Below Radar: The Informers – Love and Death in the Digital City

Posted on 06 May 2009 by HansKlopek

Howdy all. Hans here with more Below Radar whacked out-ness. This week I tackle a movie that just hit theaters but I am willing to bet few of you have seen playing at your local multiplex. It is Hollywood’s latest foray into the drugged-out emotional wasteland of Bret Easton Ellis, The Informers. I went into this movie really expecting to not like it. I’m an Ellis fan, and of the books of his that I have read The Informers is probably the weakest. While American Psycho, The Rules of Attraction, and even Less Than Zero found some humor in the hopelessly meandering lives of their over-privileged characters, The Informers seemed content to sit in the melancholy, unwilling to step outside it and satirize.

the-informers-posterThe book is basically a series of vignettes told from the points of view of many characters–it is kind of Ellis’s version of Magnolia in book form. Each of the characters move, more or less, in the same circles of sex and substance abuse and have the same pall of hopelessness hanging over their lives. Aesthetically perfect and materially advanced, these characters move from bed to bed, needle to needle, solution to solution, trying to escape the hangover of loneliness that awaits them.

This is all pretty standard stuff for Ellis, who has built a reputation as the poet of pretty, over-privileged, self-destructive characters. But The Informers was a tougher Ellis book to read because of its multiple perspectives, with every story moving toward the same sorrowful end. There is little or no humor to be found in this book. Just the painful reality of beautiful people pissing their lives away in meaningless relationships and hopeless drug addiction.

I was very surprised when I found out that a movie was being made from the material. It is just so bleak that it makes it hard to imagine anyone wanting to watch it. It’s not surprising that it was made as an independent film with a few big names and a relatively unknown director, Gregor Jordan, at the helm. Ellis co-wrote the screenplay and served as executive producer on the film, something he has never done before, perhaps hoping to create a clearer vision of his L.A. than another screenwriter would be capable of.

I don’t know if Ellis’s enhanced involvement made that much of a difference–the film we get is just as bruising and painful as the book on which it is based. There is no hope in this world and there isn’t a lot of reflection about this lack of hope. Does this make the movie hard to watch? Hell yeah. Does it make it bad? Absolutely not.

Surprisingly, The Informers is actually a great film. Hard on the eyes, yes, but full of great acting, skillfull direction, and an empathy that actually makes you feel for characters whom you might otherwise despise. I was awestruck by how powerful the film ultimately was, and delighted that Jordan and Ellis were able to make a good movie without deviating from the hopeless tone of the book one iota.

The film is set in the L.A. of 1983, when AIDS was hardly a blip on the radar and excess was the name of the game. Wethe-informers-cover-shot1 begin with a young man being hit by a car outside of a coke party. One of his friends, the blond, buff Graham (Jon Foster), runs out to help. The friend reaches a hand to Graham’s face and touches blood to his cheek as he expires. Blood to the face will be a recurring image in the film, as the characters dance closer and closer to their ultimate fate but, sometimes agonizingly, never reach it.

The film then follows several different storylines. Many of these characters are related, either by blood or through marriage, and others encounter each other mostly through sex and drugs. Graham is dating Christy (Amber Heard), a hot blond who is also getting it on with his friend, Martin (Austin Nichols), who has fucked both Graham and his drugged-out mom (Kim Basinger), one of those L.A. trainwrecks waiting on the latest prespription drug to kick in. She has recently separated from Graham’s dad, a studio exec (Billy Bob Thornton) who wants to get back together with her but is still hung up on a T.V. newswoman (Winona Ryder) who is desperate to break free from him.

Another thread sees one of Graham’s friends, Tim (Lou Taylor Pucci), head to Hawaii with his drunken dad (Chris Isaak) who seems to want to reconnect though he has self-medication down to a science. We also follow a drunken rock star (Mel Raido) as he slips further into the abyss, making sad phone calls to his ex-wife asking to speak to his son as he snorts lines of coke.

The film’s most harrowing story line follows Jack (the late Brad Renfro), the desk attendant in Christy’s apartment building, as he fences with his criminal uncle, Peter (Mickey Rourke), who has debts to pay and may need Jack’s help in a terrible crime in order to pay them. Jack, awkward, overweight, and obviously strung out on something, personifies the limbo in which these characters exist; ensnared by addiction and unable to put away the ghosts of his past, we fear he will succumb to his demons.

isaak-on-the-beachAs Christy notices leisons on her legs, Jordan foreshadows the tragedy that possibly awaits these characters. But the film’s ending surprised me in that there is not some huge catastrophe that brings all of these people together. There is no earthquake like at the end of Short Cuts. Frogs don’t fall from the sky as they did in Magnolia. Jordan and his screenwriters, Ellis and Nicholas Jarecki, are smart to put the tragedy at the beginning of the film, with the young man being hit by the car. Such an event should have woken everyone up, but instead they relax back into their drug-addled stupor. These characters are doomed to live in excess for as long as they can. If there is a final act to their lives, it is likely one that they will stumble through.

A movie like this relies on solid acting, and The Informers is chalked full of great performances, with three standout achievements in particular. Jon Foster, unknown to me before this film, is wonderful as Graham, the moral compass who actually forms an emotional connection with Christie but knows it will only suck him further down the rabbit hole. Chris Isaak, whom I had only seen act once before (in the John Waters farce A Dirty Shame) has the unenviable task of playing drunk for an entire film, but creates a character through it; with a slow, John Wayne-ish drawl and constant involuntary movement, we see the hopelessness of a guy incapable of understanding why his son wants nothing to do with him.

The film’s best performance is by the late Brad Renfro, who died of an overdose this past January. Few things are sadder than the death of an unbelievable talent (Heath Ledger showed us that), and The Informers represents one example why. Shivering and tweaked out, barking in slurs of profanity, Jack is so damaged that he seems beyond repair, but beneath it all is the desire to do the right thing. He personifies the struggle of each character to fight against their own inner hopelessness and recognize their basic humanity.

I was shocked, when the lights came up, by how much I liked this movie. It is brutal and unsparing, yes, but is also honest and intelligent. It doesn’t cheat and it doesn’t give us false solutions for difficult problems. I have respect for movies that are okay with being totally depressing. The Informers is one of the better.                           

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