For hopeful, enthusiastic high school graduates who have college on the horizon, I can’t think of a worse film to watch than Roger Avery’s “The Rules of Attraction” (2002).
It sits proudly alongside the likes of Lindsay Anderson’s “If…” (1968) and John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” (1995) as other examples of remarkably made, feel-bad films about the higher education experience.
Avery’s radically anti-mainstream, all-star and impressive adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ 1987 novel is a nightmarish vision of becoming a college insider with exactly the kind of crowd your parents warned you about.
As cinema, there’s lots here to admire but for casual viewers, its often hard to watch.
It begins in mid-sentence, with mega brisk, flash-cut editing taking us into the well-on-its-way and unruly The End of the World Party. In a detached manner, Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) narrates and recalls the horrific incident in which “I was so drunk, I ended up losing my virginity.”
The young man who victimizes her initially makes small talk about a Tarantino film (Avery is the Oscar winning co-author of Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”).
The narrated words belong to Lauren, but you can also hear the film’s author, as Ellis’ mix of pop culture references, breezy attention to mundane detail, colorfully worded banalities and jolts of shocking details peppered throughout, bringing to mind both the prose and onscreen narration of his “American Psycho” (2000).
We meet these characters, all students at a nameless university. The events occur, then rewind, in order for us to observe the central figures at the party.
James Van Der Beeks’ Sean pines for the mystery woman who writes him love letters. Lara, played by Jessica Biehl, does lots of cocaine and pretty much anything else she wants. Ian Somerhalder’s Paul has a crush on Sean, who couldn’t be less interested.
Kip Pardue’s Victor returns from a wild vacation and Kate Bosworth (looking like one of the Lisbon sisters) is an easy mark for Sean. There’s no plot, just a series of events occurring mostly during campus parties that range from out of control to proudly carnal.
The initial reveal that a scene is playing backwards made me think during my first watch in a movie theater that something was wrong with the projector. Actually, many subsequent scenes are backwards. There’s also clever uses of split screen, multi perspectives conveyed through remarkable editing and a top of the line soundtrack (Erasure and Love and Rockets in the same movie!).
New BRET EASTON ELLIS PODCAST: Roger Avary Part 2: the accident, serving time, making and losing a fortune, fate and the future, The Rules of Attraction and the rarely screened Glitterati. Reviews of Joker, Judy, Ad Astra, Memory: The Origins of Alien. https://t.co/ibCQtR97wL pic.twitter.com/WzNcLVXivw
— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) October 28, 2019
Avery’s film is aggressively off putting but made with true bravado and De Palma-esque innovation. The opening rape scene is presumably meant to be darkly comic (note the line about being disappointed her attacker is a townie), but the frankness of the sequence, in its staging and onscreen commentary, makes this impossible.
The question this poses before even the opening credits finish unspooling is how much one cares about the awful people at a party where a rape, homophobic pummeling and other rotten occurrences take place.
This all occurs in exactly the first 15 minutes, before the title has appeared. By this point, you’re already numb to the depravity and ready to bolt or wondering if the traces of wit and visual showmanship indicate that it will get better.
It lightens ups after the opener, though it always has a raw, vicious moment waiting around the corner.
“The Rules of Attraction” is so dazzling at times, it’s no wonder that young film students and cinephiles have warmed up to it. I guess you could call it a cult film, though good luck trying to convert anyone giving it a first watch.
It bears interesting connections to other Ellis adaptations – Van Der Beek notes that he pretends to be a vampire, an actual subplot that was once in the Ellis adaptation of “The Informers” (2008), featuring Brandon Routh as a bloodsucker.
Van Der Beek’s Sean Bateman is related to Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho,” though a scene of a phone call between the brothers (with Patrick played here by Caspar Van Dien) was reportedly filmed but remains a never-seen deleted sequence that has taken on legendary status.
Is this intended as a cautionary tale against the kind of a-holes that were romanticized in “The Social Network” (2010) or a cinematic comfort for anyone who survived a horrendous time in college? An early scene reveals an empty classroom with this message on the chalkboard: “My Wife Left Me for my T.A., All classes this term are cancelled.”
Clearly the adults here are as unstable and messy in their personal lives as their students (note Eric Stoltz’s turn as a heinous “hip” professor).
The cast is a fascinating selection of TV actors breaking into film or veterans showing up for minutes in striking appearances. We get a bizarre cameo from Fred Savage where he sticks a lit cigarette in his belly button and plays the clarinet after injecting heroin in his toe.
Paul Williams shows up as a sarcastic ER doctor, while Faye Dunaway and Swoosie Kurtz appear as insufferable rich drunks and Russell Sams as Richard, Paul’s friend, has a few minutes of screen time but manages to completely steal every second he’s given.
Clifton Collins Jr.’s performance and scenes lean too heavily into Tarantino territory and the Alfred Molina portion of “Boogie Nights.”
Avery is putting us very close to these awful twerps and, despite the cast being mostly overrun with attractive actors, we don’t want to be this intimate, let alone in a tight close up, with any of them.
Imagine if the characters played by Tom Hulce and Karen Allen in “National Lampoon’s Animal House” or any of the guys from “American Pie” weren’t remotely endearing but self-destructive, narcissistic, inhibition less and really sad.
Underrated film of the day: The Rules of Attraction (2002). One of the more faithful adaptations of Bret Easton Ellis. Featuring stylish direction by Roger Avary with a who’s who young early 2000s cast. Coming off the lame teen films of the 90s, it feels fresh. pic.twitter.com/t2bqVdIUk7
— Stoner Philly Fan (@StonerPhillyFan) August 21, 2021
The standout moments are unforgettable, like an amazing split screen shot that perfectly coalesces and Sean’s inability to feel anything culminates for a drop of snow filling in for a tear. There’s a hilarious moment where we hear Sean’s inner monolog, full of crass, banal musings about sex, while Paul’s thoughts are all purple prose.
There’s also a shocking twist, in which the detachment, misheard cues, blocked connections and ignorance on display comes to a rotten halt when we witness a neglected student (by Sean and us) commit suicide.
We observe a tragedy only one person seems to notice or acknowledge in the coming days. It’s the most agonizing scene, as this sad incident is as doted over as the rest of the debauchery.
Avery clearly feels for these students, even as they are all too numb to fully register the horror they inflict on themselves and others. The horrifying, ritualistic suicide is later contrasted with Sean’s ridiculous, impulsive attempt on his own life.
Just when it seems the film couldn’t pummel us anymore, along comes the real tour de force: a four minute long, sped-up series of flash cuts depicting a wild vacation; it’s a very Bateman-esque jumbo monolog, presented with lighting quick edits.
This portion, which has incredible filmmaking and is frequently hilarious, is reportedly a lightning-fast glimpse of an actual feature-length film Avery made, called “Glitteratti” (2004), which, like the cut Patrick Bateman scene, has never been publicly viewed.
It’s a mild stretch to say this ruined Van Der Beeks’ film career…except, it kind of did.
FAST FACT: “The Rules of Attraction” sunk at the box office, earning just $2.5 million in its opening weekend en route to a $6.5 million tally stateside.
Post-“Dawson’s Creek” (1998-2003), the actor was red hot and his first solo film vehicle, “Varsity Blues” (1999) hit big. Some might blame the similarly cool response to the non-starter “Texas Rangers” (2001), but here, cast entirely against type, aggressively alienating his fanbase and stretching as an actor by playing a monster in a sea of bastards, Van Der Beek is first rate and unflinching.
He also never starred in another movie again and it’s probably because he torpedoed his leading man status with this movie. Van Der Beek had to have known his film career might be hurt by a movie where he gleefully masturbates (just barely) off camera to “Afternoon Delight.”
Of the actors whose careers took off after this opened, co-stars Biel, Bosworth and Jay Baruchel seemed to have escaped the film’s negative reaction from critics and audience indifference.
Lionsgate, likely aware they were sitting on a film with little commercial chance, kept pushing back the release date, dumped it in September, and marketed it with avant-garde trailers and some of the ugliest movie posters in memory.
Are we meeting these central characters during the worst patch of their lives? After all, if Biel’s coke head will eventually (presumably) get her act together and, as the narration informs us, be a politician’s wife, don’t they all have redemption and reinvention coming?
Maybe, but also maybe not.
In the final scene, the two most sympathetic survivors of the onslaught of physical and emotional abuse find a kind of solace in one another. As it began, the film ends in mid-sentence. Among the final lines of dialog are this dour but honest declaration of intimacy amongst savages: “No one will ever know anyone.”
“The Rules of Attraction” is brave enough to be exactly the movie we didn’t get with the heavily watered-down Ellis adaptation, “Less Than Zero” (1987). It’s fearless and could care less if it alienates every member of its audience. Being in the film’s poisonous inner circle is no fun, even as the acting and direction are always impressive and risk taking.
The tour de force moments and performances are there, as well as a great soundtrack and trickles of dark humor. Unlike Mary Herron’s “American Psycho” (2000), which mocked the punishing, unrelentingly macho mindset of its protagonist and his environment, “The Rules of Attraction” could have been written by Patrick Bateman himself.
Whether all this unabashed savagery is merited or merely exploitation is up to you. The closing scene seems to pull it all together, since it’s actually the first scene, reversed for us to now gain perspective on a truly rotten semester in an environment of unchecked depravity.
Film students will and should take notice. As for college freshmen, if you can stomach it, here’s 100-minutes of everything you want to avoid during your first year…and every year after that.