The Platform (2020)

“There are three types of people: those at the top, those at the bottom, and those who fall.”

Last December, James and I recorded a podcast episode on what we called “Vertical Class Warfare.” We discussed three genre movies that illustrated their class-based conflicts through an excessively blatant, literal metaphor in which the working class had to physically fight their way up a vertical structure to take down the upper-class oppressors who towered above them. The three movies that anchored the episode were Parasite, Us, and C.H.U.D., while High-Rise & Snowpiercer (a horizontal deviation on the theme) naturally came up in conversation. I would now like to add the Netflix-released sci-fi picture The Platform to that growing list, which is may even be more dutifully committed to its Vertical Class Warfare gimmick than any other movie mentioned. While the two films from last year that inspired the episode—Parasite & Us—invest time in developing the characters & interpersonal relationships staged in their Vertical Class Warfare scenarios, The Platform is almost singularly obsessed with the actual structure of its geographical class divide and how it is policed. It’s so into Philosophy & economic theory that there’s room for little else, ensuring that the movie is almost 100% worldbuilding – a guided tour of an already established dystopian hellscape. Luckily, it has more than enough Big Ideas & gory catharsis to pull that indulgence off.

A man with no established background or goals awakes in a concrete tower that resembles an impossibly tall prison. We learn the circumstances of this tower (“The Vertical Self-Management Center” in the official corporate-speak) along with this new resident/prisoner as he finds his own bearings. A viciously unhelpful, mysterious cellmate dodges his endless flood of questions and allows him to discover the rules of their confinement in his own time. As the stranger puts it (and as the rules of this growing subgenre dictate), there’s no need to explain these things because, “It’s obvious” – a phrase that’s repeated so often it effectively becomes the film’s self-parodic mantra. Gradually, we learn that prisoners are randomly assigned floor numbers at the start of each month, counting down from Floor #1 at the top to the seemingly bottomless number of higher-numbered floors hundreds of levels below. Every day, a platform lowers down each of these levels with an overflowing banquet that offers more than enough food to feed everyone housed in the facility. Except—and it’s obvious—the arbitrarily privileged gluttons on the upper floors gorge themselves on as much food as they can stomach, leaving little to nothing for the peasants below (despite having tasted the raw end of that deal themselves many, many months prior). Once this preposterous scenario is established, all there’s left to do is contrive a way for that cycle to be broken. How to achieve that systemic change, it turns out, is the one thing that is not Obvious.

The most rewarding thing about these kinds of movies is that they’re excellent conversation starters. The entire struggle of the movie is rooted in the frustration that the prisoners are wholly committed to their arbitrarily assigned class divides, abusing their temporary power over one another rather than seeking solidarity or inciting a prison-wide riot. It’s the same compromise most of us make every day in a rigged-to-exploit, Capitalist hierarchy: the need to comfortably survive another day outweighs the huge risks & efforts it would take to positively change the system forever. The way The Platform applies its titular metaphor to topics as wide-ranging as worker solidarity, the fallacy of “upward mobility,” and the cruel frivolity of fine dining in an age where people who cannot access it literally starve to death all serve to provoke the audience into active debate with its themes. Even the questions left by its constant worldbuilding (basically, what any aspect of society looks like outside the jail cells or the haute cuisine kitchen where the banquets are prepared) seem designed to provoke further discussion after the credits roll. Yes, the function of its central metaphor is brazenly Obvious, but the movie digs far enough into each logistic of its dystopian hierarchy that it keeps itself plenty busy after the rules of its world are initially established.

Luckily, heady ideas about economic inequality aren’t all that’s being offered on a platter here. The Platform is also committed to serving up horrific, stomach-turning violence in a full-on practical gore spectacle. The Platform pursues a “Eat or be eaten” cannibalism metaphor just as literally & extensively as it explores the logistics of its vertical food distribution contrivance. That way, your eyes are dazzled by traditional, gross-out genre payoffs in the forefront while your mind prods at the meaning & shortcomings of its Obvious political provocations in the background. This is an incredibly nasty slice of schlock with a deviously wicked sense of humor; it’s also a politically engaged provocation that’s obsessed with understanding & undermining the systemic power imbalances that keep us all stuck in place and at each other’s throats. It’s a perfect film to watch in these increasingly bizarre, dysfunctional helltimes where it seems like those very systems are crumbling before our eyes. It feels like there might be a chance that we’ll all soon break out of our own arbitrarily cruel rut and tear this prison down any day now – as long as we don’t eat each other alive before we achieve that solidarity.

-Brandon Ledet

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017)

I’m struggling fully getting on board with the macho genre throwbacks of S. Craig Zahler. I did enjoy his instantly infamous cannibal gross-out Bone Tomahawk, despite my general distaste for Westerns and the feeling that its participation in “Native savage” tropes is a little too easily excused. I guess on some level I also enjoyed his follow-up to that attention-grabbing debut, the violent prison film Brawl in Cell Block 99. The overdose of testosterone running through Zahler’s films is wearing me down, though, a feeling that’s only compounded by his work’s slow-to-act, self-serious tone that “elevates” schlocky concepts with extended runtimes & deliberately over-written dialogue. Zahler is very good at what he does: revitalizing long-dormant “trash” genres with a fresh sense of meticulous craft & feel-it-in-your-bones brutality. There’s just a large part of me that misses the versions of these pictures that were quick, goofy, and less steeped in unexamined machismo.

I’m usually not a fan of his “lovable asshole”/Tough Guy with a Heart of Coal routine, but Vince Vaughn is perfectly cast here as a broken macho man on the wrong side of the law (and economic hardship). Recently laid off and facing the early signs of a crumbling marriage, his overly muscled protagonist becomes a reluctant drug-runner for some sneering, racial & homophobic slur-slinging Bad Guys, a career path that obviously lands him in jail. Once inside the pen, eternally typecast creep Udo Kier threatens the safety of his pregnant wife unless he assassinates a man held at the Maximum Security population of Cell Block 99, a prison within the prison. Motivated by this wicked act of blackmail, our anti-hero descends into the lower levels of the prison, as if clearing obstacles in a video game, by violently attacking/physically dismantling the guards & fellow prisoners. He eventually finds his target, but also engineers a spectacular act of revenge on his blackmailers in the process, leaving many destroyed bodies of (literally & figuratively) faceless baddies in his wake.

This plot feels just as akin to an Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris cheapie from the 1980s (especially the part about the wife being held ransom as blackmail) as it does to the grindhouse prison movies Brawl in Cell Block 99 lovingly pays tribute to. The setup to the violent spectacle of the payoff takes much longer to develop, however, attempting to build a genuine emotional response out of its narrative those films never achieved. I’m not convinced Zahler achieved it either. I was on board for the film’s scraped-against-concrete, Saw-level torture device violence. However, outside being impressed by a stray turn of phrase, I was left completely cold by the emotional core of the story it told. This detachment was only made worse by its ugly, high-contrast digital photography and even uglier commitment to brute force masculinity. It’s not like the movie isn’t critical of Vaughn’s brutal machismo either. Early on, unchecked masculine rage is made to be monstrously grotesque, especially as he dismantles an entire car by hand out of romantic anger and benevolently lords over his tiny, shrinking domain. It only gets worse as he applies that same destructive masculine anger to human bodies, something the movie is well aware of. I just found the experience of dwelling in that headspace for over two hours to be exhausting & ultimately alienating, a similar feeling I had with Zahler’s previous film. Not everyone will have that experience, of course. Much like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a technically well-made picture and your patience for diving into the depths of destructive masculinity will determine much of your experience with it.

-Brandon Ledet

Rewind Moment: Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)

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Rewind Moments are those special scenes in films that deserve to revisited over & over again due to their overwhelming impact.

One of my all-time favorite documentaries is Nick Broomfield’s Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. Aileen Wuornos is known as a psychotic serial killer who murdered several johns while prostituting in Florida from 1989-1990, a life detailed in the 2003 biopic Monster. Broomfield used this documentary to shed some light on Wuornos’ unfortunate upbringing while giving her the opportunity to speak and share her own story. After watching the film in its entirety, it’s difficult to not feel some sort of attachment to Wuornos. Her bulging eyes will haunt you for days.

There are so many “rewind moments” in this unforgettable documentary, but my favorite is the shot where she pretty much begs for her execution. She’s so terrifying and unstable in this moment, but at the end, I just want to give her a huge high-five for saying something so badass. I swear, if she’d ever been released from prison, John Waters would’ve picked her up in a heartbeat to star in one of his films. She has that special kind of charm.

-Britnee Lombas