs, inadvertently slams into Tom as he crosses the street with his shopping cart, leaving her victim impaled on the broken windshield of her car. Sam sees the car pass with the body and tries to tell the police who are detaining him, that “the guy was stuck like a goddamn bug.” This is pretty much how Brandi decides to view Tom. Rather than stopping and calling for help, Brandi keeps going, with the bloody body still stuck on her hood. She drives to a hospital, but the sound of a garage door opening scares her off. Brandi thinks of calling 911, but doesn’t. She becomes terrified that she’ll get caught and won’t get her promotion. Brandi drives her car into her garage and ignores Tom’s desperate pleas to help him. Instead, she blames her victim: “You should have watched where you were going.” In a case of sheer projection, she later screams at him, “Why are you doing this to me?”
Brandi confesses to Rashid what happened, but when he finds out she hit a homeless person, he tells her, “Nobody’s gonna give a shit.” In an attempt to reassure her, he admits that he’s done a lot worse than that. Rashid waxes philosophical as he’s about to have sex with her, “Anybody can do anything to anyone and get away with it. I mean anything. I mean, fuck, look who’s in the White House right now.” Brandi makes love with Rashid while rap music mixes with their groaning sounds, as the camera tracks from the garage to a red lava lamp that can be seen through the bedroom window. Her lovemaking sounds turn into screams as images of Tom’s head exploding through the windshield glass and his pleas for help alternate with Rashid’s face.
Once the traumatic event happens, Brandi elicits no pangs of regret. Her sole instinct is to survive, which mirrors Tom’s feverish attempts to extricate himself from the torture chamber of Brandi’s garage – it’s almost as if she’s turned into a menacing serial killer. In fact, she behaves like one. When Tom manages to honk the horn, Brandi promptly whacks him on the head with a board to get him to stop in order to avoid getting caught. Seeking help to dispose of the body, she later turns up at Rashid’s house, but discovers him in bed with another woman. Brandi takes vengeance with an almost pathological fury. She pulls her hair, smacks the other woman with a frying pan, and kicks her naked body into the hall.
Gordon teases the viewer with various near attempts at intervention. A cab driver almost finds Tom in the garage as he goes to investigate the honking horn. A Latino kid sees the moving body through the garage window and manages to get his mother to the crime scene, but the father becomes fearful they’ll get deported. Tom almost succeeds in using Brandi’s cell phone to get help. Tanya nearly discovers Tom in Brandi’s garage. The film moves toward a hellish climax, which finally pits perpetrator and victim in a consummate battle for survival.
In dealing with a story inspired by a true event, Gordon attempts to penetrate the bizarre mental processes of his unglued protagonist. In a sense, he’s asking how human beings can be capable of such horrific behavior. For Gordon, the horror genre becomes the appropriate vehicle to probe such issues. When asked in an Isthmus interview whether the fact that Stuck is based on a true story turned out to be limiting, he responded, “No, I think that the thing that I realized is that stuff that really happens is much stranger than anything you could dream up, and more horrific, really. Things that people do to each other are much more disturbing than typical monsters.”