❉ In first of a series on this completely bonkers filmmaker, we examine ‘Double Down’.
“Summing up the plot of Double Down cannot possibly translate how utterly surreal and incoherent the whole thing is. To quote Max Landis, “It’s literally like watching someone’s dream,” and that’s what makes it fascinating”
I have, for some time now, held the suspicion that Neil Breen might be the most interesting filmmaker alive. With his new film Twisted Pair (2018) currently enjoying successful limited theatrical engagements in the US and UK, there’s no better time to bite the bullet and, hopefully, shed some new light on this fiercely independent and completely bonkers filmmaker.
Having been mercilessly lampooned by the likes of Red Letter Media, Your Movie Sucks and Good Bad or Bad Bad, Neil Breen probably needs no introduction by now. Nevertheless, if you haven’t heard of him, conventional wisdom would have you believe that he’s the latest thing in so-bad-they’re-good movies. Often inaccurately compared to Tommy Wiseau, I would argue that, despite his apparent technical and narrative naivety, Breen’s films should be approached less from the perspective of material to be mined for comedy gold, and more as outsider art.
The strange world he creates and the extremely nihilistic, misanthropic philosophical views he expounds are almost reminiscent of the darker moments in Henry Darger’s epic private art and literary endeavour The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. [See Jessica Yu’s excellent documentary, In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) for more on Darger and his work.]
However, unlike Darger, whose fantasies essentially focused on empowering abused children as a result of being abused himself, Breen always casts himself in the lead role; they are all essentially power fantasies with Breen as either a mortal given special powers that raise him up to the level of a messianic figure or a literal messiah. Actually, given his independence and preference for cryptic narratives he’s more accurately described as a sort of anti-Shane Carruth or anti-David Lynch.
Breen, a former architect and real estate agent who never went to film school, invests so much of himself in his art — financing, writing directing, editing and starring in all of his films — that applying the Death of the Author rule to them is somewhat problematic, no matter how much Breen himself, much in the manner of David Lynch, encourages audiences to do so, and most reviews and analysis of his work tend to default to focusing on him rather than seriously trying to deconstruct his bizarre and dreamlike narratives. This is understandable, since his films not only depict him as some all-powerful figure, but often contain scenes in which he literally turns to the camera and monologues to his audience about his own personal philosophy.
So what if, for better or worse, we attempted to examine his first feature, Double Down (2005) from a purely objective perspective, ignoring all the usual criticisms thrown at it? Yes, the mysteriously unbilled actress playing Brand’s fiancée is clearly very uncomfortable during that nude scene with Breen in his backyard swimming pool during which he proposes to her just before she is shot dead and falls into his arms; yes, the overabundance of stock footage is a lazy solution to showing things the budget won’t allow (although patching together found footage to form a narrative might be considered an art form in itself); and yes, all those laptops Breen is using to do his hacking are neither switched on nor functional but, dammit, let’s look past all that, and even work with some of it, and try to unpick what’s actually going on here.
Double Down is, on its surface, the tale of ace computer hacker, bioterrorist and gun for hire Aaron Brand (Breen himself), who lives in his car and eats nothing but canned tuna. At the start of the film he reveals in his ever-present narration that his “orders from another country are to shut down the Las Vegas strip for two months.” We’re never told why. Brand is impossible to kill, because he has let the word out that he has planted biological bombs in seven major cities that will go off if he fails to send a coded message every three days, so instead, “they” have assassinated his fiancée to kill his spirit and he has thus become a recluse, hiding in the desert with his laptops, cell phones and satellite dishes.
Anyway, as a result of his fiancée’s murder, Brand’s voice over tells us he now works as a mercenary who donates his fees to charitable causes, and spends his spare time murdering white collar criminals. We’re constantly told he’s “the best.” At one point, he is given a piece of Fool’s Gold by a dying old man he happens upon in the desert and told, “You are The One!” He later uses the rock to try and cure a little girl named Megan (Laura Hale) of a brain tumour.
What many reviewers often ignore is that this does not in fact work; Brand gets a phone call on one of his many cell phones to inform him that she has died, to which he responds, “No! That can’t be! I cured her! Wait, I’ve got to take this other call,” and promptly turns his attention back to planning a major terrorist attack “bigger than 9/11,” as if he wants to shut out the fact that his magic rock doesn’t work. Brand constantly sees visions of his dead love, who repeats the line “I need to know that something extraordinary is possible,” one of the last lines he ever heard her say in life but urges him not to use his new found powers to bring her back to life, as if not to destroy his delusion.
Ultimately, Brand semi-redeems himself after melodramatically throwing himself on the ground and repeating “I’m an American! I’m an American! I love my country!” before running off into the desert screaming in one long, extended shot that’s part Tarkovsky, part Monty Python, and calls off the major attack, even though it’s too late to prevent the many stock footage “distractions” he’s arranged to divert resources from the main atrocity.
Summing up the plot of Double Down cannot possibly translate how utterly surreal and incoherent the whole thing is. To quote Max Landis, “It’s literally like watching someone’s dream,” and that’s what makes it fascinating; Brand frequently wakes up next to his car with “HELP ME” written in blood upon it and on a couple of occasions is seen self-harming (presumable in an attempt to remove his “biomedical implants”). He trades in anthrax and other poisons, but the anthrax simply looks like a bag flour wrapped in gaffer tape. None of the minor characters are in any way convincing and all look like they’re reciting their lines from cue cards.
It’s as if, rather than Brand being the super spy he claims to be, he’s a delusional psychopath with the stock footage representing his delusions rather than objective reality; his phones and laptops blatantly don’t work, despite the fact that he is constantly seen using them to communicate with unseen forces, and the mysterious CIA figures he occasionally rendezvous with in car parks, along with the high-ranking officials seen spouting random things between the climactic stock footage chaos like, “Go to code orange!” and, “Prepare to evacuate the hotels on the Las Vegas strip!” over and over, are the least credible intelligence operatives in cinema history, which actually leads me to conclude that these people in universe aren’t actually intelligence operatives at all, but a bunch of damaged people wrapped up in the cult-like perpetuation of Brand’s fantasies.
Like his magic rock, broken laptops and decommissioned satellite dishes, Brand is not what he appears to be. In this reading, if the mismatched stock footage represents events that only exist within Brand’s own head, then Breen’s own 35mm sequences depict objective reality, but presented in such a way as to allow us only misleading glimpses as to what is really going on. The film is edited to suggest Brand his being visited in his dreams by his dead wife, dead parents or his younger self. But what if this is all some sort of role play devised by a circle of dysfunctional people Brand has gathered around himself to not only enable his own fantasies but also each others? Or perhaps, a role play devised by his friends and loved ones to break his delusion?
It would certainly explain why the magazine of Brand’s gun is always empty whenever he checks it, and why the so-called “terrorists” use plastic rifles and why, whenever anyone is shot, they seem to be getting hit with fake blood fired from a water pistol (except his fiancée, whose spine seems mysteriously intact after supposedly being hit by an assault rifle).
It would certainly explain why Brand wears the ludicrous number of medals he claims to have won on a ripped denim shirt rather than on a uniform, or why his “dead” fiancée keeps saying things like, “Come back to me! Come back to me!” Maybe those kids that we see running around are not Brand and his sweetheart as kids (she’s considerably younger than he is) but their own children who Brand misinterprets as their younger selves. And if Brand is truly such a shit hot assassin, how come he horribly murders the wrong couple after picking up two innocent people at a Las Vegas wedding chapel? Surely a real spy would at least have been given photos of his targets?
Most significantly, it would certainly explain why the whole narrative feels like it’s throwing up random ideas and twists willy-nilly, and why it’s often unclear whether one actor is playing the same character from scene to scene or several; it’s because it’s all a game. It’s make-believe played out by adults either trying to escape the real world, each of them with their own reason for doing so, or trying to guide Brand back from a fantasy into which he has withdrawn for reasons we, the audience are never a privy to.
After all, what else is cinema but a series of unreliably narratives?
❉ To see if ‘Twisted Pair’ is playing near you and for details on how to order his previous films, follow Neil Breen on Twitter: @NeilBreen
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions. Jonathan Sisson’s 2001 film ‘The Institute’ is now online on Vimeo and can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/193049022