Series 7: The Contenders (2001)
Directed by: Daniel Minahan (I Shot Any Warhol)
Written by: Daniel Minahan
Genre: Action, Comedy, Satire
Cast: Brooke Smith, Marylouise Burke, Glenn Fitzgerald, Michael Kaycheck, Richard Venture, Meritt Weaver, Donna Hanover, Angelina Phillips
Plot: The film is presented as a "marathon" session of series 7 of fictional Reality TV show "The Contenders", where six strangers are randomly selected to fight each other to the death. Contestants cannot kill themselves and have to survive two series before they are let go. Series 7 of "The Contenders" sees pregnant survivor of series 6 Dawn Legarto (Smith) going up against ex-high school sweetheart Jeffrey Norman (Fitzgerald). Also in the running for the final prize is Catholic casualty nurse Connie Trabacco (Burke), father of two Tony Reilly (Kaycheck), elderly, paranoid, conspiracy theorist Franklin James (Venture) and teenager Lindsay Berns (Wever).
"The prize is the only prize that counts... your life." In a darkly funny twist on the Reality TV genre, Series 7: The Contenders follows a marathon session of series 7 of fictional Reality TV show "The Contenders". The rules of the show are simple - six contestants are selected at random from the population to fight to the death.Contestants cannot kill themselves and have to survive two series before they are let go. A concept that plays especially well in modern times, where popular Reality TV shows such as Survivor as opened the door for all manners of crazy, stupid and self-destructive tomfoolery to be shown on television in the name of ratings, Series 7 is a black comedy satire that deliberately pushes your moral buttons to make you think "indeed, how far would we actually go in the name of entertainment?" as well as the much more disturbing thought of "what would I do if it was their lives or mine?".
What makes this satire so effective is that the concept of the show itself isn't actually that extreme compared to some of the things we have been seeing on television lately. The news shows footage of real-life death, destruction and violence daily and Hollywood is often loaded with heavily-stylised versions of the same. So, once put in the context of modern times, the idea of real people really killing each other for entertainment doesn't seem so strange. The satirical nature is kept up beautifully during the course of the show with some delightfull little details, such as the phone-in system used by contestants to log kills ("if you are calling to score a kill, press 1 now") and the hideous exaggeration of emotional tension for entertainment value often present in real-life Reality TV shows.
The characters are another of the show's strengths because they indeed seem as real as you and I. The show interviews each of the contestants as they are introduced as well as through the course of the "show" and it's through these that we get to know the characters better. There's seven months pregnant sole survivor of series 6, Dawn Legarto (Smith), whose brutally effective acts of murder are perpetrated in the name of protecting her unborn child ("there's nothing I won't do for my baby"). There's Dawn's terminally-ill old flame Jeffrey Norman (Fitzgerald) whose conflict between his desire to die now and his wife Doria's (Phillips) loving desire for him to live give the film quite a lot of emotional depth. Also in the running is Catholic casualty nurse Connie Trabacco (Burke, who justifies herself as a pseudo-crusade to rid the world of undesireable elements. Elderly, paranoid, conspiracy theorist Franklin James (Venture), to whom the show represents the validification of every one of his crackpot ideas. Father of two Tony Reilly (Kaycheck) sees the show as a way of salvaging his failed marriage and relationships with his kids. And finally, teenager Lindsey Burns's (Wever) wide-eyed innocence is comically at odds with the cynical, morality-free world the show places her in. It's painfully obvious that she really doesn't belong in this atmosphere and that her random selection was one of the worst cases of dumb luck one could possibly experience.
The film is well-filmed and kept at a cracking pace by writer/director Daniel Minahan. The network television show-style presentation is consistently maintained throughout (the film was in fact conceived as a weekly television show) with gaps for commercials and subsequent re-caps, a "viewer discretion" at the beginning and a fast, busy pace. The action sequences are well-filmed and are very realistic (much of the movie is filmed with hand-held cameras, which greatly increases the "realism"), thus really giving the viewer the feeling of being "there". The plot twists and turns in a number of unexpected places, with a very suprising ending that will stay with you for days after the film's over.
Overall, I highly recommend seeing this film because it's a brutal but, at the same time, very intelligent take on what is acceptable in modern culture. Although I must give a word of warning - the film pulls no punches in terms of its subject matter and hence is graphically violent in some parts.
Rating: R for strong violent content and language (US)
Available on Koch Records, the track list is as follows:
- Girls Against Boys - It Begins
- Girls Against Boys - One Dose Of Truth
- Girls Against Boys - Let's Get It On
- Girls Against Boys - Unlucky Number
- Girls Against Boys - Creeping Feeling
- Girls Against Boys - I Knew Her...
- Girls Against Boys - Whole World Watching
- Girls Against Boys - Phone In
- Girls Against Boys - Tweaker
- Joy Division - Love Will Tear Us Apart
- Girls Against Boys - Ray Of Hope
- Julie Stephanek & Eli Janney - Sweetness Of Mine
- Girls Against Boys - The Set-Up
- Girls Against Boys - The Turn Around
- Robbie Kontor - Death Pact
- MenKing - Wedding Serenade
- Girls Against Boys - Dramatic Recreation
- Girls Against Boys - Nine Lives
- Girls Against Boys - The Contenders
IMDB page - http://us.imdb.com/Title?0251031
DejaMorgana - Re: the selection of the contenders, this is something that Minahan himself brings up on the Director's Commentary track during one part of the movie. The selection in the movie (and in Reality TV shows in general) is indeed deliberate and often done to foster the creation of conflicts in the show, because that creates drama, which in turn creates attraction to the show and ratings. I also agree that her family's utter monstrosity is a masterful moment in the film. Witness the scene in the car after she gets shot by Franklin and also her dad's irrational insistence that she kill Franklin and his anger at her losing her rifle and not wanting to go back into the fray. It's the "Soccer Dad/Mum" mentality taken to its logical extreme, where it becomes almost sheer lunacy. It is when she snaps - she turns against him and ends up stabbing him with her combat knife - that she stops being "Daddy's little girl" and turns against her father. These are all points excellently put forward by Minahan during the course of the movie, as well as a number of interesting anecdotes and some insights into the making of the movie.