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Unnatural & Accidental

Directed by Carl Bessai

Written by Marie Clements

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Starring Carmen Moore, Callum Keith Rennie and Tantoo Cardinal

Classification: 14A

Rating: **

While Vancouver filmmakers have a well-established tendency to portray the city's Downtown Eastside as the seventh ring of hell, local director Carl Bessai goes further than any of his peers in his horrific depiction of the neighbourhood in Unnatural & Accidental. In this adaptation of Marie Clements's play The Unnatural and Accidental Women, the mean streets of Vancouver teem with broken, battered people. Life being cheap, messy and short, no one pays much attention when a woman, especially a native woman, hits the bottom of her last bottle.

But there's nothing natural about such ends in Clements's tale, which is based on the real-life story of Gilbert Paul Jordan, a Vancouver barber who contributed to the deaths of at least eight native women by plying them with booze until they succumbed to alcohol poisoning. In the rendering of events by Clements - who also wrote the screenplay - evil takes the form of Norman (Callum Keith Rennie), a mechanic who frequents the Downtown Eastside bars and regards himself as a hunter of women. He describes his murderous habits as a matter of "culling the herd." In a series of increasingly lurid scenes, the movie depicts Norman as a charismatic but demonic figure, a sadist who hides his true face in a good-time-Charlie routine. (Canadian cinema's go-to guy when it comes to playing violent head cases, Rennie is suitably menacing in the role.)

One of Norman's victims is Rita (Tantoo Cardinal), though being dead doesn't prevent her from serving as the movie's narrator or from guiding her daughter, Rebecca (Carmen Moore), toward her destiny. Raised by her white father after her parents split up, Rebecca comes looking for her mother in the neighbourhood's flophouses. As her frustration leads to despair, she starts to share Rita's taste for alcohol and it's not long before Norman notices her.

Clements has said she wrote her play in the hope of drawing attention away from the killer - always the media's favourite character in lurid crime stories - and turning it to his victims. Onstage, she fleshed out their lives in monologues, songs, dances and surrealistic touches that took their stories outside the usual confines of reality. On film, however, her work becomes something seamier and more generic: It turns into an exploitation movie with pretensions.

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Avoiding the social-realist mode of Nathaniel Geary's On the Corner, a superior film about Vancouver's east side, Bessai loads up his movie with all manner of visual gimmickry, including time-lapse shots, lurching and spinning camera movements, extreme close-ups and abrupt shifts in light and colour. Aggressive and distracting, the stylistic tactics leave little room for the quieter moments that could have revealed more about Norman's victims.

Though Rebecca benefits from greater attention (and from the movie's best performance), she ultimately serves the same function as any heroine who survives until the final reel of a Friday the 13th sequel. The doomy score and sound design make Unnatural & Accidental seem even more like a slasher flick, and not a very effective one. (The decision to co-opt so many genre trappings seems particularly pointless in this case, seeing as the worst sights of the Downtown Eastside already outdo most horror movies.)

Bessai and Clements show great courage in taking such an unorthodox approach to a subject as sensitive as native women's vulnerability to poverty, addiction and violence. But Unnatural & Accidental becomes so chaotic and grotesque, it fails to elicit much sympathy for the people it purports to memorialize.

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