Review: ‘Clean’ is an Adrien Brody-produced, -written and -scored revenge tale
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The gritty indie revenge thriller “Clean” is clearly a labor of love for Adrien Brody. Not only does he star as a garbageman who goes by the moniker Clean, but he also produced the film, composed the score and contributed original music. He also makes his screenwriting debut, co-writing with director Paul Solet.
Clean lives and works in a blighted upstate New York town where homes stand empty and criminal organizations run the streets. He’s struggling with his past and tormented by nightmares, so he keeps his head down and goes to work. He picks up trash, attends recovery meetings and does what he can around town: painting over graffiti on abandoned buildings and offering rides and meals to Dianda (Chandler Ari DuPont), a teenage girl who clearly reminds him of the young daughter who haunts his memories.
His flashbacks are often violent and blood-spattered, and the film gives Clean away too as he hungrily eyes pump-action shotguns in the pawnshop and kicks mysterious cases closed when Dianda goes snooping in his place. Clean has a violent past — and a violent nature that he’s barely keeping at bay. Like many action heroes of the last few years, he’s a man with a very specific set of skills who just might snap when someone steals his puppy or his kitty-cat bracelet — or his daughter (figure).
“Clean” is an indie riff on “John Wick” (or “Nobody” or “Taken”), but unlike those films, it meanders to the breaking point, filling the running time with Brody’s rueful musings about regrets, blood staining his hands, and trying to save himself, often in a whispered voice-over that’s just shy of ASMR. There’s a lot of slo-mo, aerial shots of empty, snow-covered streets and crying over pictures of little girls. There are plenty of meaningful looks, but just not enough meaning to sustain this heavy, portentous tone.
For as much as we know about Clean’s inner turmoil, why he sets off on his killing spree is a mystery. Of course, there’s the surface-level motivation (a desire to protect his surrogate daughter), but it makes no sense that a man with his background and the wherewithal to keep his mouth shut about the gang murders he’s witnessed on the job would suddenly commit a series of incredibly sloppy wrench attacks out of some misguided sense of fatherly protection. Plus, as Dianda and her mother become caught in the middle of Clean’s break and the terrifying fishmonger mafia of upstate New York, we realize that we know almost nothing about them. The best-drawn character is the antagonist, Michael (Glenn Fleshler), who just wants his good-for-nothing son (Richie Merritt) to fall in line with the family business.
There’s no shortage of bleak beauty in “Clean,” and Brody’s musical contributions offer a welcome texture to the world that he and Solet present. Mykelti Williamson and Fleshler bring humanity (the former) and menace (the latter) to supporting roles, but none of this can save the film from the shortcomings of its screenplay.
Remember, “Clean” is a “John Wick” riff, and those kinds of films don’t need a ton of explaining; man getting revenge on very bad guys isn’t exactly rocket science. But “Clean” is so lean, it’s as if the story itself was sacrificed for atmosphere. “Clean” brings the cold, moody vibes and extreme violence, but narratively, it’s a mess.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes
Where to watch: Starts Jan. 28 in theaters, on-demand and digital
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