BRUTAL: An Excessive Exercise In Diminished Rewards

Part mixed martial arts drama, and part science fiction melodrama, Brutal is an original feature length motion picture written by Donald Lawrence Flaherty and co-directed by lifetime stuntman, Colin Follenweider. Centering around a bizarre cage match set up that sees a young suburban youth named Trevor (Morgan Benoit) matched up against a bulky ambulance chasing lawyer named Derrick (Jeff Hatch), the two are forced to fight one another endlessly at the behest of their inquisitive alien abductors.

If the premise sounds far fetched, you’d be right. But what’s far worse is that Brutal aimlessly meanders for a good thirty-to-forty minutes – which amounts to the bulk of its seemingly concise 80-minute runtime – before the viewer can even make heads or tails of its fairly rudimentary plot. To add insult to injury, every single performance falls flat from a cast of completely inexperienced performers who interact with one another as if they’ve never been in front of a camera before.

Mortal Combat

Follenweider – whose work as a stuntman on such blockbuster motion pictures as Avatar and X-Men: Apocalypse, among many others – manages to direct several MMA cage matches with technical acuity and physical finesse. But Flaherty never manages to off-set those eponymously intense sequences of man-on-man carnage with any contextualizing grace. Instead, those fights become as redundant and morbidly self-defeating as the very same kinds of third-person fighting video games that Trevor is depicted spending a significant amount of time playing prior to his initial abduction.

BRUTAL: An Excessive Exercise In Diminished Rewards
source: Inception Media Group

Games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat succeed within a vacuum of decontextualized space dominated by active participants in a digitally fabricated world of nihilistic fantasy. They never feel gratuitous largely because violent hyperbole is the sole reason for their very existence. Consumers who actively seek out those forms of entertainment are largely uninterested in story. Instead, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat – however cinematic they are when it comes depicting heightened states of fevered activity – are engaged on an inactive level from the point of view of the player who would presumably never do any of the things fictitiously represented in real life.

But in taking the basic set up of a fighting simulator and transporting it to the big screen in Brutal, a whole new set of narrative expectations are introduced on the behalf of the viewer. Flaherty attempts to ground what is an essentially verbatim representation of third-person fighting video games against a science-fiction trope, but falls short when it comes to fleshing out what is an inherently one-dimensional set of supporting protagonists.

Intellectual Stalemate

Co-stars Benoit and Hatch are ill-matched from the outset. While the former is perhaps the more emotionally sympathetic character throughout, the latter’s bone-headed and lazy on screen presence only serves to call further attention to Flaherty‘s abysmal job as a writer and a director. The viewer is obviously meant to care for Trevor – in addition to wondering what the end game is for the aliens who abducted him years ago as a young teenager to begin with – but the film’s suffocating affection for the fight sequences outweigh any human drama from ever fully developing around them.

BRUTAL: An Excessive Exercise In Diminished Rewards
source: Inception Media Group

Flaherty makes several attempts at questioning the nature of human sentience, but like his alien antagonists – or for that matter their human test specimens – he doesn’t really come across as understanding the subject either. To make up for this glaring shortcoming, Brutal fleshes out the rest of the film’s narrative with several scenes of crimes and misdemeanors that only serve to detract from the core dilemma involving Benoit and Hatch.

French philosopher and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in his 1944 existentialist play No Exit that, “hell is other people.” In that famous work of 20th century fiction, Sartre presented the case for the human experience boiling down to an essential conflict between a vast multitude of warring identities that amount for the human race as a whole. In BrutalFlaherty sets the stage for a similarly minded philosophical thriller to unfold, if only he could get out of his own way long enough and let the characters actually confront one another without violent interruption. Instead an intellectual stalemate occurs that bars any true dramatic catharsis from ever being reached.


It would be too kind to say that Brutal presents the case of a missed opportunity that might be further developed in future motion picture productions. Far from it, Flaherty presents the case for being more discerning when it comes to encouraging budding voices from pursuing the development of talent in the arts. It’s easier than ever to pick up an iPhone or purchase the equipment necessary to get your own independent feature off the ground and running, but not everyone need apply to the position of being a filmmaker.

Brutal is an unentertaining slog to get through from start to finish, and it should have been abandoned on the very first day of shooting. Surely someone on the set observed everything that was going on and realized how poorly handled things were turning out as cameras began to roll. It’s never pleasant to rain on someone else’s parade, but Brutal is a movie that is only excessive in its willful disregard for the viewer’s attention and sympathy.

Are you a fan of MMA fighting? Would you be interested in seeing more movie further develop the sport as a cinematic spectacle?

Brutal is currently playing in select theaters in the U.S. Find international release dates here.

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