Screenwriters know words are only part of the audiovisual image. Leaving a lot unwritten is not just a constraint of the medium or the industry, it has to do with the human condition. The content of our communication with each other hasn’t been damaged, the speech organ itself has, the social fabric, torn at the stress points—between siblings or lovers, mentor and protégé, friend and friend. The Deleted, the feature-length directorial debut from bestselling author Bret Easton Ellis, deals with the breakage in white American social life. This elegant chamber piece broods on U.S. youth culture, tracking the demise of its pure products with a disconnected eye. It’s about how every time we try to break free, we betray someone else’s liberation.
Led by disillusioned senior member Logan Conrad (Daniel Zovatto) and aided by activist Kennedy Chapman (Dre Davis), sixty lapsed cultists escape the clutches of their leader Kevin (Bret Easton Ellis) at the Lonergan Institute in Olympia and scatter across Los Angeles, where a clique of escapees haunt the living rooms of the wealthy and practice their profane rites—cutting, narcotics, alcohol, casual sex—while trying to reintegrate into society. Parker Nolan (Ian Nelson), a high-ranking member and older half-brother of Ryder Hedges (Nash Grier), pursues the fugitives south and monitors their activities from a Malibu beach house, sending his goons to kidnap the hapless victims so he can either bring them back into the fold or kill them. Mason Quinlan (Will Peltz), the first to be captured, lures Garrett Connors (Spencer Neville), a brainwashed murderer from the shadowy Tier Four experiment, into Parker’s clutches, while Breeda (Amanda Cerny), a Genesis Project personality-engineering patient gone haywire, takes off on a killing spree in her hunt for the strung-out Logan, who detoxes at his cousin’s house until, after attempting suicide, he lets himself get caught. Agatha (Madeline Brewer) hides out in a motel room, where Garrett, whom she loves, ensnares her, leaving Ryder to battle Breeda and then confront his brother at the beach house in the climactic final scene—but only after Logan has shown Parker the truth about the Institute by way of a video leaked online. In an outro we view video interviews from six months earlier, in which Kevin prompts the group members to reflect on their recruitment and their experiences at the Institute. We learn that it was Breeda who subjugated a rebellious Parker so that he could be turned against his brother.
The Deleted premiered last December as a webseries of eight segments lasting twelve to sixteen minutes each. The viewer’s mind flashes on a gamut of works, across genres—Vanderpump Rules, Glee, Safe, Brick, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, Shame, Jersey Shore, Maps to the Stars, The Blair Witch Project, The Invitation—but it all happens as if through the lens of Robert Bresson, the French director who believed actors should be models: mechanized on the outside, virginal on the inside. And yet nudity and violence pervade The Deleted, so that the first thing it makes you think of is Salò, the final film by Pier Paolo Pasolini, in which Fascism descends upon a group of children held captive in a villa, where their horrible demise signals the fall of a civilization. Like Salò, The Deleted portrays sleek nude physiques—à la Calvin Klein and American Apparel ads—but, more importantly, the film highlights the modeled quality of human bodies in screen space. The stiff blocking, elliptical dialogue, wide framing, long shots and constant midtempo zooms and pans keep us from getting any insight into the characters’ egos. With no insides, they turn into empty figures, pieces of a metaphor. We see far more of what they are by looking at these bodies without organs, than we would if their psyches were on display.
We think of Ellis the author as a visionary, not a stylist, but the director has put his story together in a sequence of images, in which the violence is distant or offscreen, and the dialogue alludes to an absent meaning. Ellis’ journey from novelist to screenwriter to director began with Robert Downey, Jr’s performance as Julian Wells in Less Than Zero. That was the first moment when one of his ideas took on a life of its own, onscreen. We felt the pathos of that character’s estrangement from his family, his alienation from society, and his self-destruction. With The Deleted, Ellis reaches a milestone on this road.