What: Film Review
Directed by: Jules Stewart
Written by: Jules Stewart and Jared Kurt, with story by Stewart and Kurt
Produced by: Tom Wright Jr.
Starring: Goran Visnjic, D.B. Sweeney, Portia Doubleday, Kate del Castillo, Jason Mewes
Running Time (in min.): 88 minutes
Language: English, Spanish w/ English subtitles
I recommend reading Susan Sontag’s seminal essay on the makings of “Camp”, a genre of cinematic and literary experiences, before watching the feature debut of writer-director Jules Stewart. Stewart’s first movie in these roles – with more than fifty script supervising credits in film and television prior – milks Sontag’s bullet-point descriptions for all they are worth, then moves right on and keeps milking. If John Waters, George Kuchar, and Vince Gilligan were all cows, they’d be butchered for their meat the moment someone saw Stewart’s K-11. No one wants a cow totally depleted of milk.
That is to say that K-11 wears its influences on its sleeve without embarrassment or fear that some might have trouble differentiating between homage and plagiaristic hodge-podge. It takes from the experimental camp artist Kuchar and blends the narrative framework of Waters’ films to make one partly-enjoyable feature. Working from a script and story she co-wrote with Jared Kurt, Stewart places us inside a portion of a Los Angeles County Jail reserved for demented transsexuals, queer criminals, and framed record-company executives. In this disgusting section, K-11, there is only one of the latter: Raymond Saxx, a drug-addled businessman convinced that he has been jailed for one reason.
As played by strapping Goran Visnjic, the former ER heartthrob who has displayed great versatility in 2001’s The Deep End and 2011’s wonderful Beginners, Saxx seems worth trusting about as far as he can be thrown. That applies to the other freaky-types in the jail with him. After being placed in a feces-covered, near-solitary stone room with Butterfly (Portia Doubleday, finding exactly the balance between grotesque and gorgeous), he is transferred to an open military-style bunker room. Overseeing the drug dealings, violent in-house murders, and S&M behavior is Mousey (Telemundo star Kate del Castillo), a transgender gangster with connections to the prison guards. Stewart and Kurt allow for some mystery as to Saxx’s innocence, in the interest of suspense, but spend most of their time exploring the repulsive “romances” and deals going on inside K-11.
Mousey is more a lover than a fighter, in the sense that she spends the whole film sadistically kissing Saxx and her sleazy, coke-addicted partner Ben (Jason Mewes) before smacking or choking them. Thirty years ago, the role would have been perfect for Divine; del Castillo, for her part, puts on an appropriately classless one-woman cabaret. Her performance suggests what might happen if RuPaul began dealing Black Tar heroin. Stewart, for her part, manages to direct every actor to memorable and mildly shocking effect, a trait that might aid her in a piece with more nuance. Performances by Doubleday, del Castillo, and especially a pouty D.B. Sweeney as corrupt homosexual guard Johnson, are filled with swagger and devotion. In the interest of independent vision and cult popularity, subtlety is not the name of the game here. Watching young Doubleday smile through a veil of a prisoner’s squirting throat-blood comes as one of many similar pleasures that this film’s intended audience might discover.
In fact, K-11, now in select theaters across the country, seems to revel in its own filthy visual imagination, and something about its unforgiving grossness makes Stewart’s picture a rollicking entertainment. Consider the disparity between online critics and audiences on the Rotten Tomatoes page for the film: nine percent of critics claim the film is “fresh”, or good, while almost seventy-five percent of audiences love it. While not a statement of mastery or precision – rather, the film is a bit ramshackle, moving far too quickly through Saxx’s imprisonment and failing to build any sort of suspense – Stewart is declaring a real love for camp filmmaking.
Love it or leave it, we accept the conditions of a camp film without restraint: melodramatic, overenthusiastic line delivery; discombobulating visual effects and blaring music; and far, far more attention to style than to substance. Those who love K-11 won’t hesitate to say, “it’s so bad, it’s good.” Well, no, not quite – but at least it’s something different from someone fresh.