Those not paying attention might not know the name Joe Begos but with two next-to-perfect features in 2019, that is about change…
…On the heels of Bego's latest film, Bliss, comes VFW, having screened at the Salem Horror Festival this past weekend, a tale of a society falling apart under crippling depression and addiction that is only worsened by a drug abuse epidemic.
The premise naturally feels very close to home; the need for escape through drugs by the masses, the drugs being controlled by a small group who hold the power over the addicts because they are the supplier. Sadly this reality is nothing new to the world. However, in the world of VFW, punks are in power, living in an old run down theater. The leader is ruthless and within seconds of his introduction, kills one of “his” people for what seems to be for kicks. After the victim plummets to her death, her sister discovers her now lifeless body, impulsively decides to steal the stash and run for her life. This decision unleashes a slew of, for lack of a better phrase, "drugged out mutants," who will kill anyone and anything in their way.
While this story is not new, its execution sets it apart from the rest of the herd. VFW is genre filmmaking at its finest. VFW is an over-the top stylized film. It feels and looks like a drug-induced fever dream. Steve Moore’s brilliant score adds to this in the best way; enhancing moments of insanity, and understating moments of tenderness. Moore is one of the best composers in the genre. His score is matched perfectly by the images that Begos presents. A marriage of film and sound in the best way.
Now one might be wondering; why is the film called VFW? Well, right across the street from the abandoned theater is a Veterans of Foreign War Hall. This is where we find our protagonists doing what they do best: drinking and remembering a world that often seems to have forgotten their service.
The beginning of the film has a few slow character building moments that endear you to these veterans. While there are a lot of clichéd characteristic traits on display here, Bego’s lens keeps even the most tiresome moments fresh, relevant, and awe inspiring.
Once the sister shows up in the VFW hall, all character building is gone and replaced by gore and violence; yet we are rooting for these characters we've come to know as a group of former soldiers fighting a war they never ever imagined they would have to fight.
A lot is referenced about the VFW being a home to these soldiers who spent so much time across the world fighting in wars, it's the one place where they feel they can make sense of the world as it seems to crumble around them. So it makes sense that these characters will fight like hell to preserve their haven.
The film is superbly acted by its cast. The veterans get a lot of time to steal the show. Watching these actors chew up the scenery and act in a heavy action movie is a treat for the viewer. Stephen Lang stars as Fred, the bartender of the VFW who seems to be the big brother of all the other veterans. Lang is well-versed in military roles but here he excels in understated ways as the reserved but caring lead. Other legendary character actors fill out the ranks of the veterans. George Wendt and David Patrick Kelly were two surprises of the cast, used early on as the comedic element juxtaposed with the dour and over-serious former soldiers. Most of the mutants don’t get a ton of time to shine outside of the action. Yet, the main antagonist (played by Travis Hammer) is perfectly cast as the narcissistic and vile villain. One disappointment is the underutilization of Sierra McCormick (playing Lizard) who shines in every scene she is given. Granted with how much gleeful mayhem ensues not every character is going to be given their due screen time.
VFW is a hell of a film, and a hell of a good time.
By Justin Drabek