Cult Classics: ‘The Boondock Saints’ and ‘Napoleon Dynamite’Posted: November 20, 2011
This past weekend I had the (dubious?) pleasure of watching not one but two cult movies: The Boondock Saints (1999), about a pair of Irish vigilantes who decide to kill Boston riffraff in some sort of bizarre Robin-Hood-meets-Dexter set up (although this movie came out before the popular Showtime series did) and Napoleon Dynamite, a 2004 comedy about a maladroit teenager and his awkward friends. Watching both movies made me think about what characteristics cult movies have that make them subject to endless memorializing on obscure Internet sites.
I’ll start with The Boondock Saints, which I saw first.
The film is unequivocally bad. It actually came out before the equally gory but much superior film, Fight Club, but I wonder if the writer/director Troy Duffy read the Chuck Palahniuck novel before writing his own screenplay. In both films, there’s a similar tendency to use violence as a way to address some social ill– vague mafia crime in Boondocks’ case and corporate America in Fight Club’s. Both movies fail on that end, succumbing to didacticism and an emphasis on the stylistic effects of violence at the expense of their overbearing messages. But while Fight Club was thrilling in its innovation, The Boondock Saints is just laughable. Grandiose atttempts to inject gravitas turn up comically short. Willem Dafoe as the federal agent trying to track down the vigilantes, listens to opera music while he surveys the crime scenes. He’s supposed to be an endearing eccentric but looks like a buffoon. The nadir of the film (or apogee, I guess, if you like the movie) comes towards the middle, when Dafoe is investigating a crime scene at a mansion. He retells the scenario and Duffy juxtaposes Dafoe on the screen with the Irish vigilantes and their misogynistic Italian friend, Rocco. As Rocco starts shooting, Dafoe mimes shooting with him, eyes closed, head tilted back, thumbs pulling invisible triggers in the manner of many five -year- old boys (and girls) before him. It is so absurd, you can’t help laughing, and that is what I did, along with the group of girls with whom I watched the film. The ending of the film was also ridiculously self-important. Local Bostonians answer the question, “are the Saints good or bad?’ as if this were a serious, real life matter. By ending the film with those questions, Duffy tries to add a gravity that the film never wore convincingly. It’s as if the question is a legitimate one, but of course, it’s not.
And yet the film is a cult classic and it’s easy to see why. It’s the sort of the film I imagine would be very popular among isolated suburban high school boys. They’re clever enough to notice the overt religious messages in the movie and to consequently feel smug about it. They’re also immature enough to find the many, many scenes of violence engaging.
Napoleon Dynamite was the other film I saw over the weekend, and as far as character studies go, it’s infinitely better than The Boondocks. This quirky little film that could, was conceived by a young Mormon couple, Jared and Jerusha Hess, and the influence shows. It’s a clean film, the women are unusually modest and the film has all the sensibilities of hipster Christians.
The pop culture influence of this movie cannot be overstated. For a brief while, Jon Heder, who plays the main character, was a star. ‘Vote for Pedro’ shirts were de rigeur at my high school and everyone liked to talk in Kip’s peculiarly restrained voice and say, ‘Heck yes!’ and ‘Friggin’ a lot. It was such an iconic hipster movie, and yet, it was made, ostensibly, by some of the uncoolest people on the planet.
Now that I live in the epicenter of socially awkward nerds, this movie has a lot more resonance in 2011 for me than it did in 2004. Together, the girls that I watched the movie with and I would often exclaim, “Oh I totally know that guy!” and we do, because this school breeds them. Geeks thrive here.
But I’m digressing. Napoleon’s cult following is a no-brainer. It’s the kind of film that’s impossible to describe unless you’ve seen it, so quoting it instantly partitions the ‘in-the-know’ kids from the popculture-deprived. It’s full of characters so wonderfully kitschy that there’s room for endless quotes and imitations.
It’s also clear that the Hesses weren’t trying to do much. They just wanted Napoleon to exist. There was no ostentatious desire to pose A Moral Question to Society, the film just tells a simple story in a slow, thoughtful way. Sometimes earnestness can make a cult movie.
Napoleon ends up being far more universal than any of the long, lofty statements from The Boondock Saints.