The pursuit of wealth, celebrity, fame, and recognition is the subject of many a cautionary tale and morality play, it’s true, but I’m not sure this tried-and-true trope has ever been presented in as dizzyingly surreal a manner as it is in writer/director Kyle Broom’s 2016 indie arthouse/horror effort Tabloid Vivant. Like a White Castle hamburger, this is a film you’ll either love or hate, with no middle ground to stand on — but one way or another, it will stick in your mind long after the end credits roll.
Like many a would-be art world superstar, Maximilien Klinkau (played by Jesse Woodrow) is desperate for cash and acclaim, and pursues it with a single-minded obsession that borders — or maybe even more than that — on the psychotic. Max’s overzealous drive is magnetically alluring to wannabe-famous-herself art critic Sara Speed (Tamzin Brown), and together the two hit on an idea that they feel is sure to propel both of them into the ranks of instant legends : they’re going to hole up in an isolated cabin and create the first piece of living and breathing art — even if it costs one or both of them their sanity and/or existence. It’s an ambitious plan, to be sure — and also, plainly, a crazy one. But hey, every great idea sounded nuts at one point, right?
What follows is a lengthy and absorbing process of transference that sees Sara’s very life essence being drained as their “project” comes closer and closer to achieving genuine sentience, and Broom’s directorial style shifts into ever-more unhinged and post-psychedelic territory in conjunction with the shifting “playing field” his protagonists find themselves upon. It’s a heady experience, to be sure — and one that will undoubtedly leave a lot of viewers in the dust — but the powerful performances from the two leads, particularly Brown who is asked to well and truly hollow herself out before our eyes, should be enough to keep the average couch potato reasonably enthralled with events even at their most potentially alienating points, and there’s also a very real sense that Broom isn’t aiming to be overtly pretentious and sometimes isn’t even taking himself too terribly seriously (see the well-timed “safety valve” comic relief provided by supporting character Rob, as portrayed by Chris Carlisle). That being said, if you want a straight “A to Z” viewing experience, you’d be better off looking elsewhere.
Transformational journeys are always “iffy” ground that demand a deft touch, and when you’re going this “all-in” on the concept you’d better have a firm handle on your strengths and weaknesses as a director, and while Broom has some room to grow, it’s true, he’s confident enough to “fake it until he makes it” here — and when you’re dealing with an insular cast operating in an equally insular location, that can be enough. The gaps in our writer/director’s abilities would certainly stand out more glaringly on a bigger-budget production with a grander scope, but on a small-time indie project like this, he’s definitely punching well within his own weight class. He displays a high degree of ambition — particularly when it comes to his film’s often-staggering visuals — but it’s not an ambition that’s untethered to reality. He marries what he can do with what he’d like to do rather than having the two of them compete with each other, and the end result is a movie that has a strong sense of purpose and identity even when it’s moving into some pretty bizarre territory.
If you’re getting the impression that I was seriously impressed with Tabloid Vivant, you’re absolutely correct. Being timely, topical, philosophical, and thoughtful doesn’t mean you can’t still be seriously creepy and unsettling at the same time. This film’s open embrace of the “arthouse” ethos may be off-putting a lot of hard-core horror fans, but those who are willing to keep an open mind and go where Broom is taking them will largely, I think, find themselves damn glad they put their preconceptions aside and expanded their horizons a bit. The road here can be rocky at times, but shit — most trips worth taking ask a bit from the tourist, don’t they?
If you’ve got Amazon Prime, this wickedly harrowing flick is available for streaming at the princely sum of absolutely nothing. I promise it’ll be some of the best money you never spent.