SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS written and directed by Daniel Minahan, produced by Christine Vachon, Joana Vicente, Jason Kliot and Katie Roumel, with Brooke Smith, Marylouise Burke, Glenn Fitzgerald, Michael Kaycheck and Merritt Weaver. 86 minutes. A Killer Films/Open City Films production. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (March 30). For venues and times see First-Run Movies, page 82. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
series 7: the contenders poses
an aesthetic question. Does it feel padded out to feature length because writer-director Daniel Minahan lacked enough material, or is the sense of padding deliberate because it's integral to the subject of his satire?
Minahan, who worked in tabloid TV for several years, takes on my favourite oxymoron, reality TV, by imagining a world where people demand a bigger kick than Survivor can offer.
Five citizens are chosen, allegedly at random, to appear on a show called The Contenders. Masked men show up at their homes and hand them guns. Then they're sent out to kill each other.
I'd like a little more background about a culture where one can be drafted into this lethal brand of show business. But the remarkable premise is skated over to get to Minahan's shot-on-video recreation of three episodes of The Contenders (from the show's seventh series). In these programs, reigning champion Dawn (Brooke Smith) returns to her hometown to take on a remarkably diverse group that includes her high-school sweetheart (Glenn Fitzgerald), who's now dying of cancer anyway.
Series 7 has two things going for it.
First, Minahan's got a dead-perfect eye for the aesthetic of the form -- the alarming ratio of content to padding, the urgently stentorian tone of the teasers that lead to commercials, the relentless attempts to manufacture tension and human interest where none exists. Series 7 looks and feels exactly like reality television.
Second, it has the magnificent Brooke Smith as Dawn. Dawn is eight months pregnant -- a welter of necessary rationalizations are permitted by the culture of therapy (it's OK that she's killing people, because it's for her baby) -- and ruthless. She'll pull a gun on her mother and sister to get the keys to their SUV. Smith is best known as the girl in the basement in The Silence Of The Lambs, and was best seen in Louis Malle's Vanya On 42nd Street, where she played Sonya to Wallace Shawn's Vanya and Julianne Moore's Yelena. She's currently on the cop series Big Apple playing Ed O'Neill's wheelchair-bound sister.
Dawn is a great creation, a maternal killing machine who doesn't want people to think she's a bad person. And Smith gives the performance of a lifetime, getting inside Dawn's media-addled brain, and giving her a unique waddle to boot.