Real people with real guns go at each other, and the prize is the only prize that counts: your life. That family-fun concept has made The Contenders a TV ratings phenom for seven seasons. The latest show features eight- months-pregnant champ Dawn Lagarto — Bloody Momma to her fans — defending her crown (ten kills in two tours) against five new contenders.
If the fictional Contenders show sounds only slightly more extreme than Survivor or any other soulless reality-TV poison, then Series 7 is a cautionary fable whose time has come. Writer-director Daniel Minahan, risen from the ranks of tabloid TV, is playing with live ammo in his explosive feature debut. Some will say he's nuts. That's what they called Network screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky in 1976 for predicting that TV would broadcast real crimes. Chayefsky wanted to make us mad as hell so we wouldn't take it anymore. Instead, we took it in spades. Minahan isn't a prophet. He is lampooning what he knows. On Cops and America's Most Wanted, real people already have guns. On the recent premieres of Survivor 2, The Mole and Temptation Island, real people found fresh ways to behave inhumanly on camera. What drives them to do it and us to watch? That's the topic that ignites Series 7.
Minahan's technique is wizardly. He shoots his film in reality-TV style, assigning each contender a digital videocam operator and hyping things with music, graphics, editing, smash-mouth voice-overs ("Five lives stand between Dawn and freedom!") and dramatic re-enactments. The humor is black and brutal as contenders are shot, stabbed and bludgeoned for a game score.
To heighten the documentary effect of a film that has been carefully scripted, Minahan uses actors who are not household names, just expert at their craft. Brooke Smith, the girl in the pit in The Silence of the Lambs and a heartbreaker in Vanya on 42nd Street, is electrifying as Dawn. Smith nails every comic line without missing the flickers of humanity that still survive in her character. The show has brought Dawn back to her Connecticut hometown, after fifteen years away, to do battle with Connie (the superb Marylouise Burke), an ER nurse who's handy with a hypodermic; Tony (Michael Kaycheck), an unemployed husband and father; Franklin (Richard Venture), a lethal senior citizen; Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a teenager whose parents (Donna Hanover, the soon-to-be-ex-wife of the mayor of New York, plays mom) drive her to the best killing spots; and Jeff (a very fine Glenn Fitzgerald), Dawn's high school sweetheart and true love — who is gay, married to Doria (Angelina Phillips) and dying of testicular cancer. inahan weaves these stories together to exploit, parody and skewer the conventions of reality TV, which is just as it should be. Having debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Series 7 will now go out to shake things up in Bush America. That puts it in the best rebel tradition of indie filmmaking. You have to root for cinematic sandpaper that rubs a lot of the right people the wrong way. Both times I saw the movie, there were "Well, I never!" walkouts during the bloody shootout scene at a mall. Minahan wants us to see ourselves in the dark mirror of this outrageously funny satire. He's built the laughs wisely so they stick in our throats.