Pariah (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Nazi See, Nazi Do

Can you stomach an unvarnished look into the vacant lives of young American skinheads? Pariah, like a through-the-looking-glass version of American History X, is brutally raw and often difficult to watch, but this low-budget indie is an important film that deserves to be seen by a large audience.

Set in modern-day Southern California, Pariah tells a simple story. Steve (Damon Jones), a quiet, unassuming white guy, and his black girlfriend, Sam (Elexa Williams), are set upon one evening in an indoor parking lot by a group of skinheads, who beat Steve senseless and gang-rape Sam, which they force Steve to watch. Writer/director Randolph Kret spares us none of this barbaric assault, but the aftermath is almost more awful to witness than the attack itself. Steve’s attempts to help Sam deal with the rape are entirely rebuffed by her, and Kret lingers with Sam, as films usually don’t, as she tries to cleanse herself of the skinheads’ contaminating contact, sitting in a bathtub, scouring herself not with soap but with abrasive bathroom cleaner.
Steve, in turn, transforms his inarticulate rage into a plan of action — he will infiltrate the skinhead group and kill his and Sam’s attackers. He shaves his head and dons the skinhead uniform — jeans, white t-shirt, red suspenders — and uses the pathetically insecure skinhead hanger-on Babe (Ann Zupa) as a way into the group.

Much of Pariah is like hanging out with skinheads, and they are not a fun crowd. They spend most of their time in a bare cinderblock clubhouse, spraying one another with beer, slam dancing to punk music, raping their own girlfriends, and making fun of Doughboy (Brandon Slater), the retarded brother of Sissy (Aimee Chaffin), who is their leader Crew’s (Dave Oren Ward) girlfriend. They crash parties and beat up blacks, Jews, gays, and transvestites for seemingly little reason other than relieving boredom. Even the Neo-Nazi rhetoric they spout seems delivered more by rote than with any understanding of what they’re saying. (One telling scene sees Crew’s right-hand man, David Lee [David Lee Willson], being taunted by the others for reading Mein Kampf.) None of the skinheads, in fact, seem to like one another very much.

The unknown cast is occasionally awkward but more often turns in powerful performances. They’re all so utterly realistic that the filmmakers obviously felt compelled to insert a disclaimer at the end of Pariah, announcing that no one involved in making the film actually supports any form of racism.

But Pariah‘s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness, however. Though the film loiters with the group, and introduces us to them, we never really get to know what makes them tick. With the exception of the girls — whom we learn have, to a one, histories of sexual abuse as children — there’s little introspection or examination of what makes anyone cling to the skinheads’ brand of hatred, or what makes such a violently aggressive atmosphere attractive to them. The slim story jumps around a lot, but there’s little cohesion to it — scenes don’t easily flow from one to the next. Pariah is extremely disturbing, but much of it feels like raw documentary footage that needs a bit of shaping.

Pariah‘s most important theme is that of hate begetting hate — a constant state of war exists between Crew’s skinheads and a local black gang, and the local gay community is even pushed to violence by the skinheads’ behavior. But Steve eventually takes the higher road, eschewing his original “eye for an eye” motivation just as it seems he is falling, unwittingly, too far under the evil spell of the skinheads. The film itself is an outlet of rage for Kret and producer Shaun Hill — Pariah is inspired by events in their lives.

But as if in ironic footnote, violence surrounds the production of Pariah. David Lee Willson, who is himself gay, was actually beaten up during filming — his skinhead costume angered local teenagers who didn’t realize he was an actor. And actor Dave Oren Ward was recently murdered in a road-rage incident in California. Pariah hopes to illuminate how distressingly ordinary the human propensity for violence is, and unfortunately has found itself victim to those very impulses.

share and enjoy