"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." Kurt Vonnegut claimed that this was the moral of his novel Mother Night. As it happens, he was specifically referring to Nazis -- the hero of that short book was an American-born resident of Germany who becomes a radio propagandist for the Third Reich but who also peppers his broadcasts with secret coded messages for the Allies. He's later told that this covert good was far outweighed by the overt evil of his pernicious agitprop -- that whether he was loyal or not, he was a Nazi.
The hero of writer/director Randolph Kret's brutal Sundance Slamdance selection, Pariah, pretends to be a Nazi, too, and is in danger of really becoming one. Steve (Damon Jones) is a young white man whose black girlfriend is raped in a parking garage by a gang of Los Angeles skinheads. Steve is made to watch this atrocity, as are we. Later that night the woman takes her own life.
Months later, Steve, now buffed up and in full skinhead regalia, begins the difficult process of infiltrating the gang in order to exact his revenge. To win the trust of the members, he has to go far enough inside the lifestyle to inflict some harm.
Pariah, which Kret claims was inspired by actual crimes committed against his brother's girlfriend and against the gay brother of producer Shaun Hill, is a well-made melodrama with a down-and-dirty exploitation effectiveness, particularly in the horrifying first half. The acting lacks modulation, but there's no disputing the commitment of the young cast, who spend almost every minute of their screen time in a slavering, hysterical frenzy. Kret's compositional eye and sense of rhythm are impressive, and though scene after scene recalls other films -- A Clockwork Orange, Romper Stomper, Boyz N the Hood, GoodFellas -- the blend of influences is seamless and scary.
Kret's film is a far more assured piece of cinema than the higher-profile American History X, though it doesn't have the subtlety of character offered by that (much more crudely made) film through Edward Norton's performance as the young skinhead protagonist. Norton chilled us by letting us see the intelligence, even sensitivity, in which racism had nonetheless been able to take root. In Pariah, the skinheads are shown simply as brawling, moronic animals, which is pretty much what we already thought.
This has the unfortunate potential to be comforting to middle-class liberals who may suspect that only white trash are susceptible to such pathology, and the still more unfortunate potential to be glamorous to middle-class white boys, who could find these gangbangers easier to emulate than the black "gangstas" of the Menace 2 Society genre. Pariah closes with the disclaimer that "no one connected to this film supports racism of any kind." It's disturbingly clear why the filmmakers felt the need to attach such a statement.
These concerns are, so to speak, outside the film itself. Strictly on aesthetic merits, Pariah has an undeniable punch, although the constant brawling and yammering grow repetitive as the film wears on. After a while, you wonder what Steve is waiting for; the reprisal attack on the gang by a bunch of gay men they've victimized earlier seems like a much simpler, more straightforward approach to revenge than that of the dilatory hero.
Opens Oct. 15 at the Tivoli.