Film Review – Clean
The title of Clean (2021) operates on several different levels. Not only is it the name of our lead character (played by Adrien Brody), but it acts as the central metaphor of his entire existence. “Clean” has lived a life of violence and tragedy – spending his days trying to rid himself of his sins. He tries to clean his neighborhood of crime by any means necessary. To make the metaphor more apparent, Clean is also a garbage man. He fills his nights and early mornings picking garbage off the streets. The parallels are not just implied, they’re hammered in. Through narration, Clean explains his disgust for the “filth” that litter his neighborhood – a clear reflection of his views on society.
If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because Clean acts within the same parameters as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976). Both are men with troubled pasts, who prowl the streets like self-proclaimed avengers, longing for any reason to set themselves into action. But where Travis’ journey was an existential look into his heart of darkness, Clean’s path exists far more on a surface level. His character study begins with promise, but the narrative lets him down a recycled trajectory. He becomes the hero of an action film as opposed to a someone broken by his misdeeds.
One notable observation is how involved Brody was in this production. Not only is he the star, but he also acts as a producer, co-wrote the screenplay (with director Paul Solet), and provided the score. That’s a lot of hats to wear, and we wonder what it was that drew him so passionately to this material. He is the saving grace of an otherwise forgettable film. Brody fully inhabits the role. With his sad eyes, long beard, clean cut hair, and a muscular body adorned with scars and tattoos, Brody gives Clean a history through his physicality alone.
The narrative works best when we see Clean going through his daily tasks in a silent, contemplative fashion. From picking up garbage, fixing small gadgets and knick knacks to sell to a pawn shop owner (RZA), to painting the exteriors of abandoned homes, Clean uses everyday tasks as way to earn salvation. Mundane chores and small acts of kindness take on a near spiritual tone. His trips to group therapy and visits to his barber/sponsor (Mykelti Williamson) have the ritualistic qualities of going to confession. The way he looks after a young neighborhood girl, Diandra (Chandler DuPont) reveals both the pain Clean has experienced and his near obsession with doing the right thing. Brody draws our attention with his screen presence. He is most convincing when he quietly reveals the kind of person Clean is versus the person he wants to become.
Sadly, the effectiveness of Brody’s performance is undercut by a half-baked story. Things fall apart when Clean confronts a local drug gang, led by vicious boss Michael (Glenn Fleshler). In writing and execution, Michael comes off as a cartoon supervillain, an over-the-top caricature in comparison to the restrained Clean. Nothing Michael says or does is believable. He will yell at and physically threaten his underlings and family, but the effect is more ridiculous then intimidating. The character acts like a less interesting version of Vincent D’Onofrio’s “Kingpin” from the Daredevil TV show. When Clean has an altercation with Michael’s son (Richie Merritt), Michael uses his resources to track him down.
The second half switches into a “one man versus an army” set up, where Clean gets to exorcise his demons by beating bad guys into oblivion. This is where things take a dramatic downturn. While the narrative places Clean and Michael into an inevitable showdown, the construction of the action leaves a much to be desired. The direction, shot selection, and editing muddies the visuals into an incoherent mess. In one scene, Clean uses a wrench to take out an entire room of adversaries, but he does so one by one while the entire group has their backs turned. Somehow Clean can clear out the whole room where each person is practically standing shoulder to shoulder. Apparently “killing silently” is one of Clean’s strongest attributes.
So much attention is put into the allegory of Clean atoning for his past that when he finally decides to go back to his brutal old ways, we’re not exactly sure how to perceive it. Are his acts of violence redemptive or tragic? The writing does not make it clear whether Clean has fallen into despair or is expressing himself in the only way he knows. Are we supposed to cheer for a man who embraces the very nature that led him so astray? In Taxi Driver, Travis’ violent outburst is depicted with a strong, direct perspective. His pent-up rage was let loose and may possibly return someday. We get none of that with Clean. If the intention was to make an entertaining, John Wick (2014) style actioner, that’s fine too, but the production did little to suggest that. It’s as though the film wants to be a hard-hitting drama and action spectacle at the same time but ends up being neither.