For a movie about porn, Mope isn’t even hot.
Lucas Heyne’s debut film, which had its East Coast premiere at Boston Underground Film Festival, is a twisted, intimate affair, stuffed full of warped minds and abused bodies. Based on the real-life murder of an aspiring porn star, it makes for a tough watch, reflecting the de-humanising reality of the adult film industry.
Mope gets its name from a colloquial term for a entry-level worker in pornography, relegated to the most unseemly aspects of the job. (Read: janitorial work and group sex.) The film follows two such mopes, intense Steve Driver (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and sidekick Tom Dong (Kelly Sry). Go ahead and laugh – Mope sells itself as a dark comedy, and, in the case of these outlandish stage names, it works at the lowest level of humour. But as we follow these men into the recesses of humanity, the comedy can only alleviate so much pain.
Steve and Tom meet at a shoot, involving a slew of other desperate men, one woman-slash-sex object, and a ballsy use of Flight of the Valkyries. They strike up a friendship, talking a big game about their dreams as adult film stars: the fame that will come, the sex they’ll get to have. Non-stop porn viewings have warped their perspectives of human relationships, but Mope frames them as corruptible innocents, virulent misogyny equated to the harmless posturing of high school boys bragging about their nonexistent girlfriends. For all their vulgarity, we’re sold that they’re just dumb boys.
What strives to be a buddy-cop repartee takes a sharp turn for the nauseating as our protagonists are quickly hired by a low-level studio, specialising in bizarre and straight-up gross kink. The rot of the industry begins to seep through every scene, just as it becomes clear there’s something seriously wrong with Steve. He hyperfixates on crude sex positions and a sword that might as well be termed Chekov’s katana. Stewart-Jarrett, to his credit, radiates with charisma. His wide-eyed exuberance sours into something sinister yet pitiable, a bull-headedness, a disconnect from reality that spirals out of control – and that’s before we even get to the murder.
There’s a disturbingly casual air to the crudeness of the script, which looks to mine humour from this nadir of human civilisation, but Mope brings us too close to the action for us to be laughing. The first frame proclaims “this actually happened,” and the documentary-style lens never lets us forget that, closing in on the faces of people at their absolute lowest when we would rather look away. Combined with Steve’s manic confidence, the film culminates to a near-unbearable climax, such that the bloody violence of the last ten minutes feel like a relief.
Mope might have been better off as an expose, showing the insidious nature of toxic masculinity as a result of constant exposure to male domination in sex. Instead, it boils down to the exploitation of a tragedy, plain and simple. Heyne peels open an industry that poisons the minds of young men like Steve Driver, as if to say “look how gross this is,” but is never as bold as to point any fingers or offer any explanation. Pornography is ripe ground for male entitlement and social isolation, and, as a result, for violence, but this ground is left uncovered. This is neutral film-making at its most exhausting.
So yes, orgasms abound, but there’s no pleasure to be found here. Mope neither titillating nor thoughtful. It’s hard to watch and harder to stomach.
As the young woman in that lurid first scene proclaims: I need a shower.
by Megan Sergison
Megan Sergison is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, where she studied International Affairs and largely spent her time in undergrad watching movies on planes. She loves films that include witty dialogue, complicated women, and colorful cinematography, especially those of the coming-of-age persuasion. Her favorite films include Juno, Moonrise Kingdom, Moonlight, and Call Me By Your Name. She can be found staring wistfully out the windows of public transit while listening to film scores or over on Twitter at @megserg, where Barry Jenkins also follows her and once liked her tweet about Mitski.