Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: R for extreme human violence
Run Time: 1 hour, 26 minutes
They say that timing is everything. At the height of the reality TV boom (“Survivor”, “Big Brother”, “Temptation Island”), not to mention yet another tragic teen killing spree at an American high school, director Daniel Minahan has landed himself and his little independent smack into the middle of the crossfire. With shocking but spectacular results.
Wasn’t this to be expected? As a shameless “Survivor” devotee, I have to confess to thoughts that a government-controlled killing game is exactly where V-TV (as in Voyeurism) appears to be headed. Ultimately, nibbling on cow brains and shacking up with a comely, bikini-clad babe won’t be enough.
“The Contenders” is a highly-rated television hit. “Real people…in real danger…in a fight for their lives”. Six contestants are selected at random by a government lottery, handed a gun, assigned a cameraman, and they’re off. The rules are simple. Kill off your fellow players and be the last contestant standing. Our heroine is Dawn (Brooke Smith), 8-months pregnant and the reigning “Contender” champion. With ten kills in only two tours, Dawn is a tough-as-nails competitor. Determined to liberate herself and her unborn child (from what is ominously vague), Dawn immediately sets out to annihilate her opponents. They include Connie (Marylouise Burke), a religiously devout emergency room nurse, Tony (Michael Kaycheck), an out-of-work asbestos removal worker and cookie-cutter loser, Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a pretty, 18-year old high-schooler, Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), a moody artist dying of testicular cancer, and Franklin (Richard Venture), a bitter, aging conspiracy theorist. The only prize is the prize that counts – your life. The contestants have no choice but to engage themselves in the most deadly fight of all – human survival.
How to explain being mesmerized, thoroughly entertained, and dreadfully uncomfortable at the same time? It’s important to bear in mind that film can be an art form of extreme, expressive proportion. PC or not, like it or not, subject matter can touch a vicious nerve. The rotten underbelly of this clever satire is its deadly serious nature. Minahan stands on cinematic terra firma by combining the addictive glare of hyperbole TV, the reality of media control, and a script pregnant with hilarious one-liners. Yes, hilarious – I laughed long and often. The charm, if you will, of this fanatical spoof relies on heavy doses of nervous humor to support its outrageous actions. Not to mention its spot-on Digi-Beta camerawork, meticulously mimicking the shows that it’s mocking. The players, a visceral bunch who gut it out with edgy zeal, are cunning masterminds when it comes to averting potentially fatal mistakes. From a spectator’s point of view, their safety becomes obsessively all-consuming.
Are we becoming desensitized to death? Probably. Should we be permitted to laugh at ourselves when the situation, courtesy of our art, presents itself? Definitely. Let the games begin.