“If the guy I was then met the guy I am now, he’d beat the shit out of me.”
“SLC Punk!” is a strange amalgamation of elements that seem to be operating at cross-purposes. It has passages reminiscent of John Hughes, “Sid and Nancy,” and Tarantino, a tone that convincingly encompasses dramatic shifts in temperament and energy, and a disjointed narrative structure that is much more idiosyncratic in its presentation than its actual sequence of events.
Directed by James Merendino–a man who all but disappeared into the abyss of low-budget horror filmmaking–”SLC” tells the story of Stevo and Heroin Bob, two punks and recent college graduates living in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1985. Stevo is the blue-haired son of a Harvard educated lawyer and aging hippie mother whose ambitions lie in wreaking low scale havoc and dismantling…well, everything.
As Stevo, Matthew Lillard puts in a performance as surprising as Adam Sandler’s turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love.” There’s a huge energy expenditure on display in his work that is hard to ignore but relatively easy to misunderstand. He emotes so openly and effortlessly that it’s easy to perceive it as hammy, but the way he reigns it all in with subtle characterizations and a conspicuous emotional sincerity is riveting. His narration serves as valuable character insight as well as the only strand of cohesion throughout the entire picture. Without it, we’d be faced with undefined vignettes and chaotic, episodic tangents relaying style and technique but little else.
Opposite Lillard’s Stevo is Michael Goorjian’s Heroin Bob. He’s a nervous wreck of a young punk and our introduction to his character contains self-mutilation (he punches out a mirror and doesn’t attend to the wound he sustained until he passes out in a convenience store) and spastically framed warnings about the dangers of psychedelics. As Stevo points out, Bob neither uses illegal drugs nor welcomes needles in any context, and his ironic nickname turns out more than bittersweet by the film’s closure.
The assortment of characters the two encounter throughout the film is something of a frenzied sub-culture freak show. It’s especially interesting to see a young, pre-”Freaks and Geeks” Jason Segel playing an 18-year-old punk with a bookworm aesthetic and the physical prowess necessary to beat the living crap out of a particularly aggressive band’s bouncer. Seeing a young, post-”Casper,” pre-”Final Destination” Devon Sawa is equally interesting along those same lines.
One thing about the movie that is rather indisputably on point is the soundtrack. The films that achieve this kind of topically relevant, emotionally stimulating, aurally satisfying convergence of sights and sounds are rare indeed. The Exploited’s “Sex and Violence” is perfectly situated during the opening credits and, quite frankly, gives us an insight into two huge aspects of the world we’re about to enter.
The sub-culture the characters embody and the forms of self-expression they embrace are demonstrated in a way that caught me off guard when I saw the film for the first time. For one, LSD was something I never envisioned as being part of the 1980s punk rock era, and Stevo’s adherence to a strangely constructed version of anarchy as a political philosophy literally predicated upon chaos still strikes me as odd. It’s certainly not the social vision Bakhunin had in mind, but that is, I suppose, neither here nor there.
The film is bold and unabashed in its excess and some of it comes across as downright pretentious. But much like the performances, the sincerity pushing it forward makes all the melodramatic setpieces seem like natural outgrowths of the world they’re being depicted within.
Not only is Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the early stages of its final act, but the characters are operating in the Mormon-run city of Salt Lake City, Utah, a religiously oppressive beacon for the Scientology of Christianity. What this locale offers is the remarkable contrast between the desolate, wintry metropolitan feel of the city and the haunting mountainous woodland surrounding it.
What the film winds up saying about punk music is pretty minimal (apart from a wonderful monologue from its hero about the silliness of debating its origins), but what it has to say about the people who not only listened to it but also incorporated it into their lives is immense. The picture it paints isn’t some homogenized, generic branding of “punk” as a musical style rife with arbitrary incomprehensibility and a lifestyle rife with arbitrary hostility.
The people are real, electric, passionate individuals and their mood swings reflect larger vacillations taking place in the broader arena with the rest of the population. Stylishly realized in its grungy glory, the only crime of “SLC Punk!” is that it leaves little room for competitive viewing. Even its conclusion with Stevo sitting on a park bench sits fine with me (with Generation X’s “Kiss Me Deadly” as its concluding song, how could it not?). If I were watching it with a mohawk and studded belt, however, I can see where it might be slightly disheartening.