Gummo is a 1997 avant-garde independent film that serves as the directorial debut of Harmony Korine, who would later go on to direct films like Julien Donkey-Boy, Mister Lonely and Trash Humpers, and was heavily advertised for his past work as the writer of Kids.
It is set in the dying town of Xenia, Ohio, after a tornado wrecks it. (The real-life Xenia was indeed wrecked by a 1974 tornado.) Most of the residents have moved on to greener pastures, leaving only the poor, criminals, and the disabled.
The movie is very disturbing, with a constant feel of unease and disgust throughout. Both surreal and lifelike, Gummo is not for everyone. It's devoid of any typical film structure or really a climax, and often uses a mix of vignette-like footage and still images with narration to capture the residents' nihilistic, miserable lives.
The film only made back $100,000 of $1 million budget and divided critics, although its unorthodox style and graphic content did make for considerable press. The fans it did have were very vocal and in very high places (Werner Herzog, Gus Van Sant, Lukas Moodysson, etc.), and over time it has grown in status to now being regularly considered one of the most well-known Cult Classic films.
Not to be confused with the forgotten Marx Brother (who was actually the namesake for the film).
This film provides examples of:
- The Anti-Nihilist: Solomon. See Knight in Sour Armor.
- Big Brother Mentor: Tummler is a twisted version of this to Solomon, maybe even an outright subversion of this trope.
- Black Comedy: What humor there is in the movie is definitely this.
- Body Horror: At one point, the film focuses on a middle-aged albino woman that presents herself as outgoing, fun-loving, and a diehard fan of Patrick Swayze...before casually slipping in the fact that she was born with no toes.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Bunny Boy possibly acknowledges the wall in one of the final shots of the film, where he walks up to the camera from a distance and presents a dead cat, seemingly to the audience.
- Bury Your Gays: Harmony Korine plays the film's only openly gay character aside from the gay black Jewish wrestling midget. The two have a heart to heart in Korine's One-Scene Wonder and the description of homophobia directed against him is gut-wrenchingly accurate. Also, when Tummler and Solomon get high on glue in the woods, Tummler tells the story of his transvestite brother who left Xenia. The usually homophobic Tummler shows an inkling of empathy here, could be considered a Pet the Dog moment.
- Cloudcuckoolander: The 3 sisters: Dot, Helen, and Darby.
- Cloudcuckooland: More broadly, the entire community depicted in the film can be seen as an extremely dark version of this. All of the characters depicted range from eccentric to downright psychopaths, and this is shown to be a natural result of the crushing despair of their situation.
- Cover Drop: The images used in the three posters for this film (a low-res picture of Solomon, Bunny Boy standing in the street, and Bunny Boy on a public restroom toilet playing a toy accordion) all show up in the film at some point.
- Crapsack World: Quite the understatement. Everyone in Xenia lives in some state of perpetual despair. Those who are lucky enough to own a home often find that it's decrepit, run-down, and usually infested with bugs. People are not only desensitized to the murder of innocent small animals but use it as an income source, several characters have implicit or explicit disabilities, prostitution and glue-sniffing are par for the course, and characters regularly display racism, sexism, and homophobia. It's such a horrible place to live that one character we meet openly admits to being depressed and living through a suicide attempt.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: The sexism and racism, the truly venomous homophobia and transphobia (particularly exhibited by children who hardly even know what they're talking about), and the casual animal cruelty of the residents of Xenia are all intentionally disturbing and unsettling.
- Die, Chair, Die!: Several characters have so little to do that they make a spectacle out of destroying their own furniture.
- Dining in the Buff: Solomon eats his dinner while bathing in dirty water.
- Dirty Old Man:
- Near the start of the film, we see home video footage of a girl as we hear her speak through a voice-over about her father. As her monologue progresses, it becomes horrifically evident that her father molests her, at which point the film cuts to another home video of who is presumed to be said molesting father. The film begins repeating a clip where the father turns to the camera and smiles, zooming into the clip until his initially innocent grin grows uncomfortably sinister, coupled with crescendoing harsh noise in the background.
- As the 3 sisters look for their missing cat around Xenia, an old man approaches them in a bowling alley with news that he's found their cat. He drives them up to the general area he claims to have saw it in, and begins searching for a map. As he does so, he rather conspicuously slips his hand up Helen's skirt, prompting a violent reaction from all 3 sisters once they see that they've been set up.
- Downer Beginning: The film begins with Solomon grimly half-whispering a voice-over describing the effects of the tornado while disturbing home movie footage plays.
- Downer Ending: There's no evidence shown that anything will change in Xenia, and it seems like everyone will keep living miserable lives.
- Dying Town: Everyone who could leave Xenia has already left, leaving only the utter dregs of society in the wreckage.
- Establishing Series Moment: Solomon's opening monologue detailing how badly the tornado wrecked Xenia establishes the film's horrific atmosphere and morbid sense of humor.
- Fan Disservice/Fanservice: Chloe Sevigny's character topless using electrical tape to perk up her nipples. By itself, it's attractive, but the filthy atmosphere the scene is in could sap away all potential sex appeal.
- Kick the Dog: Well, more like kick the cat. The two main characters kill stray cats to sell to the local meat market. Also, the scene where the kids dressed as cowboys "shoot" the Bunny Boy at the junkyard and verbally abuse him for a good five minutes. It's pretty unsettling hearing actual kids talk like that.
- Knight in Sour Armor: Solomon. As shitty as he's seen life to be, he's still positive about it."Life is great. Without it, you'd be dead."
- Leitmotif: An excerpt of Burzum's ambient piece "Rundgang um die transzendentale Säule der Singularität" is used throughout the film.
- Lower-Class Lout: Practically everyone living in Xenia after the tornado. The entire film itself could be considered an exploration of this trope.
- Mr. Exposition: The boys narrate the movie at different points, with some characters only being referenced by other characters and introduced by Solomon's narration, namely his father.
- No Brows: One mentally ill female we're introduced to shaves her eyebrows off near the end of the film.
- No Plot? No Problem!: The plot is basically just two boys exploring their strange abandoned world without a proper sense of direction.
- One-Liner: The faux-documentary footage is interspersed with quizzical observations made by Solomon and Tummler. They have some choice bits of dialogue between them.Tummler: "I once knew a guy who was dyslexic. But he was also cross-eyed, so everything came out right."
- Painful Adhesive Removal: exploited. Two sisters are shown applying duct tape to their breasts and stripping it off, apparently attempting to make their nipples look bigger by irritating them. It makes about as much sense in context as the rest of the movie.
- Psychopathic Man Child: Tummler and Solomon.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Tummler and Solomon. Solomon is innocent and childlike, and Tummler is pure nihilism. Tummler seems to despise life and everything in it, Solomon expresses a love of life and its beauty even in a place as dismal as Xenia.
- Self-Made Orphan: According to Solomon, the two skinhead brothers shown in one scene were normal boys before they killed their parents.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Critics of the film usually label it this.
- Two shout outs to the band Slayer; the patch on Solomon's jacket (which is also an allusion to the fact that he kills stray cats for money), and fan footage from one of the film collages of a guy who has carved the band's logo into his arm, which is genuine.
- The three sisters Helen, Dot, and Darby's cat is named Foot-Foot. Helen and Dot are also named after two of the Wiggin sisters.
- Soundtrack Dissonance:
- The opening scene with the happy song about farming played over footage of the Bunny Boy, a mute homeless child's sad daily routine definitely counts as this.
- The film's use of Buddy Holly's "Everyday"—background music to an abrupt scene of the three sisters jumping on beds—is jarring to say the least.
- The film ends with Roy Orbison's "Crying" playing over Tummler and Solomon shooting a dog alongside home video footage of the tornado that destroyed Xenia.
- The Speechless: Bunny Boy doesn't speak at all in the film. It's not explained whether his mutism is attributed to personal preference or physical disability.
- Surrealism: Of all possible definitions. One of Harmony Korine's trademarks, actually.
- Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Practically every young character, but especially the two cowboys that "kill" Bunny Boy, shouting epithets and homophobic slurs at him all the while.
- True Companions:
- Despite their general fucked-up-tivity, Tummler and Solomon.
- The three sisters, Dot, Helen, and Darby, are always seen to get along well and are frequently together.
- Truth in Television: As noted in the lead section, the real-life Xenia was devastated by a 1974 tornado that was part of the largest such outbreak then recorded.
- Twofer Token Minority: The black, gay, Jewish midget.