Thursday, September 29, 2011

Eye of the Beholder: TUCKER & DALE VS. EVIL


Tucker & Dale vs. Evil has little evil at first; or rather, it sets up a situation with no good reason to expect it. Tucker and Dale (Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine) are two kindly small-town folk who eagerly drive deep into the woods for a much-needed vacation at a crumbling cabin that was sold cheap since its old inhabitant was allegedly some kind of crazed criminal. While out fishing one night, they’re startled by the sight of a pretty young woman (Katrina Bowden) preparing to swim. She’s just as startled as they are, so she ends up falling and hitting her head. Tucker and Dale rescue her and take her back to the cabin to nurse her back to health.

What these two nice guys don’t realize is that her friends are under the mostly false impression that she disappeared into the woods and was kidnapped by killer hillbillies or psychotic rednecks. The group of college kids she left behind plots to rescue her, but in the process creates only more and more misunderstandings. A particularly snotty frat boy classist (Jesse Moss) takes the lead and convinces one kid to sneak up to the cabin. As he does, Tucker is preparing to operate a chainsaw but instead gets attacked by a swarm of bees. So, around comes Tucker running with a chainsaw and flailing wildly, spooking the kids and reinforcing their preconceived notions. Oh, and the kid who was sneaking up ends up running in such a blind panic that he impales himself on a tree branch.

The college kids think they’re in a horror movie. After all, they’re on vacation camping in the woods and are all of a sudden in danger from the wilderness and from Those Who Are Not Like Them. It’s creepy to begin with, but scary stories around the campfire suddenly have suddenly appeared to become real. The audience, however, is in on the bloody joke. Tucker and Dale just wanted to have a nice weekend and are suddenly confronted with crazy kids running around, acting unexpectedly hostile, and getting killed in freak accidents. Tucker and Dale are the sweet innocents being terrorized. The college kids are the unwitting victimizers, the misunderstood monsters, hurting mostly themselves while making things very strange for these two nice guys.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is a 90-minute riff on its central genre flip. First time director Eli Craig, who co-wrote with Morgan Jurgenson, keeps the energy high, reveling in his neat little trick of a plot in a knowing way. Wacky bloodshed is the name of the game, held up by an endless string of sudden surprises that show up out of the inherent inevitability in its double-barreled structure of miscommunications. Neither group can clearly understand what the other is up to simply because they are viewing the world as filtered through horror films and socioeconomic assumptions. The college kids are convinced that they’ve encountered kin of Leatherface or Jason. Tucker and Dale think they’re being terrorized by a suicide cult. They’re staring at each other across an artificial social divide.

It’s not exactly a one-joke movie, but that’s not far off. It has only one approach. It sets up innocent situations with potential for either understanding or senseless violence and then twists them up through increasingly unlikely mistakes into the worst-case scenarios until it ends with inadvertent carnage. The concept is funny and startling, but it wears out its welcome ever so slightly. It grows repetitive and more than a little predictable. But because Tudyk and Labine are so very charming and inherently likable, I remained involved in the increasingly harried plight of Tucker and Dale’s ill-fated vacation. Besides, it’s hard not to care when there’s some pathos to be found in the way that Dale has internalized the way society sees him, especially when he tells the girl they rescued that the whole situation they’ve found themselves in is his fault. “I should have known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would end up dead,” he says. He and the filmmakers are fighting for the little guy arguing, however crudely and simply, that caricatures are people too. 

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