A word of warning before you read any further: The Rules of Attraction is an uncompromisingly ugly, unflattering, unsympathetic, unlikable portrait of a nightmarish collection of characters in an equally nightmarish world. To get an “R” rating, writer-director Roger Avary cut nine minutes from the original 110 minutes, and even its 101 minute version ranks as a hard “R.” It’s pretty strong stuff, and it’s not a movie for everyone.
While watching it I wasn’t sure if it was a movie for anyone. But I found myself fascinated and held in a way that few films of recent years have even come to close to. Ultimately, I found it to be one of the most deeply disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, but not disturbing in a bad way. Many critics are villifying The Rules of Attraction as a shallow, pointless film about shallow characters, written and filmed in a too-hip- for-its-own-good style. I think that misses the point. At bottom, I think it’s a film about the tragedy of a group of people who would like to be something other than shallow and pointless, but don’t have a clue how to go about it. As a result, they fixate on trying to connect with each other, or rather they fixate on trying to connect with their ideas of each other. These characters are doomed to forever chase after ill- defined phantoms of their own imaginings, never connecting with anyone or even with themselves. Writer-director Roger Avary hasn’t so much filmed Brett Easton Ellis’ novel as he has filmed a critique of it and its empty hipness. At the same time, The Rules of Attraction offers an antidotal comment on such truly shallow films about college life as American Pie 2 and Van Wilder, stripping away the veneer of fraudulent cuteness and laying bare the sexual desperation and yearning for something more that those films don’t even recognize as existing. The truth is that James Van Der Beek’s Sean Bateman is Van Wilder with all the bogus charm removed. It may go too far, since it offers no middle ground. But that doesn’t invalidate it. It simply means that that middle ground isn’t the focus of this film. Working in a stylized, layered, and utterly conscious manner, Avary plunges us into the nightmarish world these characters inhabit. It’s not realistic. It’s not meant to be. We are inhabiting the world as it’s perceived by the characters. It’s a daring, uncomfortable approach that’s bound to alienate a lot of viewers. The story is fairly simple: After spending all his college years indulging himself in an endless parade of sex and drugs, Sean Bateman (Van Der Beek) finds he wants something more out of life. His interest is piqued by a series of letters that are showing up in his mailbox — letters from someone who seems different from the nameless sex objects he’s used to. He becomes convinced that the letters were sent to him by Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossamon), an emotionally unconnected girl, who is saving herself for her supposed boyfriend, Victor (Kip Pardue), who’s away in Europe. However, while he fixates on her, the acerbic Paul Denton (Ian Somerhalder) becomes fixated on Sean. Everyone is looking for some kind of validation in other people — but the other people don’t actually exist. The film brims with invention and bizarre characters. Some of it is very bitterly funny. An encounter with a deranged ER physician (an unbilled Paul Williams) who keeps insisting that a very much alive patient is dead (“It’s toe-tag time in Teen Town tonight again!”) is both priceless and strange. The extended sequence involving Paul, an ex- boyfriend (a deliriously manic performance by Russell Sams), and their boozey, pill-popping mothers (Faye Dunaway and Swoozie Kurtz) is hysterically funny. The film also has moments of shattering intensity, including the unflinching depiction of the suicide of a nameless girl set to Harry Nilsson’s version of the Badfinger song “Without You” (something that takes on extra resonance when you realize that the song’s writers, Pete Ham and Tom Evans, both committed suicide). The upshot is also a slap in the face for us as we are made to realize that this girl has been seen throughout the film, and we, just like the shallow characters in the movie, have never even noticed her. It’s a daunting, often painful film — all the more so because no one in it wants to admit the existence of his or her pain. Avary’s command of film and his frame of reference is amazing. There are numerous echoes of Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange and The Shining) and a deliberate evocation of the final shot of Vivien Pickles in Ken Russell’s Isadora when Sean feigns suicide.
If you undertake this movie (be quick; it won’t be around long), don’t judge it as it goes along. That won’t work. It’s a film that demands to be seen its entirety before its impact can be felt. Sad, shattering, and unpleasant, it’s too vital a work to be ignored.