At least in so far as its importance can be measured by the extent of its influence, the most important feature film of the 2000s may prove to be Memento, Christopher Nolan’s high-concept procedural and a favorite of budding young cinephiles everywhere. An independent effort boasting neither the budgetary or technological scope of Nolan’s vastly more popular Batman reboot and sequel, Memento, along with Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, has the appealing advantage of being both formally distinctive and inexpensively produced; as a result it’s been mimicked in style and tone ceaselessly. Much like Pulp Fiction did for art-house action flicks in the early ’90s, Memento provided new aspiring filmmakers with a simple, cogent blueprint for creating their own “edgy” dramatic thriller, one which requires little more than a novel framing device, an unexpected narrative twist, and an eye for unconventional compositions and editing; you don’t even need something thoughtful to say. Welcome to the last 11 years of misguided independent filmmaking, and welcome to Zack Parker’s Scalene.
More concerned with the novelty of its three-act, “three-perspective” structure than with how that structure actually functions (hint: poorly), Scalene epitomizes the pitfalls of the Memento-copping trend, its strained conceptual ingenuity an exercise in aid of nothing. Described as a “perceptual thriller,” Scalene’s defining gimmick is that its story—the deliberately objectionable tale of a mother’s revenge on the caretaker who accused her mentally handicapped son of rape—is relayed to us from the perspective of each of its three primary characters, each of whom reveal a slightly different, and naturally self-sympathetic, version of the events. Shuffling the chronology to maximize intrigue, Scalene gradually builds to a reveal more problematic than provocative, one with implications I suspect (and sort of hope) weren’t really thought through.
The point of the mystery and the structural contortions that get us there, I guess, is that the truth is always inflected by the person perceiving it. In theory, this is a perfectly compelling thesis. A Separation advanced a similar argument about truth and justice last year to great effect, but where Asghar Farhadi’s film sought to complicate matters of class and privilege by “retelling” an incident of violence from opposing perspectives, Scalene instead highlights the subjectivity of truth in order to discredit a rape accusation, which I’m pretty sure is the last thing we need to expose as a site of deception. Does Parker not realize that rape claims are already treated as inherently suspect, or that an inordinate number of people just assume that women are lying? That the film bends over backward to impress us with its superficial stylistic flourishes—needlessly colorful title cards, exaggerated camera movements, hokey POV shots—suggests that Scalene, though made badly, was at least labored over, the product of much time and effort. But what it ultimately says, intentional or not, is utterly thoughtless.