[Review] 'Bliss' doesn't miss
Where does inspiration come from and what will people do to keep it? This is the question that lies at the heart of the psychological horror film Bliss. The latest film from writer/director Joe Begos (Almost Human, The Mind's Eye) is a surprisingly deep horror film that takes some tired horror tropes and reshapes them into a supercharged exploration of passion, creativity, and loss of self… all told with plenty of gore and violence...
...Bliss follows Dezzy, an artist who is struggling to complete her latest painting while dealing with money issues, a lame boy toy, and enjoying her addictions. The film quite literally trails Dezzy as she is in every scene and often the focus of shots. Dora Madison's (Dexter) performance as Dezzy is gleefully profane and lewd. Dezzy is selfish and happily irredeemable; she lies to her friends, agent, and landlord without thought or remorse. She's also loud, angry, and violent. While viewers won't necessarily like Dezzy or feel compassion for her, they will be compelled to watch her and follow her quick decline into depravity and madness. The film manages to unintentionally ask the question, what if we didn't like the protagonist who turns from an asshole to a killer? The answer is that the film becomes surprisingly much more interesting.
The first half of the film is a slow burn that principally focuses on Dezzy's creative block and the negative effect that it has on her life. It wouldn't be accurate to say that Dezzy "suffers" from her block. She mostly ignores it and revels in distractions like sex, drugs, alcohol, and more drugs. One of the substances that she ingests is the potent drug, Bliss. Bliss knocks her out, causing her to lose several hours of her life and her memory to the drug. Initially, Dezzy's lost weekend of hedonism is off putting--it comes across as a meandering diversion from the plot and unnecessarily lurid. Many scenes smack of cheap thrills aimed at spicing up what is a deep character study.
Along the course of Dezzy's precipitous fall into drugs and degeneracy, she ingests something that causes her to have violent visions and a thirst for blood. Are the things Dezzy sees mere hallucination or are they actually happening? Is it all just the bliss or has she been infected with something much worse? It ends up not really mattering to Dezzy as she is now able to paint her masterpiece. At this point in the film we are given the structure that the movie follows for act two. Dezzy does drugs, we get a frenetic montage showing what drugs feel like, Dezzy sees something violent, Dezzy wakes on her bathroom floor, Dezzy paints, repeat. This structure could be tiresome but it's actually at this point that the film really picks up speed and starts to be exciting. While the cinematography is simple and without surprises, Dora Madison's intriguing performance pairs with the editing perfectly to drive the film through the second act.
As the gore factor increases and we begin to understand exactly what is happening to Dezzy, the film emphasizes the theme of inspiration's source and its cost. It is in this element that the film shines brightest. As Dezzy's artwork comes closer to its completion, the emotional toll on her becomes greater. While the cause of her inspiration is somewhat obscured for the first half of the film, the cost is abundantly apparent. She loses her friends, her livelihood, and her sense of self. Dezzy proclaims that she would rather finish her painting and die than not finish and live. It's sort of a reverse Picture of Dorian Gray situation.
When it is finally revealed to the viewer what is Driving Dezzy to paint, the source is less important than one might expect it to be. The reveal is an interesting enough twist on a classic horror trope and plenty gory, even if the audience is likely ahead of the movie at this point. The twist could have been better executed possibly but the film is about more than just supernatural horrors, it is about art.
Dezzy's artwork is a central part of the film and possibly more important than Dezzy herself (the character certainly would think so). The work comes together incrementally and enough people tell us that it looks good for us to believe them. Your average viewer (myself included) can't properly speak to its quality or if it is worth losing her mind. But it is an interesting piece of fine art. The imagery that Dezzy incorporates into her artwork is a bit on the nose but massively effective at conveying her mental state. Dezzy's artistic imagery being obvious is a cheap price to pay for thematic cohesion.
For Bliss's positive qualities and creative triumphs, the film does stumble in the final act. With all of the film's questions answered and mysteries revealed Begos relies on the film becoming some kind of a splatterfest to keep our attention. The characters that show up and what happens to them is alternatingly confusing, surprising, and bloody fun. Tonally, the film is a bit of a mess in these last few minutes. But the payoff of the film's final image ultimately wins the audience over and leaves us satisfied with the conclusion.
With Bliss, Begos shows himself to be a strong filmmaker who thrives in the independent and low-budget field. And for those who want to see more from Begos, I'm happy to say that Bliss is only one of his films that is slated for release in 2019. His other film, VFW is completed but has not yet screened. In the meantime, we have this film to watch, enjoy, and talk over.
Bliss spills onto VOD September 27th from Dark Sky Films.
By Mark Gonzales
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