Review: "Spread" (Mackenzie, USA)

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

Spread is the story of a character who discovers that he has no depth. He might’ve been a person once, but then he became an actor and soon even the acting disappeared and all that remained was characterization. He's clever, not intelligent, and pretty, not beautiful. No one but Ashton Kutcher could play him. Kutcher, and his generic appeal, one part lunkheaded grace, one part half-articulate charm. A profile like a Cocteau drawing, and just as simple.  A man from whom nothing more is required than good-looking idiocy. He has no problem being exploited as long as he can exploit, too. Homeless, jobless, he's got nothing to his name ("Nikki" – he refuses to disclose the rest) but a duffel bag of expensive clothes and a nice cell phone. "Six inches and a pretty face," someone calls him. And of course he knows that it's not a putdown, but the truth. He's as shallow as required. Not quite a gigolo – he's not after money, just its trappings: sex in exchange for the keys to a Mercedes and the opportunity to sit around an expensive house doing nothing.

So he hooks up with the latest in a string of slightly older, slightly desperate women (Anne Heche), who buys him designer jackets and gives him the run of her hilltop home, which everyone points out used to belong to Peter Bogdanovich. Soon enough, he meets a fellow grifter (Margarita Levieva); she's got a bit more of a plan, more concrete goals than just having somewhere to sleep. A screwball tragedy: two fakers trying their darndest to charm each other, even though neither has anything to gain. It's the hustler-and-hooker romance of I Don’t Kiss transposed from the gutter to the mansion – meaning, made completely hopeless. Manuel Blanc and Emmanuelle Béart had nowhere to go but up ("up" being into the lower reaches of "acceptable" society); Kutcher and Levieva can only fall. A change of class is also a change in nomenclature; what it in that film we called whores, hustlers, pimps, johns, sugar daddies, here we must call lovers, friends, spouses.

The basic elements only amount to a mildly entertaining film. With the same cast, the same script, the same soundtrack and production design, Spread would've been a trifle in the hands of even a talented director – probably just as funny, but with none of this casual intensity. Something more than talent is required, then. The culprits for Spread's brilliance must then be David Mackenzie and his refusal to be clever. He's like Douglas Sirk, treating his subjects with complete seriousness while also involving those invisible elements that motivate them without their knowledge. His technique is neither about being "in opposition" nor about "transceding;" the long and intricate Panavision shots (which in this film often run over four minutes and cover several floors of the same building) are inseparable from the characters and settings. You can't take an image from Spread and identify which ideas belong to composition, performance, lighting or movement; it's together that they form something. Complexity over complication.

To take an example: there's a scene between Kutcher and Heche made possible by a measured zoom, several planned movements of the dolly and a cut-away set, that goes from frat-house comedy to tension to a confrontation on a stairwell to, finally, Heche and Kutcher's faces as they calmly argue in the living room. From the bawdy to the bleak in a single shot – if a division between the two exists at all. These are, after all, images of the same thing; only the angle and the framing changes. This isn't a "morality tale" (are there any forms less moral?); nothing is further from Mackenzie's mind than moralizing. He's one of those people for whom answering to characters means answering to humanity; he's accountable to all people, even ones that only exist on pages of a script, within bits of performance or in imgaes. Kutcher's character doesn't get a come-uppance; he remains more or less exactly where he was at the beginning, maybe a little more ordinary, but still the same person. The tragedy is that neither he nor Levieva nor Heche change.

From The Last Great Wilderness through Young Adam to Asylum to Hallam Foe and now Spread, Mackenzie's direction has been built around a single question: "Are people actually attracted to each other, or are they just attracted to whatever aspect of themselves it is that they find in others?" Love is escape, liberation, empowerment, but never love. Maybe centuries ago it was real, but it now exists only as metaphor, a way to put into terms some other feeling. We say "love" 'cause it's a shorter word than "longing," "fulfillment" or "status." All lovers are selfish.


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