Heartache is the gasoline and betrayal is the spark that ignites it in Bellflower, an apocalyptic powder-keg tale of love, treachery, and flamethrowers. Writer/director/editor/star Evan Glodell’s debut has the sweetness of a lullaby reverie and the blazing ferocity of a monster-car nightmare, a first-comes-elation, then-comes-madness structure that resembles that of Blue Valentine, another tale focused on the commencement, and then collapse, of an affair. Like Derek Cianfrance’s film, Glodell’s indie filters its material through music-video aesthetics and suffers from a disinterest in dramatizing the actual transition from bliss to misery. Nonetheless, there’s a high-octane heat and beauty to his somewhat structurally familiar story, which concerns insecure Woodrow (Glodell) and drunken-wild-man best friend Aiden (Tyler Dawson)—Wisconsin transplants now in California who cling gleefully to their Road Warrior-inspired childhood dreams of chaos and annihilation—and Woodrow’s blossoming amour with Milly (Jessie Wiseman), a blonde he meets during a bar’s cricket-eating contest, and whom he takes to Texas on a first-date whim. Theirs is an initially cute mismatched coupling, with her brash confidence juxtaposed with his sweater-vest preppie timidity, though from Woodrow’s fevered thoughts of Lord Humongous-inspired malevolence and murder, to his willfully provoking a fight—and taking a fist to the face—at a Southern dive bar, the seeds of future catastrophe seem to have already been sown.
Whereas Woodrow and Aiden’s desire to build a flamethrower and construct a barren wasteland-conquering hot rod known as Medusa—visions immortalized in notebook drawings—are clearly the byproducts of unresolved juvenile rage, Bellflower doesn’t quite sufficiently develop Milly, so that when she cautions Woodrow that any boyfriend-girlfriend arrangement will inevitably lead to unhappiness, it reeks of clichéd fictional stereotyping. Still, there’s real, engaging chemistry between Glodell and Wiseman in the way she toughens him up and he softens her, and Glodell’s visual schema—carried out via a homemade camera built by the director—lends the material a burnt-out beauty, full of ‘70s-era grindhouse scratch blemishes, blooming whites, nasty blacks, blinding sun flares, and overripe colors. When married to an editorial and sonic design that favors disorienting dampened audio and chronologically fractured storytelling, Glodell’s film takes on the quality of a heatstroke hallucination, simultaneously enchanting and malicious. That impression is set early, through an introductory montage that rewinds from terror to tranquility, and rarely wavers as Glodell then proceeds to play back his story at normal speed, and with enough ambiguous suggestions and timeline-tweaking shifts to further the overriding depiction of love as a feral beast that unmoors one’s self and the world, leaving logic, moderation and lucidity in its wake.
Regardless of foreshadowing, Bellflower feels consistently unpredictable, its rowdy romanticism constantly underscored by fantasies of death, most ominously when Woodrow, encouraged by Milly in a sign of mounting togetherness, trades in his car for a rusty motorcycle that better suits his end-of-the-world pastimes. Glodell’s use of slow motion—be it a charming close-up of Milly, or a smoke-billowing Medusa wickedly fishtailing—synthesizes the rousing, the reckless, and the ruinous with unsettling grace. If his jobless, aimless characters at first seem to exist in the same at-loose-ends layabout universe as mumblecorers, they nonetheless exhibit an agency—be it Woodrow and Aiden’s yearning to create weapons of mass destruction, or to find love while also maintaining their bedrock brotherly bond—that remains endearing, and affords the material with requisite emotional drive. Similarly, the film’s DIY ethos, embodied in everything from Woodrow and Aiden’s projects to Glodell’s own assembly of his cinematographic gear and Medusa itself, every so often treads into pleased-with-itself terrain, yet ultimately, it imparts a pervasive, stirring sense of the sweaty, nasty, dirty-fingernailed toil required by labors of love.
Bellflower‘s turning point from euphoria to insanity is its weak link, since it’s here that Glodell’s fondness for mood overwhelms his interest in plotting, with the director conveying the feelings that accompany this transition but not the internal motivations behind them. Deprived of nuance, Milly’s sudden change of heart thus plays like a device, and at least temporarily renders Glodell’s more music video-ish proclivities—particularly wordless sequences set to Jonathan Keevil’s rending country ballads—slightly glib. Nonetheless, the film’s subsequent devolution into cataclysmic psychosis sears with such intensity that the thinness of Woodrow’s bounce-back relationship with Milly’s friend Courtney (Rebekah Brandes)—at one point spied in bed with Woodrow, the flamethrower tellingly hovering in the background above—and implausibility of Milly’s vengeful actions, come to reflect the bewildering psychosis wrought by love’s end. That lunacy reaches its apotheosis during Bellflower‘s no-going-back finale, which blends the past and the present, the real and the imagined, to express the bloody fallout from reveling in anguished dreams of devastation. Throughout, Glodell calls out to Martin Scorsese (via a Goodfellas-ish tracking shot) and John Carpenter (with a late synth-music track), while developing a grungy, gnarly style to call his own. Crazy and careening, bold and blistering, it’s a work that doesn’t need to fake being badass.