George A. Romero had been away from our screen for seven years when he brought us Bruiser in 2000. His previous movie had been The Dark Half in 1993, and these seven years was the longest his fans had to wait for a film from him. He was not idle in this time, there was a great deal of work produced in the Romero camp; unfortunately none of the work produced any filmed results.
Bruiser follows Henry (Jason Flemyng), a junior executive at a major magazine that is also called Bruiser. He wears expensive suits and has a beautiful wife but under it all something is deeply wrong with his life. Quickly we come to understand that for all its outward perfection Henry’s world is empty and stagnant. His wife shows him little regard and is not-so secretly having an affair with the magazines owner Milo (Peter Stormare). Milo in turn shows Henry no respect at all, but this is nothing special as he shows no one any, and Henry’s workmates are near phantoms around him.
This all seems set to continue forever, but there is something stirring in Henry, something of which we get the briefest of glimpses. Henry’s impotent desire to put things right, to take back what has been taken from him might have stayed just that, a desire, if it were not for a day when he wakes with a face as blank as his life.
“Bruiser” is one of Romero’s least seen movies and it could also easily be dismissed as one of his lesser efforts. However, as with Martin and Knightriders, Bruiser has deeper things lurking in its depths that what’s immediately apparent; and when seen as the culmination of a thematic trilogy these things become a great deal clearer.
Henry is not too dissimilar to Billy (Knightriders) or Martin (Martin), he is alienated from those around him and feels belittled by the social constraints with which he finds himself bound. Unlike the two previous characters Henry has tried to fit in, he has the wife and the job, the house and the dog, but it’s all a veneer to hide what’s missing from his life.
It is telling that Henry only finds that courage to fight when the last vestige of him is lost. He has been living an illusion of life for some time, chasing a dream that can never be caught. Henry’s rat-race has no destination and no purpose other than the acquisition of material things. Henry himself gains nothing from it except more illusory items to clutter an un-life. His house perfectly represents this, from the outside it is a small, though impressive, building with a four door garage that houses their one vehicle; but inside it is half finished, in a limbo that will probably never see completion.
Henry’s face is just like his house, an illusion of life, an illusion of a man, and it is when this is stripped away that Henry must fight or disappear completely.
So what is missing from Henry? In the movie people refer to him as “gutless” but is this really what is missing from the man?
Early in the film Henry takes a stand concerning the “new face” of the magazine’s cover, he makes his decisions on what he thinks Milo will like but he still takes a stand and is the first to show his hand in the staff meeting. This is not the act of a coward, Henry isn’t “gutless”. It also isn’t about his ability to be assertive; this is another aspect of his personality he demonstrates again and again. What makes Henry a victim to those around him is in fact elements of his personality that most would think of as “positive” ones.
Henry is empathic and good natured, considering and giving; the problem is that the world he is in is not any of those things, and the people in it are even less so.
Bruiser is then a tale of a good guy pushed to a point where he realises his good nature is doing him a disservice. The only way to live in the world is to learn the ability to be as ruthless as those who co-inhabit it. This is something that Henry learns, but unlike those around him it’s an ability he chooses to use or discard depending on the situation. He can show compassion or retribution but each act is considered and empathically delivered.
The character of Henry could be an allegory for almost any hidden depths of any person, we could see it as an allegory for artistic impression, or closeted homosexuality, or anything else a person can go through. What’s important is that what we are inside should be balanced with the world outside, that we should not allow our own desires to overshadow others, but equally we should not become subservient to them as many of the other characters in Bruiser has become.
Again, as with the two previous films in this thematic trilogy, Bruiser focusses itself on a form of entertainment; something that grew from Martin’s obsession with magic, through the tourneys of Knightriders to the excesses of the world of fashion magazine publication. Similarly the films themselves grow in stature as well as become more main stream in their placement. Perhaps this is an accidental comment on a modern normalization of alienation, whereas Martin was the outsider, now we are all outsiders; perhaps in the world of Bruiser, a world uncomfortably close to our own, there are no “insiders” anymore.
However it seems no accident that though all three lead characters, Martin, Billy and Henry, are amiable, accepting and good natured people their responses to their worlds become more radicalized as time moves on. Martin may have been a killer but he was raised with the belief that he was fulfilling what was expected of him, so his behaviour was not a radical departure from the world around him. Billy’s was more so, turning away from a motorcycle speed racer to a motorcycle knight; but Henry’s was by far the biggest betrayal of what he was, turning his back on the jet-set wannabes to become a killer actively dismantling those who one held him in such a position.
When deconstructed is becomes apparent that Bruiser might be Romero’s most radicalised film, Gone is the sly comments on society and the sideways glances at people going their own way, only to be replaced with a simple new truth; co-existence is futile and those ignored by society must rip society down, a person at a time if need be.
Henry’s anger and his reaction to his world is the most extreme in any of Romero’s works, at times his actions even taking the character himself by surprise. It is true that the Dead movies show more pure carnage, but Bruiser shows a single persons rage against the world around him personalized in a way Romero’s other films lack.
There were seven years between “Bruiser” and the previous Romero release, and in that time he was not idle; but what does this have to do with “Bruiser” and the other films in this thematic trilogy?
To fully gleam some understanding of this trilogy of films we need to look a little more at the times they were made and what immediately preceded them.
Not only does “Martin”, “Knightriders” and “Bruiser” follow an extended absence from the film world, two of them longer than Romero’s average (5, 3 and 7 respectively), but more importantly they all follow an extended and unproductive period of project “chasing”.
There have been over thirty Romero projects announced or profusely rumoured over the years that did not see the light of a projector: Four films between Jack’s Wife and Martin, Five between Dawn of the Dead and Knightriders, and ten between The Dark Half and Bruiser. This isn’t unusual in itself, it’s common for unmade project to far outnumber those made, but what is interesting is studying the tone of each of these films in ration to the period of absence, failed projects, and where Romero was in his field with his previous film.
Martin came after an absence of five years and four unmade projects, but because of the box office and critical failures of There’s Always Vanilla (1971), The Crazies (1973) and Jack’s Wife (also 1973) we could easily count these as “failed projects”. When this is taken into consideration perhaps Martin’s alienation and self-study can be more easily seen as a comment by Romero on the independent world of film making.
Similarly Knightriders themes of friendship and family, and Billy’s stoicism in the face of adversity can be more easily understood when the runaway success of Dawn and the five failed features between is taken into account.
Most interesting is Bruiser, this is the darkest film in the trilogy and the one that preaches the most uncompromised message; but this becomes much clearer when we note that the previous release from Romero was Hollywood mainstream’s The Dark Half. The release of this film was a Romero foray into what we consider main stream horror, similar to his 1988 movie Monkey Shines and it capitalises on the popular psychological thriller aspects of many films of the time.
Many of the projects offered after The Dark Half followed a similar line, between 1993 and 2000 Romero was connected with the Resident Evil movie, a Night of the Living Dead TV series (for UK’s Granada Television), The Mummy (that became the Stephen Sommers/Brendan Fraser vehicle) and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, to name just a few. So perhaps Henry’s take-no-prisoners approach to finding his identity is not so surprising in the independent film Bruiser, perhaps it is symptomatic of Romero’s own desire to find his face in the crowd of mainstream cinema where he had found a home.
Putting this into perspective it becomes far more clear why the characters in this thematic trilogy becomes more radicalised and aggressive in their responses to their environment.
Taking this thematic trilogy into account and understanding its influences also brings Romero’s subsequent movies into focus a little more. After Bruiser Romero waited five more years before he followed up with Land of the Dead before and subsequently returning to his independent roots with the next two Dead movies.
There is one more film in Romero’s catalogue that shares some of the same themes as this thematic trilogy, and could almost be considered a dry run if it were not for the fact that it was so deeply compromised. This film was made some years before in 1973 and is part of a trio of films that marked Romero’s attempt to break out of the horror genre.