Adapting real life stories for the big screen is a dangerous proposition. Play too fast and loose with the truth and you stand accused of insensitivity and arrogance; remain too slavish to the facts and you might end up with a deadly dull drama. Inspired by a hit and run automobile accident with a bizarre twist, director Stuart Gordon and screenwriter John Strysik walk this tightrope with finesse, concocting an original, deadly serious, blackly-comic thriller.
Stuck begins by following the basic outline of what happened in Fort Worth, Texas, in the fall of 2001, which I've written about before. In short: a nurse, high on drugs, smashes into a homeless man, who lodges in her car's windshield. She drives home, parks in her garage, and goes to bed, leaving the man bleeding -- and stuck. The film quickly veers away from the facts of the case, though, transforming into a deeply-felt meditation on personal accountability in an age of irresponsibility. It grows more and more outrageous, nearly fishtailing out of control, before righting itself and delivering a walloping conclusion.
Mena Suvari stars as the out of control caregiver, here renamed Brandi, and Stephen Rea is her moral counterweight as the down on his luck Tom. For her part, Brandi isn't so much immoral or amoral as she is incredibly self-centered. Brandi works in a nursing home, bopping along to hip hop on her headphones and gossiping with her friend and co-worker Tanya (Rukiya Bernard). She may have a degree of compassion and fellow feeling, as shown in an early scene where she kindly cleans up after an elderly patient who has soiled himself, but it feels rote, as though it required no effort on her part. She leaps at the thought of a promotion, but recoils at the expectation that she must give up her day off to prove her willingness to go the extra mile. Concern for her patients and aspirations for upward mobility quickly evaporate at the end of the work day; she can't wait to party, do some drugs, and spend the night having sex with her boyfriend Rashid (Russell Hornsby).
Tom is a more enigmatic character. The victim of corporate downsizing, he's been reduced to living in a tiny, squalid room. The sleazy landlord is ready to kick him out, and Tom has to fake him out so he can grab his few possessions and make a run for it. He puts on his one good suit, musters his dignity, and heads for a scheduled interview at the employment office, but is forced to wait for hours before being told, in effect, to come back tomorrow. His face flares with anger and then dissolves into despair; what's the point of tomorrow if it's worse than today?
His luck running out, Tom realizes he has nowhere to lay his head, so he tries spending the night in a city park. Roused by the police, he's directed to a homeless shelter miles away. Tom is befriended by Sam (the late Lionel Mark Smith in a gem of a cameo role), who gives him his shopping cart, showing him genuine kindness even though his situation is even worse than Tom's.
Pushing the cart with all his worldly possessions through the empty streets, clothes and hair akimbo, Tom has unwittingly become the stereotypical image of a homeless person. His fate collides with Brandi. Recklessly driving while high, she's further distracted by her cell phone, and in a terrifying moment, crashes into Tom.
Brandi is understandably freaked out and drives home in a blind panic, more worried about her own future prospects than the life of her hapless victim. Apologizing all the way, she parks in her garage and leaves Tom stuck in her windshield, bleeding and moaning. This is the point where the real-life incident became maddening, almost incomprehensible: how could any reasoning, thinking, feeling human being possibly walk away and leave a man to suffer like that?
It is the accomplishment of Stuck that we almost -- emphasis on almost -- feel sympathy for Brandi. Yes, she's a party girl, mostly concerned with her own pleasures and lacking any great empathy or social consciousness, but she's not all bad and, besides, she's attractive and has a smoking body. And don't most of us act out of self-interest and self-preservation?
That may be the most haunting question the film asks. As easy as it is to point fingers and claim that we would never do anything like that, none of us will ever know for sure until we're placed in that exact kind of life and death situation.
Of course, thanks to Gordon's skill as a director and Strysik's wit as a writer, the most troubling thoughts can be ignored completely, should you choose to do so. Horror fans will appreciate that Gordon does not shy away from depicting the agonizing, blood-soaked, realistic pain suffered by a man who has smashed into a windshield -- watch out for that wiper blade! -- while those with a fondness for dark humor will relish the way that Tom and various supporting players react to "man in windshield."
Rea is a stoic force of nature as Tom, calling upon resources he didn't know he had to try and survive. Suvari, who also served as associate producer, comes across as a demented Valley girl, all grown up with nowhere to go but, like, pretty sure she knows how to get there, while Hornsby deftly portrays a blustery lover who gets called out on his game, in more ways than one.
Gordon exercises superb sleight-of-hand with the material; we never know if the next moment will be funny, thoughtful, or stomach-churning, and his orchestration of a wide range of emotions makes watching Stuck an exhausting, exhilarating experience.
(For another opinion, read Scott Weinberg's review from the film's premiere at the Toronto film festival last fall.)