The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael is absolutely horrifying. Loaded with easy cynicism and even easier sadism, it's a beautifully orchestrated, ideological disaster that shoots for social commentary but settles for lowest-blow shock. From what I can tell, the film premiered at Cannes in 2005 and has been making the rounds of European film festivals ever since – making its inclusion in the Narrative Competition here somewhat curious. 25-year-old first-time writer-director Thomas Clay was scheduled to make an appearance at last night's Austin premiere, but failed to show – a bizarre move for a filmmaker seemingly so desperate to confront is audience. Beautifully and expensively shot in a sleepy, English sea-side town, Clay spends the first half of the picture tracking his loosely connected cast of characters with admirable deliberateness. We meet Jonathan (Michael Howe) and Monica (Miranda Wilson) an English Emeril and his spoiled American wife; Joe, a juvenile delinquent who's quickly following in the illustrious footsteps of his cousin Larry, who has recently be released from prison; Ben (Charles Mnene), Joe's good-natured pal; and finally, the titular Young Mr. Carmichael (Daniel Spencer). Robert is, by all appearances, a shy, teenage cello virtuoso ... who skips school to get high with Joe and Larry and goes home to jack off to the Marquis de Sade. As Robert slips deeper into Joe and Larry's quasi gang, he goes from passively reclining in a twin stupor of MDMA and cable news while his friends off-screen gang rape a classmate, to actively ratcheting an already horrific situation to unimaginably brutal heights. Kids grow up so fast these days.
Robert's eventual turn towards barbarous sadism shouldn't be surprising, given the unsubtle hint bombs that Clay drops throughout, but it is – not because it's so out of character, but because Robert's actions go way beyond even horror movie logic and veer towards the realm of the absurd. Speaking of bombs: the proceedings take place in the shadow of ever-present TV news reports on the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and a jump cut to archival war footage gives an all-too-brief respite from the film's most intense piece of violence. The end result is something like A Clockwork Orange redone in the key of kitchen sink, and what is most shocking about the hybrid is that Clay manages to get through 90 minutes on this model without saying anything meaningful about class.
Though the war analogies produced mostly giggles at the screening I saw, and the film's violent set pieces come off as contrived at best, there's no doubt that Clay has made a film that's impossible to shake. Its two setpiece scenes are undeniably well-choreographed, with a long, slow, circular pan of a drug den coming off as particularly impressive. And, try as I might, I can't get the image of Robert's final "ecstasy" out of my head, and that's some kind of victory. But as a filmmaker in search of ideological clarity, Clay clearly has a long way to go.