Synopsis: Tormented by a past life, garbage man Clean attempts a life of quiet redemption. But when his good intentions mark him as a target of local crime boss, Clean is forced to reconcile with the violence of his past.
Stars: Adrien Brody, Glenn Fleshler, Mykelti Williamson, RZA, John Bianco, Michelle Wilson, Richie Merritt, Chandler Ari DuPont
Director: Paul Solet
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: For a while, it seemed that after winning an Oscar for Best Actress, women who tucked the award away on their mantle would suffer from some curse for some time after. Their following projects would tank, and they would struggle to regain the credibility that an Academy Award would bring them. For recent examples, I’d offer you Halle Berry as Exhibit A, and Hilary Swank as Exhibit B. Swank even had to go back and win a second Oscar to get things back in order, only to return to making lesser-than efforts. My point to all of this is that no one seems to look at the Best Actor winners, many of whom walked the same path but, unsurprisingly, aren’t held to that same standard.
For the review of Clean, let’s look at Adrien Brody. To some, his win for The Pianist in 2002 came as a surprise, but one need only watch the film to know why Brody easily bested his competition that year. Since that time, Brody hasn’t exactly set the box office on fire and often plays third or fourth banana in ensemble projects (like 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel) or even takes the backseat entirely to special effects bonanzas (as in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong). Still, it’s not like Brody doesn’t seem aware of that. It’s probably why he’s generating his own work and curating projects that speak to him. However, if Clean is what he’s leaning toward, I’d rather see him in an update of 1986’s King Kong Lives.
Serving as the producer, co-writer, composer (!), and star, Clean is Brody’s take on the gritty dramas made famous in the ‘70s by unlikely stars such as Charles Bronson and his Death Wish series. The familiar tale of a man with a past (or, better yet, no past) who becomes the beacon of hope for a person (or family, or neighborhood, or city) in danger from violent thugs is well-worn enough to be threadbare but it isn’t without its merit and charm. When done right. There’s something kind of dirty about the entirety of Clean, which tends to have a grime that rubs off like a grease and makes it hard to wipe away when the film concludes. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad effect, per se, for a film to have on an audience. Still, I couldn’t get over feeling like director/co-writer Paul Solet (Tales of Halloween) and Brody’s persistent focus on the deep dark made any grasp at redemptive light nearly impossible to see.
Loner garbage man Clean (Brody) quietly works the night shift hauling away trash from decaying neighborhoods in a city that offers him little comfort. Plagued with nightmares from a horrific trauma he’ll never get over, he tries to distance himself from emotion by staying busy with work and repairing small appliances he finds on his route. With no family of his own, teen Diandra (Chandler DuPoint) is someone he can be a pseudo-father figure to, even if her mother Ethel (Michelle Wilson, Premature) has suspicions about the overly kind man that says he’s just watching out for her child. The enormity of violence and gangs creeping into the streets where Clean and Diandra live require constantly staying alert, and when Diandra begins to fall in with the wrong crowd (almost out of necessity for survival) and Clean intercedes, it puts him and those he wants to protect in the path of Michael, a most dangerous criminal.
Usually, the villain of a movie like this gets a scene here or there to illustrate the extent of their wickedness, and Solet/Brody don’t skimp on opportunities to show just how evil and manipulative Michael (Glenn Fleshler, Joker) is. He runs two long-standing family businesses in tandem. One is fish, the other foul (drugs), and recently paroled son Mikey (Richie Merritt) wants nothing to do with either one of them. The discord between father and son is another familiar device used to create a tension that boils over and leads to their paths crossing with Clean and the bloody repercussions of their actions.
As is often the case with these types of genre-specific films, the payoff for wading through some thick yuck in abhorrent violence by the bad guys in the first two acts of the movie is the reward of watching the good guys (and gals) take them down with extreme prejudice in the final salvo. The problem with Clean is that by the time we arrive at Brody strapping himself into tactical gear and literally pulling out the big guns, none of the “good” characters have won us over to give us reason to actively root for them. Sure, they’re far better than the vile alternative (Fleshler and specifically Merritt make it way too easy for you to want them exterminated), but we’re so little invested in the characters that Clean could have ended in multiple ways, and it wouldn’t have made much difference.