Director/Screenplay – Daniel Minahan, Producers – Jason Kliot, Katie Roumel, Christine Vachon & Joana Vicente, Photography – Randy Drummond, Music – Girls Against Boys, Music Supervisor – Julie Paniebianco, Special Effects – Drew Jiritano, Production Design – Gideon Ponte. Production Company – Blow Up Pictures/Killer Films/Open City Films
Brooke Smith (Dawn Lagarto), Glenn Fitzgerald (Jeffrey Norman), Marylouise Burke (Connie Trabucco), Michael Kaycheck (Tony Reilly), Merritt Wever (Lindsay Berns), Angelina Phillips (Doria Norman), Richard Venture (Franklin James), Nada Despotovich (Michelle Reilly), Jennifer Van Dyck (Laura), Tanny McDonald (Dawn’s Mother), Will Arnett (Narrator)
It is the seventh season of the hit reality tv series ‘The Contenders’ in which contestants are licensed to kill each other, with the last survivor winning a large cash prize. The current reigning champion Dawn Lagarto, who is also eight months pregnant, returns to her hometown of Newbery, Connecticut, for the next round. There the five other contenders she must face are chosen by lottery – unemployed Tony Reilly, 67 year old nurse Connie Trabucco, virginal teenager Lindsay Berns, elderly recluse Franklin James, and Dawn’s former love Jeffrey Norman, now dying of testicular cancer and whom Dawn still holds feelings for.
Every interview with director/screenwriter Daniel Minahan prior to the release of Series 7: The Contenders stressed one very important fact – that Series 7 had been conceived prior to the current craze over Survivor (2000– ) and other reality-based tv shows such as Big Brother (2000– ), Temptation Island (2001-2), The Mole (2000-5), The Bachelor (2002– ) ad infinitum. The idea of Series 7: The Contenders probably came from the Italian science-fiction film The Tenth Victim (1965) – a film that is well overdue for a remake – and the French film The Prize of Peril (1983), both of which concerned a future where contestants could hunt and kill each other on a tv gameshow. It is as though Daniel Minahan has had the ingenious idea to feed The Tenth Victim through the modern faux video documentary popularised by The Blair Witch Project (1999). Even though the film’s conception predates phrases that have entered popular parlance such as “You’ve been voted off the island” and “The tribal council has spoken,” Daniel Minahan’s parody of the potted biographies, the soundbite comments, the hyped dramatics of episode-end cliffhangers and the banal platitudes of narrators’ commentaries on reality tv shows is unerringly on target.
Daniel Minahan previously wrote Mary Harron’s I Shot Andy Warhol (1996) and in Series 7: The Contenders he makes a strong and assured debut as director and solo writer (with some help from a Sundance workshop for which the film was selected). Minahan is particularly adept at achieving a perfect sense of ordinariness in everything that is happening. In so doing, Series 7 attains an hilarious black offhandedness. The business of murdering people for entertainment is undercut with an almost ludicrous banality – the teenager’s parents pushing her to run after the old man with a semi-automatic rifle on a gold course; Brooke Smith shooting a man in a convenience store and then turning to ask if the clerk has any cheese dip. There are some very funny scenes where Brooke Smith calls and taunts victims by phone – in one scene, phoning in a bomb threat and then shooting the victim as they run out of the house. There is an hilarious scene where a group of people are taken hostage by Brooke Smith and start applauding her as a celebrity seemingly unaware of the contradiction that what they are applauding are her threats to shoot them. The only failing of Series 7: The Contenders as satire is in seeing it in cinemas rather than on tv where its unnerving mimicry of the form would have been entirely devastating.
Daniel Minahan has the ability of a good science-fiction writer in being able to take an outlandish social notion – a tv series where contestants can hunt and kill one another – and play it with perfect seriousness. What is also notable about Minahan’s skill as a writer is that he makes Series 7: The Contenders more than simply a mockumentary but also dramatically compelling suspense. The script twists and turns with marvellous dexterity. Daniel Minahan cleverly uses the dramatic episode-end teasers as a way of foreshadowing to sometimes deliberately mislead us about what is going to happen. Minahan also demonstrates a fine dramatist’s ability to take a basic situation and keep compounding and twisting it. [PLOT SPOILER WARNING]. In one hilarious twist, he has lead contender Brooke Smith suddenly going into labour just as she is about to shoot nurse Marylouise Burke, resulting in the darkly funny image of Marylouise Burke caught between shooting the mother as she lies helpless or fulfilling her professional duty to save the baby. The climactic scenes where the former love that Brooke Smith goes to kill decides he is not interested in dying any longer and the two hatch a plan to turn the tables on the show is hilarious.
Daniel Minahan also has a particular ability to etch each of his characters in a way that what they don’t say when they speak gives a far greater portrait of them than anything they directly say to the camera – the teenager and her parents who push her to success but are soon revealed as over-ambitious control freaks; the gradual hints of cracks and secrets in the relationships of the two married contenders; Brooke Smith’s visit to her family, which dig up their buried resentments; and especially the dear old nurse who, in trying to explain her compassion and justifications for joining the show, reveals a set of values that are all but outrightly fascistic.
The performances are particularly good. Brooke Smith, previously the cellar abductee in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), is particularly devastating – the first pregnant heroine since Frances McDormand in Fargo (1996) and with an ability to kick ass that would make Sigourney Weaver pale. The sense of hard-bitten assertiveness that Brooke Smith projects, contrasted with the drab banality of the way she looks is startling. A good deal of the show is stolen out from under her by Marylouise Burke – the look of coldness on Marylouise’s face as she goes to administer a lethal injection or her dumpy frame stalking through a shopping mall wielding a semi-automatic rifle is totally unnerving.
(Winner for Best Actress (Brooke Smith) and Best Supporting Actress (Marylouise Burke) and nominee for Best Original Screenplay at this site’s Best of 2001 Awards).