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Friday, April 20, 2007
A moment of stillness -- that's what "2:37" chooses for its opening shot, the camera pointed skyward, a canopy of green leaves framed against the gray sky beyond. It doesn't last long. Soon the camera moves earthward, and we enter an Australian high school where the calm is soon shattered when a student finds a pool of blood seeping from under a locked bathroom door.
Is it murder? Suicide? Worse? There are no clues as the film immediately leaps back in time to early morning of the same day. We're shown a number of teens as they prepare to head off to school. None of them seem right: Melody (Teresa Palmer) lies on the floor of her bedroom, weeping uncontrollably, while her brother Marcus (Frank Sweet) yells that they'll be late for school, seemingly undisturbed by her breakdown. Luke (Sam Harris), who we will soon learn is a rather full-of-himself jock and bully, yanks off to some Internet porn.
At the school we meet Stephen (Charles Baird), a four-eyed geek with bladder problems that make him the subject of cruel bullying by Luke and his fellow jocks. Ditto for Sean (Joel Mackenzie), an alienated gay stoner with an intensely negative attitude. "People are scared of dying," he says. "I'm not."
Check that comment because, as that trickle of blood under the door promises, "2:37" is a film about death. Yes, it's a high-school film, full of believably sketched high-school teens and the stuff that makes them crazy: eating disorders, who's sleeping with who, unwanted pregnancies, the intense pressure to conform, and the feeling that these miseries are all-consuming and endless. But what first-time director Murali K. Thalluri -- barely out of high school himself when he made this -- is getting at is the idea that death can seem a solution of sorts, when it's really nothing of the sort.
Hence the skyward shots through the canopy of maple leaves, a recurring motif throughout the film. It becomes less a poetic gesture -- the stillness of nature contrasted to the turmoil of the contemporary high-school experience -- and more a literal one: the urge to leave this world, to travel onward and upward, hoping that whatever comes next is better than the s*** down here.
And s*** it is. The bullying, the sheer cruelty and unconcern for others displayed by these teens is shocking, but hardly exceptional. The one girl who makes any attempt at empathy with her classmates, Kelly (Clementine Mellor), may as well be the Marquis de Sade's Justine, for in "2:37" no virtue goes unpunished.
Thalluri is a masterful filmmaker, withholding information about all his characters, so that ever so slowly, shockingly, we realize what they're really about, and there are quite a few shockers. Another device he uses effectively is the straight-to-camera "interviews" the teens give for a graduation project. Their comments -- about school, life, love, family -- are telling for what they unintentionally reveal.
"2:37" sucks you into the vortex of its mystery -- who did what to whom and why? But at a certain point its negativity becomes a bit overwhelming. Every character is either dysfunctional or the victim of someone who is. The feeling starts to grow that this might be just one more flick in a long line of indie miserabilism, where suburbia is nothing but neuroses and nihilism. Then comes a suicide, a scene shot in such graphic, gory detail, and at such extreme length, it feels absolutely pitiless in its invasion of such an abject, private act. This critic was ready to rip the tape out of the VCR when it became apparent Thalluri was going to show this slow death in its entirety. "Another Gaspar Noe," I thought, recalling "Irreversible" and it's real-time rape scene. "Shock for shock's sake."
But then, miraculously, Thalluri puts a coda on his film that makes you realize that, a) He is not some heartless post-Tarantino jaded case, but actually cares and wants us to care about his characters, and b) there's a reason he put us through this. It becomes clear that Thalluri isn't wallowing in misery, but asking us to transcend it. An amazing, heart-rending piece of cinema.
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"2:37" is titled "Ashita, Kimi ga Inai" in Japan.