This one might be hard to describe. At the time of writing it’s been around a week since I watched Ryan Kruger’s Fried Barry, and the mad swirling of thoughts I have about the film can really only (and fittingly) be described as a comedown of sorts. The film asks a lot; it’s a wild rush of sights and sounds and somehow smells, that also, eventually – and even gently – gives something back as well. Sit down my children, I’m going to tell you a story.
It’s a story about BARRY, a man who already looks stuck halfway through a transition of becoming a werewolf with his long greasy hair and brilliantly skeletal face – endlessly expressive Peter Capaldi eyebrows and chiselled jaw that make him a man that you’d readily sprint away from in a dark alleyway. Barry is proclaimed a “useless piece of shit” but he is very useful at being an utter prick to everyone around him, whether it’s his wife and mother of his child or the various people on the street who ambiguously owe him money.
After the beginning of what we must assume is an average night for him (dirty-needle heroin, bar visits, shaking down people), he looks and acts so inhuman that you’d be forgiven for assuming that, when aliens inevitably come and beam him up, they are in fact taking one of their own back to his home planet. I mean, the man’s face barely reacts as he ascends to not-quite-heaven – but his body spasms as if in the throes of an overdose, which is important in setting up what the movie’s actually about. Of course, anything about aliens has to actually be about humankind, but the way this film eventually showed this surprised me.
So up he goes, and if the aforementioned dirty-needle didn’t imply anything, we’re in for some gross stuff, which the ominous and confident synth score by Haezer does nothing to dispel. The screen is flooded with bold, acid-trip colours (and floating shoes) as Barry gets, um, probed by a torturous-looking screwdriver approaching a certain orifice that would give even Mads Mikkelson’s testicle-bashing Le Chiffre from Casino Royal a reason to take notes. Then they drop him back down to Cape Town, now possessed by an alien with very limited communication and understanding. Obvious chaos ensues.
Everything changes – but also, intriguingly, nothing really changes, which is the twist they pull on the classic body-swap/fish-out-of-water scenario. Someone who originally confidently moved through life is now wide-eyed and paranoid, unsure of every aspect of his new reality, but the actions are similar. A lot of the time you react the same way Barry does – wide-eyed confusion yet strangely serene acceptance. By keeping the specifics of the aliens vague, every new wrinkle to Barry’s personality and power becomes accepted with an “ok sure” shrug, because Fried Barry really throws you in for the opening — relying on the visual and the visceral to sustain your interest. And it does a pretty good job! As “Barry” wanders this strange town, we see so many invasive close-ups and strange faces that would have been uncomfortable without a long year of social distancing.
The film loves tackling the peripheral absurdity of assuming you have any grasp on your reality, established through the various side characters of Cape Town, be it a football t-shirt-wearing loser assuming the not-interested girls he picked up at a club are keepers, or a chance encounter with a prostitute resulting in her immediately swelling up and giving birth (as grim as it sounds, but somehow a miracle). Barry’s just as confused as we are – he still seems perpetually high – but something’s different. He can be an unintentionally malevolent force (and that was before the abduction) that accidentally leaves a wake of carnage wherever he stumbles. But then, as someone on the street is in the middle of a heart attack, one intimidating yet surprisingly assured grasping of his chest by Barry fixes him right up. Whatever this thing is, it contains infinitely more than what first meets the eye.
If the resulting adventure plays like a film elongated from a tightly-wound short film where the basic structure of each scene was almost entirely figured out on the day, and written and directed by a guy with the surname “Kruger”, well, that’s because it is. It’s brash, sharp and energetically messy in a way that a debut feature of this nature has to be, and it works a great deal of the time. I want to leave it there because I don’t want to reveal a lot of the plot or the filmmaking techniques it employs for your entertainment, but I’ll just explain why I really, really liked it.
There’s barely any difference between Barry and the alien that inhabits him – both are wildly, tragically disconnected from human connection and understanding, explicitly linked to his permanently zoned-out nature due to his substance abuse. The film’s surprisingly trenchant nature on drug addiction basically boils down to; what’s the point of experiencing anything if you can’t feel it? Barry is strangely malleable – he can feel nothing but can take anything, whether it’s pills, worse, or worse.
But there’s a cute, simple scene when Barry returns home and feeds his toddler, and you realise that what he lacked in his previous life is curiosity – a want and a need to understand people in a way that his previous hollowed-out state couldn’t allow. What he needs is to be reduced from the familiar and return to being a stranger, learning about people all over again. This body swap idea has perhaps been done in a more refined way in other stories – but the complete lack of inhibitions is the point for this one.
He connects with children the most because he’s been reduced to one; overwhelmed with sound and spectacle, obliterating irony, aesthetic self-consciousness and critical reflection. Despite everything, things only become truly scary and dark when Barry finds himself kidnapped alongside other missing kids (one of the times he becomes a strangely welcome avenging angel). If you haven’t guessed, a lot happens in the movie, and while most of it is fun, it does spread itself a little too thin at times; inevitable for most things born out of a perfectly-executed short film. But it never stops being interesting, and at times, deeply moving.
The worst thing about drug addiction is how it feels like it’s the only thing you can depend upon when there’s so much more. Ultimately, despite what it ends up giving him, this alien is one more drug that Barry needs to kick. There is absolutely no one who is content in the entire movie – everyone is restless, coming off one high and desperately seeking another. No one wants to remain in their reality – so does that make Barry one of the lucky ones, or the most dangerous of all, since he has the chance to lose himself entirely? Throughout the film we see brief, surreal glimpses of the real Barry, submerged in his own mind underwater, trying to escape… and do we want him to?
We see the lack of any emotion in the institutional care of a hospital Barry is inevitably sent to for a stretch, with a doctor asking for him to receive extra medication because “I haven’t got time for this today.” Isolation is shown to only breed further isolation, and the further people push each other away, the further they can spiral into something truly dark. The most stifling part is in this hospital – and also the most moving, because an institutionalised man (and someone who recognises Barry) talks to him. He spouts complete nonsense the whole time but it’s the most impactful conversation in the film, because it’s coming from someone who actually identifies with him and wants to know him more. Naturally, he picks up a semi-automatic in the very next scene.
Or does he? Like every trippy/drug-fuelled sci-fi movie, it constantly plays with your vision of reality, albeit in a way far more entertaining than the usual “was it all a dream?” cop outs that we often get subjected to. It rarely loses its energy and never stops being visually inventive and interesting (especially in some of its cheesily wonderful retro flourishes that I won’t spoil). While this had the potential to exhaust me towards the end, what kept me hooked is the way the film relishes in the tricks it can’t wait to keep pulling from its sleeve.
Honestly, if I’m engaged (which I was!!) then I like having no grasp on what’s legitimately happening, because then I’m free to take and make whatever meaning I want from it. It has the potential to be cinema at its most freeing. And what I took from this is worth the 90 minutes of insanity and occasional lulls in the narrative. Kruger keeps it firmly in the realm of the immediate – it’s very vague but I was receptive to it this time around. It asks perhaps more than it should in terms of anything but screw it, I enjoyed myself!
Kruger’s pulsating, motivated storytelling absolutely marks Fried Barry as a one-to-watch-type film, but Gary Green’s lead performance as Barry, despite everything, holds it together amidst the madness and steadies the whole experience. You grow to love him because you’re the only person who stays with him. An ultra-wide shot of him stumbling around, lost in the dark, is poignant especially when the editing splices in tantalising allusions to the clean-cut man he used to be before addiction took over. But experiencing life again, and drawing wonder from the strangest of places, is what gives Barry a shot at redemption.
What the film is saying is… we’re all lost. Alien, you could say. We just need to find people as lost as we are. And if by some miracle you lose that feeling of loss together… well, that means you’re not that much of an alien anymore.
Fried Barry premieres on Shudder May 7th.