Daniel Minahan’s SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS [8/10]


Unlike some recent releases, Series 7 arrives with very little hype, which makes it all the more surprising and refreshing. But it’s funnier and faster than Best In Show, sharper and darker than Amores Perros, stranger and scarier than Songs From The Second Floor. You watch the slam-bang first five minutes in slack-jawed amazement – it’s the best opening of any film since Magnolia, though the two could hardly be more different in their subject and style, not to mention length. This is an 86-minute blast of a movie – apart from the fizzly ending, it’s one of the year’s funniest, wildest, cleverest, all-out best new releases, managing to entertain, disturb and provoke in equal measure.

The set up is, at first glance, a cross between Survivor and Death Race 2000. We’re plunged into an extended episode of ‘The Contenders,’ as six residents of a small town in Connecticut are selected by lottery, issued with a handgun and a cameraman, and left to pick each other off. The last one standing wins. the chance to come back as defending champion. Reigning champ of Series 7 is the heavily-pregnant Dawn (Smith), who finds that her new set of opponents includes an old flame, Jeff (Fitzgerald), now an artist dying from testicular cancer. An unseen, deadpan Narrator (Arnett) introduces the rest of the field – dumpy nurse Connie (Burke), teenage mallrat Lindsay (Merritt Wever), slobbish Tony (Michael Kaycheck) and paranoid oldster Franklin (Richard Venture) – setting the quickfire, pitch-perfect tone that barrels us on through the rest of the film.

This is black satire in a Paul Verhoeven vein – as with Starship Troopers, we’re presented with the material as is, with no cosy context, nothing to distance us from what we’re seeing. The only real difference is that Verhoeven would have provided some adverts as well – here Minahan breaks up the narrative into chunks with constant pre-views and re-views of the programme’s ‘highlights.’ Minahan has said that his actual starting point wasn’t Survivor or any of its clones, but actually MTV’s dire Real World programmes – and he certainly nails every last clich of the genre, right down to the soppy strings music (“I see glimpses of the trinity, glimpses of eternity.” go the lyrics) that accompanies the more tender moments. But Series 7 ends up aiming much, much wider. The targets are, undeniably, fairly soft ones: America’s gun culture, its crass ‘reality’ obsessed media, its family values. But while this ground has been broken plenty of times before, it’s seldom been done with such economy, such chutzpah, such zap.

And, by locating the bloodsports right in the middle of faceless, Wal-mart suburbia, Series 7 edges towards the nightmarish territory mapped by Shirley Jackson in her classic short story ‘The Lottery,’ with its unwilling with its ‘contender’ drawn by ballot and sacrificed in a modern-day execution ritual. The film’s most chilling line comes when nurse Connie is asked whether ER corresponds with the reality of hospital life : “It’s just like on TV,” she remarks, “except it never ends, and it’s more bloody.”

Neil Young
24th May 2001

USA 2001
director / script : Daniel Minahan
cinematography : Randy Drummond
editing : Malcolm Jamieson
lead actors : Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Marylouise Burke, Will Arnett
86 minutes