These are wild times we’re living in. We’ve got wars for land in Ukraine and Israel bordering on genocide, racial strife and religion tied too closely with politics in the U.S. and U.K., a cult of personality seizing the good sense of ordinary citizens just about everywhere, a wealth imbalance that’s choking the middle and lower classes, and, that’s right, a pandemic. It’s almost enough to wonder if Billy Joel is silently working on a follow-up to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” In these times of increasing frustrations and dangers, there’s an opportunity for artists to create works that dip deep into those feelings. Cinematic audiences have seen it before with films like Godzilla (1954) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) during the Atomic Era and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) as a reflection of Cold War concerns. It makes sense then that someone like actor/writer/director Brian Patrick Butler, in his feature-length directorial debut, would make the surreal and absurdist Friend of the World, which takes just about all of the current concerns and rolls them into a single paranoia-infused sci-fi thriller. As the tagline says, “Just because you are saved, doesn’t mean you’re safe.”
Waking up in a closed in room surrounded by corpses, Keaton (Alexandra Slade) looks for any way out that she can. After many attempts, she manages to get free of the room, only to find herself in one trouble spot after another. Exhausted from her endeavors, she falls asleep, at which point she’s discovered by Gore (Nick Young), a general with no army and a penchant for wild theories. Unsure if they’re the two last humans on Earth, they make their way to what Gore thinks is a safe spot in a military facility, but they must survive a litany of dangers foreseeable and unexpected along the way.
One thing that has absolutely frustrated this particular reviewer of late is the notion that someone could evaluate a film based either on watching only a portion of it or by how engaged someone is at specific moments. Neither of these are a proper gauge of a story and don’t speak to the overall quality of a film because it’s the totality of a film that matters. Particularly in a film like Butler’s, one cannot presume to understand a single frame until the whole story is done. Even then, allow yourself time to marinate on the ideas presented because they will come at you without setup, without reason, and with the only sense that what keeps it together is its incoherence. This isn’t to suggest that the film is incomprehensible, it’s that Friend of the World is primarily a two-person tale in which there’s little we can see or hear that can be trusted. Thus, the audience must parse through the images and words, upon completion, to arrange the puzzle pieces in a way that makes sense amid the presumed chaos. Despite the seeming WTF nature of Friend of the World, there is order and sense, even if the structure, the narrative within, and the execution feel wildly unorthodox. The trick is, you need to make it through to understand.
Consider the following — Keaton, as we discover, is an artist, specifically an experimental filmmaker, who found herself in her situation because she was out shooting footage and was rounded up by soldiers and taken to where we find her. We don’t know why or under whose orders, we only know that, according to the details we can pull together, a nuclear war has taken place, the survivor total and which people are in charge are uncertain. What we do know is that Keaton is on her own until she meets Gore, who seems about as stable as you’d expect a supposed military man to be when he has no army to command. We don’t really know if Gore finds Keaton in a nearby location to where she started or where he’s holed up, nor do we have any real sense of geography since the two travel through apparent sub-terrain paths or sense of time as we’re beholden to when Keaton falls asleep. The confusion is amplified further as the supposed antidote for whatever is threatening them can cause hallucinations and paranoia. Once this comes into play, there’s no real way to know if what we’re watching is a fever dream or fact. Despite this, though, there’s never a sense of a message lost amid the wild imagery and disturbing prosthetic applications adorned by those who’ve been (supposedly) consumed by the threat. Laced with paranoia in every frame, Friend of the World reveals itself, by the end, to be a story where you can’t trust anyone, not even your own senses, in a world racked by propaganda and threats everywhere — especially those who proclaim to be your savior.
So what can we be certain of? In the opening of Friend, we’re shown an image of a woman, in full color (versus the monochrome of the rest of the film), with her actions reversed whether walking forward or backward, while a slightly off-rhythm “Symphony No. 9” by Ludwig van Beethoven plays. I interpret this as signifying a refusal to move forward, to cling to what was, to go back to something — a moment in time, a feeling, an action — rather than to conceive of what is happening now or after now. It’s a refusal to accept current circumstances. If one considers that Butler was inspired by his anxieties of 2016, the notion of someone reluctant to move forward makes sense. Even the altering of the music is uncomfortable, negating the joyful exuberance of Beethoven’s music by twisting it into something just off-center enough to be identifiable but signal that something’s wrong. It disquiets the familiar so that sound and image instigate the viewer almost immediately, before either character is properly introduced. This doesn’t even take into account the brief speech we’re greeted with before that footage plays, a quote by Dante in front of it, extolling the end of humanity and the birth of something new. It all sounds like gibberish, irrational nonsense, until the end, at which point it’s all too late anyway. Doesn’t matter if it’s Keaton clinging to what her life was before or Gore gleefully brushing off the old world to embrace the new, there’s a battle between what was and what is going on throughout Friend of the World, a battle which reaches its peak as the two ideologies come to bear.
Credit to Slade and Young for what is primarily a two-hander. Though Butler finds ways to utilize the characters to provide exposition in unconventional ways, the way he does so also plays into the exploration of propaganda that runs throughout, making the method less like an info dump and more on level with the themes at play. Even with all the weight of the narrative on their shoulders, both Slade and Young carry the film extraordinarily well, conveying the various mania which seep through the story. Some of this is, of course, helped by some clever prosthetics by CJ Martinez and VFX from Daniel N. Butler to create much of the Cronenbergian body horror and other twisty elements, but without Slade creating a convincing naiveté in Keaton and Young instilling Gore with pulsating, putrid paranoia, much of Friend of the World wouldn’t work.
Though there are moments when the exposition gets a little heavy in places and where the exposition doesn’t provide the kind of concrete answers we’d like, plus some truly wild absurd concepts that would likely make Dali clap, Friend of the World isn’t the most immediately accessible film, making it not for everyone. It’s not disposable as entertainment, but has something real to say regarding interpersonal strife powered by misinformation and the narrow view of only certain parts of humanity being worthy of life. By credits end, there will be a lot of questions rattling in your brain, so I encourage you who dare brave the film to let it sit with you, to consider the concepts, both spoken and visually presented, before bearing judgement. We could all do with a little more processing of information before speaking these days. As the world is literally and figuratively on fire these days, who really knows where impulsive reactions can lead.
Available on VOD and digital April 1st, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Friend of the World website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.