By: John M Jerva
Adrien Brody is one of those actors that immerses himself in his roles. Mostly known for dramatic fair, Brody has dabbled in action in the past with Predators being his most known attempt at being an onscreen bad ass. The versatile actor will probably never officially go full on action, but the art house thespian can definitely visit there from time to time if his offerings are anything like his latest passion project named Clean.
The downbeat drama is most certainly a passion project of Brody’s as the actor not only stars in the movie, but he also wrote it and composed the musical score as well along with producing it. From the look of the finished project, one can deduce that Brody is a definitive fan of old school vigilante thrillers circa the 70’s and 80’s like Death Wish and Taxi Driver.
This movie is without question not a mainstream flick and it’ll definitely be an acquired taste for many as Clean is a slow burn potboiler devoid of anything resembling happiness. The 90 plus minute running time will be a hard watch for many but for those few that know what it’s going for, the payoff is rewarding if not melancholy.
Brody stars appropriately enough as a man named simply as Clean. He’s a hermit garbage man who has no family and only a few friends in the neighborhood that is completely rundown and void-less of hope. This is the kind of neighborhood where the cops drive by a mob beating up some poor victim because they probably don’t want to be bothered.
Clean spends his days working his garbage route and filling his off hours working on his car and finding objects that he can sell at the local pawn shop run by Kurtis (RZA). It’s a solemn existence and through bleak flashbacks we come to learn that he once had a daughter to which he lost through a tragic event.
We also know that Clean had another life where he was a very dangerous man who worked for even more dangerous people. Those days are long gone and now Clean lives out his days in isolation or some kind of self-inflicted purgatory.
The one and only real friend he has is Travis (Mykelti Williamson) who runs the local barbershop. The way they speak to each other reaffirms that Travis knows all about Clean and what he once was and resembles sort of the voice of truth for a man who hates himself for what he has become.
Clean, in some act of penance, looks out for a local neighborhood girl named Dianda (Chandler DuPont) who lives with her grandmother Ethel played by Michelle Wilson. It’s clear to the audience that Dianda most assuredly reminds Clean of his deceased daughter, so it makes sense that he serves as sort a guardian angel to her. He brings her healthy food, gives her lifts to school and gets her a bike when her bus stops coming to pick her up.
The neighborhood is full of bad people, and no one is badder than Michael (Glen Fleshler) who runs a local seafood establishment. It’s only a front of course as Michael is a scumbag criminal who runs a very successful drug operation out of his business and rules with an iron fist.
Michael wants his son Mikey (Richie Merritt) to follow in his footsteps and when Mikey gets out of juvenile detention, Michael welcomes his wayward son back into the fold. Unfortunately, Mikey just wants to be gangster with the area hoodies which doesn’t sit well with daddy dearest.
Paths collide one faithful day when Dianda gets mixed up with the wrong crowd including Mikey and when she is assaulted, Clean comes to her rescue in brutal and bloody fashion as he beats everyone to an inch of their lives with a wrench. This includes Mikey who is mercilessly cut down by Clean’s act of retribution.
Now Michael wants revenge and he’s going to use every tool at his disposal, including crooked cops, to make Clean pay for what he did. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Michael that Clean was once known as the Grim Reaper and he’s about to find out the hard way that there’s always somebody better.
I stated before that Clean is a slow burn as the first two thirds of the movie is basically us looking in from the outside on Clean’s miserable and lonely existence. Brody gives us a little taste of what’s in Clean’s head through voiceovers and during the film I couldn’t help but think that Brody sounds an awful lot like Mickey Rourke. Brody does nail the role of lost soul looking for some kind of redemption for the ugly things that he’s done.
Plot wise, Clean isn’t anything new as this is another film that showcases a former hit man who has developed a conscience and is looking out for a child that needs help. This type of film has been done many times before but here it’s Brody’s low-key performance that sort of sucks us in and makes us want to see what happens next especially when the shit finally hits the fan.
Director Paul Solet paints a drab and unflinching portrait of a neighborhood that has nowhere to go and the slow pacing for the first half of the movie actually sets up the brutal finale where Clean embraces yet again who he was. It’s like night and day as first we are watching a sad movie about lost souls and then it takes a 180 and turns into a bloody massacre where Clean uses knives, wrenches, screwdrivers, axes and a sawed-off shotgun to deliver his righteous message.
The supporting cast all deliver suitable performances and Glen Fleshler hits the mark as the sleazy Michael who has no redeeming factors at all. Michael is so void of anything remotely worthwhile, so it is very satisfying to see him get what is definitely coming to him. RZA and Mykelti Williamson are essentially cameos here but they do add the necessary pieces to the puzzle that is Clean’s life.
It’s in the last 30 minutes where Clean pays its unflinching homage to those dark and gritty vigilante thrillers of the past and even though a lot of them did it better, Clean still offers something a little different for those filmgoers who are looking for something a little different. Brody’s Clean basically goes all Oldboy on the thugs sent to take him out and the choreography is realistic and nasty just like the film itself.
In the last act, Clean embraces who he is and runs a gauntlet of thugs and crooked cops in a bleak and bitter standoff where blood flows like it’s free. It’s not for the faint of heart and it doesn’t celebrate the violence but instead it offers it up as a symbol for what’s wrong with society. The killing onscreen is anything but ceremonial and it is here where Clean earns its vigilante genre stripes.
The ending, I am happy to say does offer a little hope to what has transpired and even though it’s a little ambiguous, viewers will be able to deduce what happens even though it isn’t cut and dry. I was expecting the cliche drab ending, so this was a pleasant surprise for me.
The music, which Brody orchestrated himself, doesn’t really stand out after its initial viewing but it does serve its purpose especially in the more heated scenes. I commend Brody for tackling all this and even though it’s not the greatest, it’s still worth a watch for those who delve into these types of films.
Overall, Clean is not mainstream by any stretch of the imagination but if you can make it past the slow burn start then fans of vigilante style thrillers will be rewarded. Adrien Brody brings his usual gravitas to his role of former hit man looking for penance and it is Brody that makes us want to continue to watch. It’s an ugly movie that’ll probably make you want to take a shower afterwards, but it still offers something for the type of film it is.
There’s enough action and carnage in the latter half to satisfy genre fans looking for a fix and even though this film is all dark and brooding, it reminds some of us how fortunate we are with the lives we have. This film won’t win over many people, but I stuck it out and enjoyed what it gave me which was an unapologetic look at people who have nowhere to go who are faced to live with the consequences of failed existence. Adrien Brody has crafted a morbid love letter to these types of spiteful films that shows us the ugly side of society and the people who are trapped in it.