It’s difficult to know exactly what to do with Trash Humpers. It seems irrelevant and futile to take out my critical toolbox and attempt an assessment of character development, story, and visual style for a film that so clearly intends to pursue none of these things. Trash Humpers is a film that rejects any label forced upon it; it’s not a work of narrative, experiment, or non-fiction. It feels like it doesn’t belong in a movie theater, on a home television, or as part of a museum installation. Though it might sit comfortably in some foul odorous intersection of Dadaism, Lettrism, performance art, and street performance, intermingling initial impressions of realism with details of impossible absurdity.
Director Harmony Korine is no stranger to vehement dislike of his work. His two scripts for director Larry Clark – Kids (1995) and Ken Park (2002) – and his early work as director – Gummo (1995) and julien donkey-boy (1999) – have encountered universally divided reactions on many grounds. It’s debatable whether or not Korine sets out to inspire such reactions, but I have little doubt that he would consider one of his films a failure if it were universally embraced. Like many of those great filmmakers who praise his work (Werner Herzog, Lars von Trier, Gus Van Sant), Korine, with or without intention, often fills the role of provocateur. Following the expense, polish, and relative optimism of 2008’s Mister Lonely, Korine has taken a 180-degree turn in every conceivable sense with his latest, a choppy, Hi-8-videotaped segment-structured peek into the anarchistic lives of a group of elderly sociopaths who engage in various forms of destructive behavior, including the titular descriptor.
The very existence of Trash Humpers is itself a subversive act, in one sense playing out as a shocking corrective for populist episodic home video entertainment like Jackass or various YouTube videos, and as another giving a horrifying middle finger to the supposed horror of the found footage filmmaking trend exemplified by works like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity (Korine intended the film to come across as a found object, a VHS tape lying in a ditch somewhere featuring an odious vaudevillian variety of – to say the least – criminal activity). The film also eludes definition in what seem like deliberate inconsistencies in being a convincing found object: the Trash Humpers don cheap wigs, move about as if possessing the bodies of the young, and their hands clearly aren’t as old as their faces, and the film itself contains title cards at the beginning and end (albeit appropriately analog ones).
So while the film retains the choppiness and lack of story that a found object would (and as the film’s popular counterparts don’t), it’s unlikely that Korine intends the film to come across mistaken for reality. So Trash Humpers then occupies an elusive middle ground free from any sort of transparent signifiers of intention on behalf of the artist. But through the seemingly intended lack of conviction in its execution, Trash Humpers doesn’t contain the immersive grounding of Gummo or julien donkey-boy, and thus doesn’t possess the resonance of those films necessary to elicit divisiveness. Its form – or, more accurately, its deliberate lack thereof – is far more disturbing than its content. The historically divisive Korine has done with Trash Humpers the one thing I thought he would never do, make a film that one can leave from not hating or loving, but residing strictly in the middle.
Trash Humpers is a desperate scream from the loneliness of rural America urging the filmic establishment to wake themselves out of the trappings of repetition, and in this sense it works far more effectively as an act of protest than anything else. Its worth is in the symbolism of its existence rather than its execution. In the current cinematic landscape there are few who make films that challenge existing conceptions of what cinema is and what it could be. In the tradition of Luis Bunuel, Guy Debord, and Jonas Mekas, Harmony Korine is one of those filmmakers, and his role is in many ways important and essential. I just wish Trash Humpers was as challenging in its interior as it is in its exterior.