Monday, May 15, 2006

Hostel

What does it mean when Hostel becomes the new mainstream, when what is essentially a slasher film unseats two relatively innocuous crowd pleasers like King Kong and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as the top-grossing movie in the land? Those were the first questions that ran through my mind as I sat in my car—doors locked—and tried to pull my thoughts together after a late night viewing of this film...

Once the initial shock and unease began to pass, however, it dawned on me that rather stretch the boundaries of morality, cinema, and good taste; this film seemed designed to reinforce them instead. I know, that sounds preposterous—Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino as the new voices of conservatism. But before you write me off as a crank, let me state my case.

Hostel has a fairly simple plot: Three guys—Paxton, Josh, and Oli—are backpacking across Europe and looking for a good time, a final fling before moving on to more serious rites of passage like bar exams and graduate theses. The problem is, they just can’t seem to hook up with the ladies. Out of desperation, they visit one of Amsterdam’s famous red light establishments. Paxton and Oli eagerly sample the wares, leaving the more reticent Josh to wander the halls as he waits for them to finish up. The interior of the bordello is cast in an eerie blue glow, and from behind every door comes the sounds and silhouettes of passion. At one point, Josh accidentally enters a room where a dominatrix is having her way with a client. Pay attention, folks. Considering what is to come, this is the proverbial gun over the mantle. Sooner or later it is bound to go off.

Later that night, our heroes meet a Slovakian guy who tells them about a legendary hostel just outside of Bratislava where they can get any girl they want. All they have to do is show up. Thinking they have hit the jackpot, the guys literally catch the next train out of town.
When they arrive in Bratislava, everything is as promised—girls everywhere, and all of them as willing as they are beautiful. The boys hook up right away. There’s just one problem: The morning after their first night of partying, Oli is missing. It isn’t long before we know what happened to him, but Josh and Paxton are still in the dark. After a day of searching, they decide he must have left with his new girlfriend. So they go out for one more night on the town before catching the train to Barcelona.

That night, both of them are drugged by their respective dates. Josh manages to stumble back to the hostel while Paxton accidentally locks himself in the back room of the bar for the night, a mishap that turns out to be a blessing in disguise.

In the morning, Josh wakes up to a living hell. He has no idea where he is, but he’s handcuffed to a chair, about to become the victim of some sort of homicidal sadist. When Paxton discovers Josh is missing, he tracks down their dates from the night before and demands to know where his friends are. The girls tell him that Josh and Oli have become part of an art show exhibit. From the looks on their faces, you just know this isn’t going to be pretty, but they agree to take Paxton to it.

When Paxton arrives at the so-called exhibit—which is located in an abandoned factory on the edge of town—he is quickly taken captive as well. As it turns out, all three friends have fallen prey to a group billing itself as “Extreme Hunting.” Turns out sick and twisted guys from around the world are willing to pay big bucks for the opportunity to play serial killer for a day. The hostel, the girls, the Slovakian guy in Amsterdam, they’re all part of an elaborate bait and switch operation.

Handcuffed to a chair, Paxton’s fate appears to be sealed. Lucky for him, his “client” isn’t so handy with a chainsaw, and rather than dismember Paxton as planned, he takes himself out instead. Now all Paxton has to do is find a way out of this hellhole. He emerges from his torture chamber to find himself in a hallway of horrors. Everything is cast in an eerie green glow, and from behind every door comes the screams and shadows of pain and horror. I’m not sure about Paxton, but suddenly my mind flashed back Josh’s experience in the Amsterdam bordello. This is precisely where Roth’s conservative message begins to emerge.

At the beginning of the film, these three young bucks were just starting down the road of fleshly desire. To them, the world was nothing more than an adult playground, a place to roam and rut to their heart’s content. Nobody loses; no one gets hurt. But their apparently innocent foray is brought to an abrupt halt by a group of men who’ve clearly been roaming this playground for a lot longer than Paxton and the boys. Rather than find satisfaction for their desires though, these men have discovered that nothing in this playground truly satisfies. To gratify their ever-increasing appetites, they must go deeper and deeper into ever more dark and disturbing places. Enough is never enough.

At no point is the final destination of this journey made clearer than when, en route to his escape, Paxton encounters a man who is about to make his first kill. Mistaking Paxton for a fellow Extreme Hunter, he asks him how his experience was. Did he do it fast or slow? What does Paxton recommend? He talks about how he arrived at this point, how he has traveled everywhere, tried everything, but nothing seems to satisfy—until this. He hopes this will be the ultimate thrill, the thing he has been searching for. All Paxton can do is stare at the guy in mute horror, perhaps realizing that he could be staring at a reflection of his future self if he allows his own slide into lust and hedonism to continue. I don’t think I need to bother summarizing the rest of the flick here. You can probably guess the main details—Paxton gets out, he gets revenge, he goes into therapy. The key point is the parallel Roth draws between Paxton’s Amsterdam experience and this pit of despair. He appears to be saying that the first inevitably leads to the second.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like the sort of cautionary tale you’d expect from your local pastor, who likely would have based his message on Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death,” and titled his sermon, “Those who live by the thrill; die by the thrill.” But who would have expected such a staunchly conservative message from Tarantino and Roth, best known for promoting sin rather than issuing warnings against it? What’s going on here? Have these guys suddenly gone religious? If so, they’ve done it in a way that only they can. After all, Roth appears to get as much of a thrill out of depicting pain and gore as his characters get from inflicting it. And this is exactly where the path between people like Roth and people like me begins to diverge.

Making a film that warns people about the perils of messing around with lust is one thing. But when you use the very behaviors you are warning against to make that statement, things have a way of backfiring on you. People who are sophisticated enough to get your message will get it. But let’s be honest, most people who gravitate toward films like Hostel are not sophisticated enough to get it, and so all this film really accomplishes is further desensitization, moving the audience one step further down the very road Roth is warning them against traveling.

But if graphic portrayals of sex and violence aren’t an effective deterrent, how do we talk about them? How do we portray the consequences of sin artistically without creating a fascination with the very sins we are warning people against? That’s a difficult question for any artist, no matter what moral or spiritual point of departure they are working from, and I am certain it is a question that even Roth and Tarantino wrestle with from time to time. I don’t hope to offer a definitive solution here, except to recognize that censorship can often be just as damaging—and just as effective at creating a fascination with sin—as its counterpart. At the risk of taking the easy way out, I think it all comes down to the individual choice of filmmakers and viewers alike. It’s just that some people are better equipped to make such choices than others…

So what does it mean when Hostel becomes the new mainstream? Many people will probably write it off as nothing more than another entry in the voyeuristic gore fest category inhabited by films like the Saw franchise and The Devil’s Rejects. Just another sign that our society is slipping further and further into moral oblivion. But that’s too easy, I think. Even though Hostel carries a clear message that getting off on other people’s pain is not healthy, for a movie like this to succeed as well as it has, clearly a lot of people do get off on this sort of sadistic cruelty. Which leads to the uncomfortable question of whether my own motives for viewing this film were truly “pure.” Was I really just there as a critic—a minister of God, even—or do I somehow get off on this sort of thing as well?

Whether Hostel gives you the thrills you’re looking for or prompts you to point your finger at a society you feel is hopelessly corrupt, I hope that it also prompts you to look inward. A film like Hostel can tell us a lot about the world we live in, but if we’re really honest, it can reveal far more about our true selves.

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