(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Roseanne (Monica Keena) is a cheerleader who dates a football player (James DeBello) and gets drunks at parties. But she’s also a killer. She convinces her boyfriend to sneak out of a pep rally for a date with destiny, revenge… and the brutal murder of her abusive stepfather. But once she’s gotten away with murder, Roseanne is shocked to learn that her mother’s untimely arrival at the scene of the crime has put her behind bars! Now Roseanne must struggle with her inner demons. Can she do the right thing or will her Mom take the fall for Roseanne’s vicious crime?
– From DVD Production Notes
Crime + Punishment In Suburbia is definitely a film for teenagers. It has its flaws, but sixteen years later its strong points still surprise me.
I’m mostly alone on this. Critics (and most viewers) don’t like it at all, but being an outlier puts me in good company. Roger Ebert maintained it was worth seeing in his post-Sundance review: “It is the kind of movie that lives and breathes; I forgive its shortcomings because it strives, and because it contains excellent things. To lean back and dismiss this movie, as most critics have done, is to show ingratitude. A messy but hungry film like this is more interesting than cool technical perfection.”
One thing I can’t deny is how unflinching Punishment is, considering that it’s supposed to be entertainment. It confronts and explores serious issues in a way I haven’t seen before or since: teen alienation, sexual abuse, alcoholism, and that sick-to-the-stomach feeling you get when there are tensions at home. I’m not claiming it’s the best at tackling these things but it remains effective, even when the film’s framework is on shaky ground.
Here’s an example: self-harm. I recently read a piece on how film and television rarely gets it right. I’ve seen thousands of films, but Punishment is the only one I’ve seen that depicts the emotional reasons someone may want to harm themselves.
It’s details like this that make Punishment worth its running time. When it comes to the complex stuff it’s straight-forward without glorifying or exploiting the subject matter. Roseanne’s personality and home life are given dimension, not only through her feuding parents but how she reacts by masking her emotions. She presents herself as someone she’s not, escaping into whatever emotional highs she can find. In a way, her relationship with the easily influenced Jimmy (James DeBello) makes perfect sense.
On the other hand, the character of Vincent (Vincent Kartheiser) is harder to parse. He is the equivalent of Dostoevsky’s Sonia and a savior-like figure, but his obsession with Roseanne is presented as purely sexual. He stalks her and takes pictures. He approaches her randomly and says off-putting things (“What is wrong with you?” she demands). What’s more, his beliefs in Christianity and salvation are a major part of the plot, so it’s strange to watch him tattoo “For Nothing” on his arm, a tagline for nihilism.
Through some grueling twists and turns Vincent becomes the only person Roseanne feels safe relating to. Her mother (Ellen Barkin) abandons her to live with a bartender (Jeffrey Wright), which becomes public knowledge and damages her reputation at school. She is also left to live and tend to her alcoholic stepfather (Michael Ironside), who has sudden bouts of rage. One night he rapes Roseanne and the following morning she has a breakdown at school, furthering her downward spiral from popularity.
The only solution Roseanne can see is removing her stepfather from the picture. She enlists the help of Jimmy to murder him, coming up with a foolproof plan. It goes down without a hitch, but there’s an unforeseen problem: her mother is arrested as a suspect. As time wears on Roseanne’s guilt begins to crush her. She finds herself withdrawing from everything familiar, causing her relationship with Jimmy to fall apart. In turn Jimmy falls apart himself- the tragedy is he truly loved Roseanne and would do anything for her.
Neither Roseanne or the audience is aware that Vincent knows she committed the crime, but has no interest in forcing a confession. It’s a choice she has to make herself.
For a film that markets itself as exciting, sexy and depraved (it certainly seems that way from its opening scene), there’s a lot more going on here. At heart Punishment is about feeling disconnected until a terrible decision shakes and alters your reality. How can someone so young cope with murdering one parent and incriminating the other? How can you reconcile what got you there in the first place?
Although the storytelling is uneven (and sometimes strange), Punishment examines what that might feel like and how messy it could be. And that’s kind of the point. Ultimately Rob Schmidt’s intentions were to address teens who were familiar with that kind of despair and ambiguity: “We set out to make a movie about outsiders and kids who secretly suspect that they’re outsiders. I had this thought that if kids could see a character that feels as out of place as them, and then comes out of it OK, it would give a bunch of 17-year-olds hope.”
What I find interesting is that people are still discovering and watching this film, considering how long it’s been around and little-known it is. Vincent Kartheiser has become well known for his work on Mad Men so fans have circled back to it, but it’s the teenagers finding it that I find the most striking. Sixteen years later they’re writing on message boards about what it means to them. It’s as if the film was released only months ago.
Perhaps that’s where Punishment succeeds the most. Some films find the right audience over time, regardless of whether they’re critically lauded or not. It’s a teenage fable and somewhat of a dream: proof that there’s freedom beyond the worst time of your life. And as imperfect as it is, its imagery and intentions illustrate a world where that’s possible.