the broken movie
review and analysis by matt snoddy
review and analysis by matt snoddy
In these days of Seven, The Silence of the Lambs, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Charles Manson copycats, this scene has become an all-too-common comment on the state of our society. Though the stories are dark and twisted, the public is often shielded from the true horrors of serial killing. Usually, simple written descriptions suffice to explain the horrible deaths met by the victims. However the Nine Inch Nails movie Broken takes the viewer inside the room where a victim meets his death. Beyond typical cinema, the movie graphically portrays the seduction, mutilation, and killing of a victim with such realism that viewers often question the assertion that it is not real. Along the way, the viewer is treated to videos of several Nine Inch Nails songs from the album of the same name.
Is it just mindless gore, playing to a bloodthirsty '90s society numbed by real-life violence? Or is Trent Reznor actually jarring us to wake up and realize the horrors that happen every day?
At the opening, the viewer immediately realizes that the movie is shot on video. This aspect gives the sense that the film was low-budget and projects the feeling of watching a home video one might make on vacation. One is also reminded of two other classes of film often shot on home video: pornography and "snuff" films, aspects of both of which will eventually be incorporated into the film. All of these suggest an intimacy between the viewer and the characters on the screen. It is as if the viewer is allowed to "peek in" on the lives of others. Indeed, the viewer will soon take on the role of a helpless bystander.
The beginning of the film also foreshadows coming events with its constant droning background music marked with intermittent flute notes. The music defines the opening scene, building and building while putting the viewer on edge. The suspense created during the seduction rivals any horror film produced by Hollywood. A third device used with great effectiveness in the film is the static noise seen sporadically during the seduction, but more so later in the film. This is not audio noise, as the soundtrack never falters, but video noise that takes the form of static on the screen. This device is used either within a scene cut or at critical points of filming to blur the screen. When used within a scene cut, the film emulates the act of the photographer stopping the video camera and restarting. On home video, this results in static on the screen, and the effect is used in this movie.
The opening scene is shot through the eyes of the principal character, the killer. He is in a car, driving through town and up and down streets. As the music continues the realization is reached that the character is looking, in a detached, almost businesslike fashion, for someone or something.
For a brief moment, the viewer sees the killer focus on a young man shooting basketball outside his house. The killer possibly quickly weighs the pros and cons of seducing this young man, decides against it, and moves on. The killer then travels though the residential neighborhood, and finding no other acceptable choices, heads across the railroad tracks to the inner city, marked with trash and graffiti-decorated walls. For another instant he focuses on the word "MEAT" on a sign outside a distribution warehouse, planting more foreshadowing of events to come. The killer moves into the downtown area and there finds his prey: a young, clean-cut, almost military-looking man with a burr haircut, wearing jeans, a white tee shirt, and a jacket, walking alone down a sidewalk with his head hung low. The young man seems a loner, out and lost in his own thoughts. He is the perfect victim for a serial killer: someone no one would miss from the city. Added to that fact that the young man is attractive, the homosexual killer would not be able to resist. The young man approaches the killer's car, his face twists as he seems to be thinking of a response to the unheard words of the killer, and the scene changes. At this point, it should also be noted that there is never a word spoken in the course of the movie itself. Again, in a reference to pornography, the only sounds made are grunts and groans. The victim never gives in and screams for his life, and the killer never taunts nor attempts any dialogue. As in the silent films of early motion pictures, the visual imagery speaks louder than anything the characters could say.
After having been seduced into the car with the killer, the scene changes to the killer's basement. The walls seem a drab shade of yellowish green. There are shelves up around the room. It is lit only by a couple of bright fluorescent lamps on the walls which, combined with the video filming technique, throw grotesque shadows about the room. The filming has switched from a first-person point of view to third-person, and the audience for the rest of the film must helplessly watch. For the first time we can see the killer and, with the poor lighting, can see only that his face is either burned to featureless disfigurement or he is wearing a mask. With this discovery, a strong reference is made to such horror-movie killers as Freddy Krueger of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, who was also burned; Friday the 13th's Jason, with his featureless hockey mask; and a more realistic Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs, who was forced to wear a mask over his face to prevent him from eating anyone else after his capture.
The killer walks around the tied man, sizing up his catch. The young man has been tied to a chair and gagged with a white cloth. Surprisingly, the man does not struggle. Perhaps he does not understand that the nature of his capture is not sexual, or perhaps he does understand it and has blindly accepted his fate at the hands of the killer. The killer fondly touches the man, running his fingers up the man's shirt and caressing his crew-cut head. The man is turned toward a television and the killer starts the video for "Pinion" with a remote control.
At the conclusion of the video, for an instant, the viewer can see the killer's face against a stark black background. This is the first real view of the face the audience receives, and the nature of his lack of features is still unclear. The killer then quickly and efficiently removes the gag from the victim and grabs a gasoline can. He pulls back the young man's head, and for the first time the viewer hears the young man protest with grunts and groans as the gasoline is forced down his throat. The camera pans back to the television and the video for "Wish" begins.
During the course of the video, the movie switches back to the basement for a few moments. The young man has been chained face-up to a table. The killer is seen pulling up his pants, and the implication is that the young man has just been raped. The killer then takes what seems to be a piece of steel wool and scrubs around the man's mouth, perhaps either to clean him up or make the skin raw and painful.
As the video ends and the scene cuts back to the basement, the camera focuses on the face of the young man, now bleeding around the mouth from the gasoline and scrubbing. The killer is seated in a chair facing the television and holding the remote control. He rewinds the video and plays it again at the point where Trent Reznor sings "...fist fuck..." He rewinds it again to the same point as the victim watches, his eyes open in horror as he realizes what is about to be done to him. The killer rewinds the video again and, touching himself, listens once more to the words "fist fuck." He turns off the VCR and rubs his hands together, massaging the knuckles and staring at his prone victim.
The video to "Help Me I Am In Hell" starts as the viewer gets the sinking feeling that the victim is being mercilessly pounded up the anus with the fist of the killer. The music also seems to provide an "intermission" of sorts, as the video consists of a black screen beneath which the instrumental plays (it is also the third of five videos in the movie). At the return to the movie, the victim is looking up into the face of the killer. The mouth is held open and the killer takes a pair of pliers to the teeth of the victim. Over the increasingly urgent screams and breathing of the victim, one of the front incisors is pulled to a large spurt of blood. Here the video for "Happiness In Slavery" begins, which itself is as graphic as the entire Broken movie.
At the return to the killer's basement, the music for "Gave Up" begins. The killer has moved the victim and tied up his hands to the ceiling, leaving him hanging above the ground. The scene switches to the video for "Gave Up." The two scenes switch often. The black-and-white footage chronicles the eventual capture of the serial killer by police but is intercut with the movie portion, in which the killer is still torturing the victim. The effect is that the climax of the film, the killing of the victim, and the conclusion of the film, the discovery of the serial killer, become intertwined. Trent Reznor also becomes a direct part of the movie at this point, being shown intermittently on a TV screen in the basement on which the camera focuses.
As the "Gave Up" video begins, the viewer is taken to the house of the killer, presumably after the serial killer has been caught or perhaps before he has been caught, while evidence is being found. The camera focuses on maggots crawling over something, and as the camera pulls away, it becomes apparent that they are on a human body part, probably a heart, sitting next to a head with a severed penis in its mouth. As the camera pulls even further away, the refrigerator they are in and the other body parts become visible.
The movie kicks back in at this point, showing the killer beating the victim with a baseball bat. The killer then takes a pair of scissors and cuts the man's shirt off of him and pulls off his pants. At this point it becomes more obvious that the killer is wearing a mask. The killer then takes a straight razor and begins randomly slashing the man's writhing body. The camera focuses on a particularly deep cut in the side of the man's abdomen, which is bleeding profusely.
The movie switches back to the video, showing the house surrounded by yellow police tape and a policeman keeping away curious onlookers. The camera pans through the inside of the front of the killer's house, focusing on a sign that says "You're Safe and You Know It" and another one showing a cartoon killer dog that reads "Trespassers will be Eaten!", as a policeman opens the front door and must draw a handkerchief to cover his face from the smell and sight of the inside of the house. The camera moves to the chest freezer of the house, and as the viewer can just begin to discern bloody human bones and flesh, the movie begins again. The victim is still hanging from the ceiling, and the killer lights a propane blowtorch. The victim, obviously exhausted and in pain from the razor cuts, begins to writhe and jerk again as the killer takes swipes and jabs with the blowtorch. The killer stops, remembers one thing he forgot to remove from the victim, and grabs the white underwear of the victim. Now completely naked and helpless, the victim can only watch as the killer pulls out the straight razor again, grabs the victim's genitals, and slices them clean off in a gush of blood. The killer kneels in front of the fountain of blood and bathes his face in it.
The video starts again, focusing on the mask of the killer lying on the floor, bloody, as a maggot crawls through an eyehole. A human spine hangs from the ceiling as a blurry police officer in the background turns hastily to leave the room and vomit.
The movie returns and the viewer gets a full view of the face of the killer as he looks down on his victim and removes the mask. The switching between the video and movie starts to happen rapidly as the video shows more severed body parts and the movie shows the killer starting a chainsaw. The killer takes the chainsaw to the victim, who has been moved a final time to be chained on the floor. The killer cuts off each of the limbs of the victim as Trent covers his eyes on the television screen. The killer then begins having sex with the limbless, bloody body in the hole where his genitals used to be. The victim is still alive, in shock, almost dead. The killer smiles and runs his face down the bloody torso, licking and enjoying the body, until he takes a knife and begins jabbing a hole into the man's chest, pushing and forcing blood out, and then grabs the victim's heart and pulls it out. He licks and then begins to eat the heart.
The movie in its video form ends here. The conclusion is filmed, as in the format of the video to "Gave Up," in black and white. The conclusion shows the killer, now clean and in a prison jumpsuit, being led to a modern gallows where a noose is slipped around his neck over the breakaway floor. The police officer walks to the drop lever and then pushes it all the way forward as the floor drops away from under the killer. As the killer falls, the viewer can see a grin on his face. The killer falls through space, kicking and handcuffed until the rope tightens and jerks, throwing off dust. The killer's head pops off and is seen flying through space.
Why make such a film? Can such a film actually have redeeming qualities? Should the general public have access to something so graphic and disturbing? Many questions may arise while viewing a film of this nature. Trent Reznor has said himself that the primary reason for not releasing the film to the public was to keep from having to answer questions about it. Even without knowing his personal reasons for having the film done, one of the guiding factors behind the video is to shock the viewer as much as possible. With surprise and shock comes attention. Reznor was certain to gain a great deal of attention with such a film, and with attention comes record sales and a public image as a person unafraid to make something so bloody and shocking.
Reznor, however, was also playing on the public fetish with real gore. Few things seem to scare people these days, but men who lurk on the fringes of sanity with sharp objects make nearly everyone add a slight hurry to their walk, avoid dark alleys, and glance around a little more when they're alone in the city. Serial killers and mass murderers have become popular to the point of having trading cards in print. Reznor feeds off this popularity, yet takes it a step further by detailing what is hidden to the everyday fan: the blood and how it is shed. Sure, we've all seen cheesy horror flicks, but nothing as real as this. And therein lies the possible reasoning behind the film. Perhaps -- instead of glorifying violence as it might appear at first glance -- Reznor is in fact stating that if we only understood what really happens when someone dies an agonizing death at the hands of a serial killer, we would stop printing trading cards for killers and instead punish them for the horrible crimes they commit and the lives they torture.
Broken is neither a snuff film nor a documentary, but incorporates elements of both to provide entertainment on a graphic scale unmatched by mainstream cinema. It tells a simple story. It ties together the Nine Inch Nails videos. It is a work of art that has become legendary in its own time among NIN fans and practitioners of bondage-domination and sado-masochism alike. It is easy to understand, regardless of one's personal feelings about the work, why Trent Reznor decided not to publicly release the film. It makes one wonder about the true horrors that take place in modern society, that go unnoticed until too late. It is well worth watching at least once.
Matt Snoddy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a computer science major at the University of Kentucky-Lexington.
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