“Have you ever been force-fed a cheeseburger by your mama sitting next to a man with half a body?”
One of the heftiest shames on my house is the stack of unwatched DVDs leftover from Blockbuster’s going out of business liquidation sales years and years ago. The unwatched titles that remain from those hurried purchases are mismatched odds & ends: a kids’ movie with an ugly CG alien, a Coen Brothers “classic” I’ve never successfully watched without failing asleep midway, a little-loved Tom Cruise sci-fi epic, etc. Lurking among this eclectic mess was a 2011 Sundance festival release titled Septien, a movie I likely would never had heard of if it weren’t for that bargain bin purchase. Septien feels like the exact kind of oddity you’d catch at a film festival and never hear from again, so it’s bizarre that it had wide enough distribution to land somewhere as mainstream as a Blockbuster (liquidation sale). The only potential notoriety the film could claim is an early cinematography credit for director Jeremy Saulnier, of later Blue Ruin & Green Room “fame.” A featured performance from Robert Longstreet, who later appeared in I Don’t Feel at a Home in This World Anymore, also suggests that this picture is significant in its connection to Saulnier and his frequent collaborators, but the picture itself doesn’t support that connective tissue. The grit & immediacy of Saulnier’s eye informs the film’s indie cinema aesthetic, but in tone & subject Septien lacks the regular-people-in-over-their-heads-in-hyperviolence motif that has come to define his work. Oddly, it’s the brief appearance of Rachel Korine (longtime collaborator & romantic partner to avant garde prankster Harmony Korine) in a minor role that helps put this film in its proper context. That kind of context is especially helpful for a microbudget release you’re completely blind on, whether because you caught it a festival or because you rescued it from a bankrupt video rental store in a panic.
A frequent tactic of microbudget indies is to outweigh the scale of their financial means with an outsized sense of pure weirdness. The typical gods of this approach are your David Lynches, your John Waters, your Werner Herzogs, your Harmony Korines, etc. Septien is a clear disciple of the independent cinema path carved by those notorious weirdos, even if writer-director-star Michael Tully can’t quite match the impact of their most substantial works. Tully appears in full Joaquin Phoenix beard & Unabomber gear as a talented ex-athlete & teenage runaway. Returning home to his family farm after a two-decade absence, our beard-o protagonist settles into a Herzogian domesticity with his two equally off-putting brothers. The eldest is an obsessive homemaker who insists on clean surfaces & family meals in a matronly tone. The youngest is an artist who spends most of his days painting primal depictions of football players with mutilated genitals alone in the shed. For his part, the prodigal son protagonist uses his destitute appearance to hustle unsuspecting normies at various sports for small wagers of money. He proves to be exceptionally good at soccer, basketball, tennis, and made-up games that barely qualify as sports at all. The only athletic sore spot is his history with football, which ended in an unspoken, mysterious trauma that inspired him to run away from home in the first place. This trauma seems to be connected to a plumber the boys hire to help in a septic tank crisis (with Korine in tow the only female character of any significance), but the details are both vague & prolonged in their reveal. Strange anxieties about queer desire, homophobic upbringing, and past demons that must be “smothered” emerge from this outlandish familiar drama, but are just as difficult to pin down as any logical narrative progression, deliberately so.
The true nexus of Septien is a second act scene involving an outsider art show. The violent, sexually juvenile artwork of the youngest brother is publicly displayed, but not for sale (the paintings, which have a distinct Daniel Johnston quality, are the real-life art work of actor Onur Tukel). The eldest brother (Longstreet) arranges the event and provides deviled eggs, popcorn and lemonade for the guests. He also lords over the proceedings as an MC, even though his genteel sensibilities are offended by artwork he considers to be cartoons of people “cutting their wee-wees off and eating doo-doo.” Beyond homemaking, his own artwork is this way with language, which includes turns of phrase like, “I could spit hornets, I’m so mad,” and “You smell a little like a caribou.” The wayward brother (Tully) merely watches those proceedings in silence, glumly taking in the accompanying camcorder film screening (which includes more football imagery) and stuffing his face with concessions. In its marketing, Septien was lightly suggested to be a horror movie, but it’s much closer to the outsider art showcase of this “gallery” sequence (which appears to be staged in a VFW hall). Tukel’s visual art, Longstreet’s motherly Cuddles Kovinsky line deliveries, and Tully’s detached observation of the bizarre world around him are the main draws to the film, even more so than the masculine grief of its central crisis or its connection to the Jeremy Saulnier zoo crew. Fans of the looser end of Herzog’s or Korine’s respective catalogs (or anyone who has blindly attended film festival screenings on a whim) should know what minor pleasures to expect out of that kind of proposition. Personally, I just appreciate that something so quietly bizarre managed to slip into the Metairie Blockbuster stacks unnoticed, even if it took me years to appreciate its sore thumb presence in my own dusty library of unwatched odds & ends.