Pain & Gain seems to exist somewhere between The Wolf of Wall Street and Spring Breakers, possibly for the way that it closes the gap between film and subject (where one might’ve expected satirical detachment), provoking like the former, the bodybuilders into getting carried away and tripping up, and then stepping in and saying Haha it’s okay, keep going! Here I’ll help you… and so they do, they go and go! until they stop. It indulges similar excesses to both films, minus Spring Breakers’ celestial poetry, and minus the feeling in the classically literary Scorsese that these things will be indulged until the subjects’ inevitable comeuppance. Pain & Gain is too much of a frantic mess for anything even remotely literary or morally inevitable- it is about ‘doers’ ‘doing’ in a ‘free country’ and it is every bit as terrifying as it promises to be.
The film is charged and selfish with the characters, sweating and pacing through the streets and ogling bodies and crashing around and being stupid and making noise. It is showy and loud with a kind of turbulence that is made from drawing in overlapping but rigidly self-obsessed voices and perspectives and timelines rather than streamlining itself into a single material force a la Fury Road. It is more noise than punk, like if the vilest bros that ever lived summoned the spirit of The Jesus Lizard, or actually if The Jesus Lizard did a 3 disc concept album about bodybuilders kidnapping people. Bay’s experiments with different digital cameras draw attention in their textural dissonance to his expressive shots and the perma-montage angularity of his editing, which is of course pure joy and a nice break from the film’s otherwise intentionally over-saturated palettes and acerbic gaze.
It occasionally falls into the same (trap? I call it a trap, but others disagree) rhythm as The Wolf of Wall Street, that in its commitment to immersive, mimetic modes of description, it becomes inseparable from what it is describing. I understand why this would appeal but it threatens to feel like stockholm syndrome for Family Guy-esque fratbro cruelty (which is why I couldn’t get through TWoWS). This unnerving sense of blurring in art which can then be written off as irony by the artist, is exploited in places where the film mimics Scorseses and Tarantinos and Coens’. One scene blasts the Rolling Stones and dresses that ear scene from Reservoir Dogs up in screwball ineptitude and adds a tough-guy voiceover. If Tarantino is interested in the cutting of the ear, and Lynch is interested in the ear itself, then Bay is interested in why those two are interested in the ear. The film draws attention to how ‘aesthetic’ it is being, but it stays rotten, like the characters. We continue to be ‘jacked up’, ‘winning’, ‘doing’- the music doesn’t drop out, the filters don’t lift, the cameras still roll around and pace, ogling the violence the way they do buff guys and women with no waists, but the visual material has shifted to the torture of something like Saw or Hostel. It’s unblinking, or uncaring, another thrill. The horror of these people is not when we see them exposed, but when we see through their own eyes, joining them for a look in the mirror as it were. Everything breaks through holding it together- we pause but Bay doesn’t. There is a limit to aesthetics, and Bay tests the limits of empathy.
Scorsese frames opulence and excellence as Shakespearean tragedy- we anticipate the sinners’ comeuppance. The Coens ascribe this quality to fate and chaos, not a Christian God, but this inevitability remains. Everything in Pain & Gain is too rushed, too weird to ever seem inevitable. Bay doesn’t play with religion or philosophical Absurdism, and he also keeps these peoples’ lifestyles and personalities from ever seeming appealing or seductive. They are too absurd to be Absurd. They are, rather, deluded, and we are confused whenever their fantasies are actualised outside of their fever dream. There is a great sense of responsibility involved in having your dreams realised, and the world around you can only hope that you are not a monster. These creeps are possibly, definitely monsters, but what they are doing is trying to be more like those they admire. Pain & Gain shares commonalities with Terrence Malick’s Badlands in the way that it keeps these fantasies ‘low’, and never allows its dreamers to reach a high enough stature for a Shakespearean fall. We know that it is dangerous they have realised that they can act within a world outside of their heads, one inhabited by people with their very own hopes and dreams, but it is poignant in both cases when these heroes-certainly-not-heroes welcome capital punishment because it is their proof that they left a big enough mark on the world so as to warrant repercussions. They must’ve, for a minute there, been someone. The difference is that Badlands’ Kit had ‘outlaw’ as one of his fantasies to be fulfilled, and Whalberg’s Lugo settles for it when he just misses out on cowboying his way to entrepreneur and pillar of the community.