‘Gummo’ is a film masterpiece


Graphic by Julianne Cruz

“Gummo” was written and directed by Harmony Korine, and released in 1997.

Naomi Scissors, Arts Columnist

I want to start this review by noting thatGummo” is rated R for pervasive depiction of anti-social behavior of juveniles, including violence, substance abuse, sexuality and language. Director Harmony Korine, who wrote the screenplay for Larry Clark’s explosively controversial “Kids” at age 19 (viewer discretion is strongly advised), made his directorial debut with “Gummo” in 1997, two years after Kids premiered. The New York Times called it “the worst film of the year.” CNN called it “proof that kids should not play with cameras.” The Chicago Tribune called it an “unwatchable, pretentious freak show.” Meanwhile, YouTube user ‘chris macri’ commented “greatest movie of all time” with a trophy emoji. If nothing else, it is a divisive film. 

 In regards to plot, “Gummo” could be called a postmodern exploration of the medium which cuts together standalone scenes to create a rich visual tapestry far beyond the reach of standard slice-of-life films. It could also be called woefully lacking. “Plot disgusts me. Real life doesn’t have plots,” Korine told The Guardian Weekend in 1999. This is the kind of statement Korine enjoys making, and the whole film is shot in this reaction-seeking manner. The movie doesn’t aim to tell a story, rather images are presented for their visual merit alone. Perhaps the most recognizable images to emerge from the film are that of bunny boy, a shirtless boy in a pink bunny-eared hat played by Jacob Sewell, hunched on a littered overpass, and that of Reynolds eating dinner in a filthy bathtub with a piece of bacon taped on the bathroom wall behind him. “When I was making ‘Gummo’ I was really obsessed with bacon,” Korine explained to Vice’s i-D magazine in 2017, “…like, bacon was my aesthetic.” A revelation that will perhaps disappoint viewers: there is no meaning to the bacon on the wall or the pink ears on bunny boy’s hat. They just look cool. 

The setting is Xenia, Ohio, a real town struck by a tornado in 1974, but it was shot in Korine’s hometown on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. The film’s only true plot point, the aforementioned tornado, happens before the opening scene. The only other discernible storyline involves three sisters, one of whom is conspicuously played by Chloe Sevigny, who go around town in search of their lost cat. The rest of the film’s one-and-a-half hour runtime is spent following neighborhood boys Solomon, played by Jacob Reynolds, and Tummler, played by Nick Sutton, as they ride their bikes around Xenia. Both were rookie actors, the latter of whom was discovered by Korine on a TV special in which he was interviewed as a survivor of paint sniffing. Out of forty speaking parts in the film, only four are played by established actors, the most notable one being Linda Manz of “Days of Heaven” who plays Solomon’s widowed mother. The rest are old friends of Korine or residents of Nashville that he approached on the street and asked to appear.

In “Gummo,” poverty is not vague or undefined, a tragic but non-threatening concept that exists only in far-away lands. Poverty is real and prevalent across the same America where bejeweled stars walk red carpets in Hollywood and nepotism babies play artist in New York penthouses. It is not only depressing and demoralizing, it is boring. Mind-numbingly so. When you are grief-stricken and hopeless and bored, there are many things you will do to distract yourself that you otherwise would not do. Critics may argue against the often senseless violence depicted in “Gummo,” but the reality is that many of the character’s actions in the film are based on real events happening in the area during production, and many of the scenes feature non-actors improvising off of minimal prompting by Korine. It is incredibly unfortunate, infuriating may be more apt, that these scenes are so often dismissed with terms like “freak show.”

“Gummo” is experimental. It is avant-garde. It is genre-defining. It is industry-changing. It is genius. It is the greatest film of all time. Sadly, it is currently unavailable for streaming. If you wish to watch it legally (piracy is not a victimless crime!), ask me when you see me and I will lend you the DVD I got from Walmart. Seriously.