I’m not sure, in these trying times, that a strange Foucauldian gloss is what the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise needed, but it does make for one of the Sawyer family’s more interesting escapades.
In fact, Leatherface has quite a lot going for it: There’s not a bad actor in the bunch; Several plot twists, however convoluted, do take the viewer by genuine surprise; It’s appropriately gruesome, but never gratuitously so; Antoine Sanier’s stark cinematography captures well the grim Texan countryside, of which I am plenty familiar; The script is refreshingly patient, screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood unspooling the drama at no great hurry.
After a decade of Michael Bay-produced remakes, each of them a violent slog, a piece of reverent melodrama like Leatherface is more than welcome. And that is how it should be characterized – a “reverent melodrama.” Bloody, as expected. But, above all, ponderous, even searching.
Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo’s entry in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre saga might have made a better “primetime soap” than a motion picture. Right down to the pacing, which seems to compress the contents of a reasonably well-developed first season of “prestige television” into a respectable hour and forty minutes. It never feels over-long, but disconcertingly undercooked. There is more material – good material, worth investing in – than could be fit comfortably into the constraints of the medium. I would have liked to have seen Maury and Bustillo’s Leatherface: The Series on AMC, or Shudder. But it’s hardly damning that the worst thing I can say about Leatherface is that it made me want to see more.
The film opens with a birthday party. Ma Sawyer brings out what looks like a meat-cake (yes, you read that correctly), which is promptly stuffed into the face of a hostage. They unveil a glossy new chainsaw – a birthday present for Jed, the youngest of the Sawyer clan. She hands the gift to Jed and instructs him to gut the hostage. He does not comply, of course, because the plot needs him not to. Leatherface, we are told, was not born a “horror movie villain.” Early in life, he was an otherwise innocuous young cannibal. Leatherface is a coming-of-age story.
This sequence is well served by its delightfully sordid imagery. The audience is treated to grimy close-ups of half-disfigured faces, filmed from derelict low-angles – the camera stationed, it seems, on a swiveling steadicam track. There is one problem: The pacing of the scene is so frenetic that its imagery is undercut. The editor is sabotaging the Director of Photography. As the sequence came to a close, and the title card appeared on screen, I sighed in resignation. “It’s going to be one of those, huh?”
But my concerns were premature. The fraught assemblage is never enough nullify its more admirable qualities. John Luessenhop, who directed 2013’s Texas Chainsaw 3D and produced this venture has big ideas – which, if a bit hackneyed, have succeeded in turning the Texas Chainsaw Massacre into a franchise worth following again.
I say this as someone who – full disclosure – loved Luessenhop’s Texas Chainsaw 3D in all its awkward glory. Of course there are some strange chronology issues therein: The film purports to be a direct sequel to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which a teenage descendant of the Sawyer family inherits the iconic Sawyer house. But it isn’t a “period piece”; Characters have cell phones, it takes place in the modern-day. The math doesn’t add up, given that the events of the original take place in the early 1970s.
That’s the least of the film’s formal issues: The acting is substandard, for the most part; The script is all over the place; Of all the characters, only Leatherface himself is well-defined, and he never talks (that’s not a compliment towards Dan Yeager, who plays the iconic slasher, although he does very well. It’s an unfortunate comment on the rest of the cast).
And yet I found the film strangely lovable. Not least, perhaps, because it is such a loving continuation of the Sawyer family mythos. Quite literally the opposite of a “cash grab,” Texas Chainsaw 3D dives headlong into the strangest recesses available. It was “pure heroine” Leatherface. No wonder Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper loved it.
2017’s Leatherface was much in the same vein (with the notable exception that it’s objectively well-made). Luessenhop’s vision has prevailed. In Texas Chainsaw 3D, Leatherface began to metamorphose from a “villain” to an “antihero.” In Leatherface, he is transfigured into the “protagonist.” Seldom has another pedigreed franchise shown such willingness to fold back into itself, to explore its own margins, to kick down the parameters that it has set for itself. And seldom has it been so enjoyable.
The directors this time around are French. It shows, in ways that may-or-may-not have been conscious, toying with the boundary-lines between what does-and-does-not constitute “degeneracy,” “honor,” or “madness.” Foucault’s most famous work deals largely with the history of so-called “insanity,” and the clinicalizing thereof. And, of course, Foucault may be the most famous of the now much-maligned “French theorists.”
The unsavory suggestion at the bottom of his thesis might be that there is no such thing as “insanity,” or “madness,” but only that which is “neurotypical” (what is accepted by the broader society) and that which is “neurodivergent” (which means, in short, anything else). These are anachronistic categories, yes, but they are fitting. The man himself never teased out the implications of his own suggestions, which is probably for the better. I am one such person that would be classified as “neurodivergent,” and of course we know that there is a difference between having, say, clinical depression or schizophrenia (which, mind you, is plenty common, and folks with schizophrenia are normal dang people), over against good old-fashioned sociopathy, to use an antiquated but evergreen term. Foucault’s theses may have patently absurd implications, but the impulse behind them is sound: Most sanitarium patients in Foucault’s day were not “insane,” as it were, in all likelihood. They simply occupied varying gradations of “neurodivergence,” most of which posing no more threat to themselves or others than any other Dick or Jane.
It may be no coincidence that the first act of Leatherface takes place in a kind of sanitarium for the “children of degenerates.” Naturally, the warden is cruel. Naturally, there is one sympathetic nurse (from whose vantage point most of the film plays out). Naturally, there is a rather grueling sequence in which the patients break free from their confinement. Naturally, Leatherface is among them.
A few of these patients do earn their status as “degenerate.” The rest of them just look tired. And, naturally, the villain of the film – if there is one – is “the system,” personified, of course, by an unhinged Sheriff Hartman (Stephen Dorff) and his motley crew of dirty cops. Perhaps they are a bad batch, from a bad city – exceptions to an otherwise good “justice system.” Or it may be that the whole structure, in marginally Foucauldian terms, is a put-up job, the folks with the badges just a rival gang to the agrarian cannibals whom they hunt, vested with the authority of the State behind them.
In such a nihilistic vision, there is little room for debate about who “the real degenerates” are, because there are no “degenerates,” there is no such thing. Because that would suggest that there are “generates,” from whom one may de-generate, or something like that. In such a vision, there are simply A) powerful people who set the terms on which society will operate and B) unfortunate divergents who are born the wrong something-or-other and end up trampled underfoot for no fault of their own.
Naturally, dressing it up in convoluted jargon can’t hide that the ideology laid out above isn’t substantially different from what you might find on the I’m 14 And This Is Deep subreddit, or your crazy uncle Gary’s drunken Facebook rants.
But it’s hard to blame Foucault for the phenomenon. By sheer recklessness he may be implicated in the pisswater nihilism that corrodes the good resolve of young (generally affluent, usually white) men and women who take an “Intro to LIT Theory” class, read half the textbook, and write laughably unreflective class journals about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, sure. But the life he actually lived speaks volumes about “where he placed his treasure.”
Foucault lived and died an activist, for “prison reform” and beyond. We owe the man an incalculable debt. There may be a kind of “backwater nihilist” reading of Leatherface, and it may be what Maury and Bustillo were aiming for – I don’t know. But no such reading of Foucault is acceptable – and no such reading of history, one would think. Among the litany of gonzo entries in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, Leatherface is certainly the French-est.