Directed by: #BrianPatrickButler
Written by: Brian Patrick Butler
The post-apocalyptic dystopias that cinema can offer us feel a little less fictional these days, with deadly diseases and isolation becoming unfortunate regulars in our daily lives this year. However, with Friend of the World, writer-director Brian Patrick Butler just treads familiar ground with an unsubtle script keen to pontificate and world-building that leaves more confusion than intrigue. With engaging production design and performances, not all is lost though the film does meander through its thematic presentation with Butler’s direction lacking a clear focus. Following young filmmaker Diane Keaton (no relation) who in the wake of a devastating war finds herself in an underground bunker with the ultra-conservative, patriotic, paranoid General Gore, they both have to rely on each other to escape and survive the horrors of this new world.
While Nick Young and Alexandra Slade bring their characters to life with charisma and acerbic tension, the issues with the characters go back to the script. Butler’s writing has them always feel like caricatures rather than characters despite the best efforts from the cast. Young’s performance is captivating as Gore chews the scenery with glee, his character reminiscent of a more unhinged Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove. Though his monologuing always seems distracted from the world the film is trying to build, grandstanding for the audience’s amusement. Slade is more grounded, with her rationale and refusal to take any of Gore’s shit but most of their scenes feel like Butler playing out ideological debates than actual character development. It’s conservatism vs liberalism, the generational gap between Keaton and Gore butting heads with Gore’s vulgar attitudes towards Keaton’s lesbian romance and experimental filmmaking. Keaton’s mutual disgust with Gore’s doomsday ideology but their arguments and physical threats to one another lack a real tension, both caught in this cultural projection and it’s difficult to get invested in the personal stakes of the story.
Presentation-wise Friend of the World has its gripping moments, with the “zombies” of the film’s method of infection being disturbing and effective. Flesh merging against each other, C.J. Martinez’s makeup work on the film is stellar and makes the lore of this world come to life. Hallucinations and bizarre developments create some jarring tonal shifts but while the script fails to make sense of the film’s questions, the visuals provided are entertaining. Cinematographer Ray Gallardo keeps the action beneath the earth in black and white, with excellent use of lighting and visually crafting the morally dubious landscape the characters inhabit. The bunker seen throughout the film isn’t just the same dark hallway shot from different angles, there is a variety to Gore and Keaton’s journey though it still lacks a memorable personality. It feels that the strange happenings in the film occur just for the visual rather than to advance the characters despite remaining focused on Keaton and Gore for the majority of the runtime.
There are plenty of elements at play in Friend of the World, some engaging and some banal but Butler can’t harmonise this into something worthwhile. Young’s performance keeps the film from becoming boring but you’re left with so few answers to the film’s constant ambiguity that it’s hard for the audience to maintain invested interest.