Sundance review: Gregg Araki's 'Kaboom' hits Park City and home screens simultaneously
The first image of Gregg Araki's latest film, "Kaboom," announces itself as a Gregg Araki movie instantly. A naked Thomas Dekker walks down a hallway blown out and overlit, locked in a dream about something ominous. Considering the way Araki seemed to grow away from some of his stylistic signatures with his last couple of films, "Mysterious Skin" and "Smiley Face," this almost feels like a retreat of sorts.
Almost. The thing is, as much as the film is visually a Gregg Araki film of the old school, there is a near-optimism that has started to creep in at the edges of his work, and that clearly distinguishes this from earlier works like "The Doom Generation" and "Totally F***ed Up," movies that defined Araki as one of the most willfully provocative voices in indie queer cinema. His signature sexual omnivorousness is on full display here in the form of Dekker's character, Smith, who considers himself "undeclared," and at first, this appears to be a film about a young man following his dick from partner to partner, unsure about what or who he wants, and the young cast is more than game for whatever Araki throws at them. Dekker is joined by Juno Temple, Haley Bennett, Brennan Mejia, and Chris Zylka, among others, all of them happy to get naked at the drop of a hat. And if this was just a 21st-century round-robin of evolving sexual politics, that would be enough to justify Araki's return to his earlier thematic concerns.
There's a SF/horror element to the film, though, and that's where the nihilistic Araki viewpoint creeps in. Men in animal masks, cults, murder, psychic powers, witchcraft, and the end of the world are just a few of the ingredients in the mix here, and it's interesting how close Araki comes to making it all work as a coherent whole. In the end, the film is basically about a middle-finger punchline rather than paying off any of the various threads that Araki introduces in the film, and that's a shame. I don't mind if a filmmaker wants to game me as an audience member, but I do mind when it feels like an easy way out of painting yourself into a narrative corner. Araki's scripts have always felt like loose collections of his personal preoccupations at the time of each film being made, but it's not unreasonable to expect that he would get stronger over time. I'd argue that "Mysterious Skin" proves he can be a more disciplined filmmaker than this, and seeing him take a shortcut just for a cheap laugh makes me regret spending my 90 minutes with him.
Even so, if you know Araki's work and you like it, there is material here worth seeing. It's also nice to see Araki's muse, Jimmy Duval, show up in a supporting role as The Messiah. "Kaboom" is not an unpleasant way to pass time, but like Smith as a character, the film is undecided about what it's doing. The film is one of several titles that will be available on VOD as part of the Sundance Selects. It will premiere at Sundance on January 21st, and you'll be able to see it at home at the exact same time, and after it's VOD run, it will be getting a platformed theatrical release starting January 28th in New York.
We'll have more looks at titles from the Sundance Select series as we get ready to head out to Park City late Wednesday night.