Ex Drummer is one of those dark-side pictures where a privileged innocent is drawn into a pitiless subterranean world that forever changes his own. The (comparative) innocent is Dries (Dries Van Hegen), a successful writer who is approached by a trio of handicapped misfits about joining their band. The picture, set in the outskirts of the Belgian city of Ostend, primes us for one of those movies where a group of lawless savages tests the spiritually fat, glib artist’s mettle. The band insists that Dries, who is surprisingly hip to their proposal, have some kind of handicap of his own to go along with theirs (which include deafness, psychosis, and mommy issues), and so the writer obliges by lying, telling them that he can’t play the drums, which is, of course, the occupancy they’re aiming to fill.
We expect the writer’s lie to be discovered, and for his condescension and entitlement to be gruesomely punished in the last act. The joke, and it’s a promising one, is that Dries is more calculating and dangerous than the band or any of their hangers-on; which means that Ex Drummer, which is prominently likened to punk music on its DVD cover, is a parable of the inequality of the classes: the wealthy staying wealthy, occasionally reveling in the slums as they deem fit, the lower classes trapped to stew in their limitations and misery.
The film could work as a sick stunt, but writer-director Koen Mortier largely plays the scenario straight, reveling in punk’s self-pity without the playfulness or energy, which leaves us with just another unpleasant picture with awful people doing awful things to one another, in the service of empty shock. Another blurb calls Ex Drummer a sicker, funnier Trainspotting, and it’s too apparent that Mortier is (desperately) after that kind of tonally contradictory sensory rush. Competing with Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese, among others, Mortier consistently overplays the material, pummeling clichés with laughably elaborate visual flourishes, none of which are original anyway (you can play spot-the-reference).
Surprisingly, the actors register, particularly Dries, who is meant, at first anyway, as the illusory normalcy that holds the various other grotesqueries together. Dries is the one part of the film that isn’t shoved down your throat: You can see him sizing things up just as you can see that he’s got his beautiful lover back home snowed. Because of Dries, there is one moment that lands its intended blow, which involves him setting a casual three-way partner up to meet one of the periphery psychotics. The aftermath is every bit as stupid as all the other feel-bad anecdotes, but Dries’s apathy, and contempt, as he throws his lover’s friend to the wolves is the stuff of legitimate nightmares. This guy could be interesting in a real movie.
The image is fuzzy and harshly lit, the sound jarringly loud and uneven, which is ideal for an over-directed movie about an aspiring metal band. The disc ideally represents the picture's admittedly convincing atmosphere of squalor.
The Palisades Tartan releases seem to be following an appealingly honest strategy of providing extras that actually show you the filmmakers making the movie in question, as opposed to the usual hype and fluff. "The Making of Ex Drummer" opens with Koen Mortier speaking to the camera, telling us of his problems finding money for Ex Drummer, which financiers find pointlessly cruel and explicit (hate to break it to him, but…). We see Mortier's hair change as he updates us on his funding battles over the course of a few years, and we share his excitement at finding French money to back the picture. This is a succinct, blunt little encapsulation of a struggling filmmaker's common problems. Mortier comes off a little delusional (he praises himself, and, yes, name-checks Scorsese), but he and the crew are a largely appealing bunch in a strangely endearing doc. The trailers and music videos aren't particularly noteworthy.
One of those intentionally divisive pictures with which you probably already know your reaction.