The Informers is the first filmed adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel to accurately portray the author's dire, minimalist prose and clipped dialogue without resorting to crutches meant to shield the blow of his devastating tales.
American Psycho hid behind bizarro humor and The Rules of Attraction distracted with period anachronisms and a hyper-stylized cinema vernacular; Less Than Zero was just bastardized and overstuffed.
By contrast, director Gregor Jordan's take on the 1994 short story collection is one of solemn faithfulness; he dives headfirst into the novel's early '80s Los Angeles milieu without a hint of irony. Like the source material, there's never a wink-wink moment, no comforting reminder that this is all just cheeky satire. In that sense, it's a success.
Whether it's a good movie or not is another story. It's certainly unpleasant to watch, and most critics have already dismissed it as shallow, cynical garbage. Even Ellis himself, who co-wrote the screenplay, has made clear in interviews that he's not entirely pleased with Jordan's creative choices.
And yet, there's nothing obviously wrong with the film. It's well-shot, adequately performed and faithful to the source. So, what's the problem?
For starters, there's no broad entry point for an audience outside of Ellis's already devoted followers. It's virtually plotless, unfunny and full of mundane sex and drug use. The book is all about mood, feeling and those small unspoken moments, three things that are notoriously hard to translate from page to screen. In each novel, Ellis's main targets have always been the lustful, drug-addled and power hungry of Los Angeles and New York. He's taken on the beautiful elite with a documentary-like deadpan gaze that's allowed critics to comfortably assume that Ellis is merely one of his own shallow hedonists, and The Informers doesn't do much to quell this misconception. It's detached and without apparent judgment, though the pervasive anguish of the story can speak for itself.
Unlike Attraction, which basked in the glamour of college depravity, The Informers begins quite literally when the party's already over. The opening credits have barely disappeared when a glitzy mansion gala is soured by the violent death of a young man, and the film jumps from the high of the coke-fueled party to the low of the memorial service and subsequent Beverly Hilton wake.
We meet Graham (Jon Foster), Christie (Amber Heard), Martin (Austin Nichols) and Tim (Lou Taylor Pucci), as well as Graham's estranged parents William and Laura (Billy Bob Thornton and Kim Basinger). This narrative thread loosely connects to several other characters, including doorman and struggling actor Jack (Brad Renfro), Jack's criminal uncle Peter (Mickey Rourke), local newscaster Cheryl Laine (Winona Ryder), Tim's alcoholic father Les (Chris Isaak) and barely-there rock star Bryan Metro (Mel Raido).
The characters are all connected, practically and in spirit, by their futile searches for satisfaction through drugs, sex, fame and money. In this world, pleasure and power are the worshipped deities, AIDS is fast descending on the town, and redemption is nowhere to be found.
Only active fans of the author are likely to find a reason to witness such unrelenting despair, and those who wander into the theater blindly, unfamiliar with the material, will likely leave confused and/or disgusted.
Ellis's novels can all be arranged chronologically to trace the spiritual disintegration of the same subset of privileged young people.
The reckless abandon of the college bubble in Attraction leads to the first taste of consequence in Less Than Zero. The journey ends with the terrorism and murderous psychosis of Glamorama and American Psycho.
The Informers fits squarely in the middle, somewhere between Sean Bateman and Patrick Bateman; it's a cliffs notes of the entire progression, with characters of all ages and from all walks of life processing the inevitable turning of the tide. In that sense it's the most hopeless of Ellis stories; instead of narrowly aiming at the over-privileged 20-something, it covers the entire spectrum of human misery.
"I need something more than this," pleads Graham.
"What else is there? You already have everything."
"I need somebody to tell me what is right and what is wrong."
And on the other side:
"You can't really make it in this town unless you're willing to do some really awful things," says the poor would-be actor Jack. "I'm willing."
These are the plights of Ellis's haves and have-nots, and Jordan films them as walking tone poems. They have no past and no future; they exist in the moment, consumed by their greed and narcissism.
The film's closing shot sums it up. A bikini-clad blonde, pale and bruised, lies on the beach, desperately soaking up the last UV rays of an overcast sky while she slowly dies of AIDS.
If this image strikes you as perversely picturesque, you might appreciate The Informers. For the rest of you, consider yourself warned.
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