So many great “Avantpop” works—Steve Erickson’s Amnesiascope, Jonathan Lethem’s early genre novels, most everything by Kathy Acker—are hanging out, waiting for adventurous oddball filmmakers to adapt them, bringing delightful visions of an American wasteland to silver screens everywhere! Bombshell, a novel by James Reich, descends from this literary sensibility, and it forges the conventions of the thriller with the aesthetics of punk rock; in other words, it’s art film gold. Hell, it even has a 3-act structure already!
So, who is the perfect filmmaker for this adaptation? David Fincher seems obvious—but is that just because of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Sometimes Reich seems indebted to Stieg Larsson, and Bombshell’s version of Lisbeth Salander is Varyushka Cash, an androgynous, Valerie Solanas-obsessed riot grrrl who was born in Pripyat on the day of the Chernobyl disaster. Her mission: Destroy the nuclear pillars of American society.
She starts with the site of Trinity (or, more accurately, the tourist trap that marks its place) and then kicks ass across the country, all the way to New York’s Indian Point. Fincher would saturate all the scenes of Cash’s nighttime infiltrations in deep blacks, and he would also prove adept at delving into the novel’s paranoia about a nuclear culture gone crazy.
In scene after scene, Cash proves completely unrepentant about any innocent people she kills along the way; this is a literary tactic ripe with the potential for reader alienation. But as Reich reveals his protagonist’s back-story—she was raised by a community of female “punks” in Portland, Oregon—Cash becomes a more sensitive character; her yearning to “discover her place within” America softens her edges a bit. This sensitive handling of alternative young people smacks of Gus van Sant, so let’s add him to the list.
Of course, more directors come to mind—Cronenberg would be great with some of the more gruesome, grotesque elements—but are any of those directors women? The world of American film—even American independent film—is notoriously (and disgustingly) a community that shuts out female filmmakers. No doubt Cash would have opinions about this. Radical feminism imbues nearly every page of Bombshell. On her journey to New York, Cash intends to “reclaim the road for the female”—fair enough, but sometimes Reich’s language starts to sound like a dissertation:
“The road, being on the road, [Cash] decided, is to enter a sexualized terrain; this being a post-Beatnik pantomime of phallic reaches and torpedoes in straight lines overcoming the horizon.”
Am I supposed to find this brilliant?
Reich’s perspective on Cash is never totally clear, which often feels brave, but sometimes—like whenever the novel’s violence gets really graphic and lurid and, well, Cronenbergian—feels like a cop-out.
If Reich’s opinion of Cash is elusive, then his opinion of the novel’s other central character—Robert Dresner, a CIA agent tasked with hunting Cash—is like a giant neon sign that blinks right outside your window and keeps you up all night. Dresner experiences constant sexual fantasies, often of a deviant and/or violent nature: in one instance, he dreams of using an “expensive belt” to hang a woman so he can fuck her from behind. In his mind, every female is a “bitch.”
Reich’s intentions here are fairly obvious: The structures of government, as represented by Dresner, are more disturbing than the terrorists they hunt. But I kept waiting for Reich to surprise me in some way; instead, Dresner remains purposefully flat, like a parody of a character from Bret Easton Ellis. Whenever Bombshell focuses on Dresner, it’s disgusting. That’s not a criticism, by the way—just a fact.
Sometimes Bombshell feels a little rough—I’m not sure Reich ever gets control of his POV shifts; sometimes Cash’s path seems free of obstacles; a pretty huge coincidence powers the final act—but the novel’s velocity makes up for most of the lapses. Also, the last thirty or so pages are terrific, painting a vision of the apocalypse that is absurd, scary, and convincing; there’s some common ground here with Bennett Sims’ A Questionable Shape.
I liked this book a lot, though I’m sure some people will hate it. Would this bother Reich? Maybe not. He seems like a born provocateur; if Bombshell repulses some readers, Reich might feel pleased—might even feel like he accomplished his job.
So, the director of the Bombshell adaptation ought to be a woman who can tap into subcultures; handle sequences of action and violence; deconstruct an aggressively masculine psyche; examine the political and social circumstances of a country at war; and exhibit a genuine streak of daring. I think I’ve found somebody who would satisfy both James Reich and Varyushka Cash. How about Claire Denis, making her English-language debut?