Pawn Shop Chronicles is comprised of a trio of interconnected shorts that appear to have been inspired by the pivotal scene in Pulp Fiction where Bruce Willis’s Butch and Ving Rhames’s Marsellus stumble into a pawn shop and suddenly find themselves trapped in a horror film. Director Quentin Tarantino has built his career on such tonally jarring transitions, of course, and with Pawn Shop Chronicles, screenwriter Adam Minarovich has let himself run wild in attempting to up the ante on the number of genre switcheroos that an audience will accept in any random 10 minutes of a film’s running time. At times, the film resembles an extremely broad and violent episode of My Name Is Earl, only to offer, in other instances, poetic and suggestively transgressive imagery that faintly recalls Alejandro Jodorowsky and Álex de la Iglesia’s films.
Minarovich and director Wayne Kramer seize on the sinister pall that hangs over pawn shops, which obviously profit from others’ desperation, and spin a dark comedy of broken American dreams that follows a day in the life of a pawn shop owner (Vincent D’Onofrio) as he inadvertently ruins all of his customers’ lives. The first story, which features an unusually game Paul Walker as a meth head who meets a flamboyant end, is the least interesting on paper, but Kramer enlivens the proceedings with purposefully showy aesthetics that invest the tiniest of gestures with a gonzo energy that’s reminiscent of a Tex Avery cartoon.
The remaining tales, however, have a sick-joke grandeur that suggests what might have happened if O. Henry had ever written for EC Comics. The second story is a perverse wowzer that follows a recently married man (Matt Dillon) as he stumbles upon the truth of his first wife’s disappearance, which sends him on a surreal journey that eventually leads to the home of a very disturbed individual played by Elijah Wood. The ending, which parodies the suggestion of ownership that’s latent in the classic marriage arrangement, has unexpected bite.
The final story has an awkward opening that’s marred by Brendan Fraser’s unfunny mugging as an Elvis impersonator, but it builds to a commendably bizarre climax that features an army of recently liberated sex slaves marching into a country fair to a rendition of “Amazing Grace” as their naked bodies are wrapped in American flags. These images are so loaded you can probably locate whatever subtext corresponds to your ideology, but Pawn Shop Chronicles is probably best understood as a self-dare on the part of the filmmakers, who revel in the freedom that a limited theatrical release presumably allows. Kramer thankfully refuses to cloak his excessiveness in hedge-betting self-consciousness and the result is a gratifyingly disreputable B-movie blow out.