❉ Time travelling A.I. and denim advocate Neil Breen returns to his native environment of the Nevada Desert to save the day by murdering 300 million people!
Aided by a mystical Tiger (second billed and credited as Viad, even though the animal only briefly appears via questionable blue screen), an “Artificial Intelligence from far in the future” (played, of course, by Neil Breen) comes to cleanse humanity of its most evil and corrupt elements so as to pave the way for a revolution that will result in a better world. As this entity wipes out 300 million “bad people,” it comes to the aid of Amanda (Kathy Corpus) and her niece Kim (Chaize Macklin), two illegal immigrants from an unnamed country who are on the run from a psychotic people trafficker (Donna Thomas Rodgers), as well as befriending child astronomers (Abraham Rodriguez and Taylor Sydney) and their terminally ill professor friend (James D. Smith) and, finally, meeting a reclusive veteran (Jason James) suffering from P.T.S.D.
Along the way — and inspired by a discarded pack of Light & Fit — the entity names itself Thgil (“That’s light! Spelled backwards!!!”), attends cocktail parties with evil bankers, politicians and corporate executives against blue screened backdrops of realtor website photos of mansions whilst asking, “ISN’T THAT CORRUPT???” every time they exposit their evil schemes, and annihilates the Greek chorus of news anchors (Nicole Spitale, Steve Brito and Audra Wilson) so he can take over the airwaves and broadcast his philosophy to the world. All this is punctuated by numerous drone shots of Breen in the desert accompanied by his own narration explaining the conflict between the laws of nature and the laws of Man.
Pass Thru almost feels like a superior retread of I Am Here….Now (2009) transposed from the mean streets of Las Vegas to the desert border of an unnamed country. This time the secondary antagonists are people traffickers rather than pimps and heroine pushers, but Breen’s obsession with indicting the “corrupt” politicians and officials who control our world is still very much in evidence.
Also in evidence is the sense that the narrative may be the subjective delusions of a deranged individual, first hinted at in Double Down (2005) and codified in Fateful Findings (2013); here we open on the arrival of a strange red star-like object in the sky and the attempts by a group of teenage astronomers and a terminally ill Professor to track it, along with a border infiltration by a group of multinational illegal immigrants who have placed their fate in the hands of immoral human traffickers, but these plot threads are interrupted by Breen’s unnamed heroin addict being rudely awakened by his drug and person smuggling employer who demands he clear the area of litter so that the border force can’t track them. Breen is paid with a small baggy of white powder. It almost suggests Breen’s character has just woken up from a dream, and the previously introduced characters and preceding events were a part of that dream.
The whole dreamlike feel of the film is further enhanced by the fact that Breen then injects himself with whatever drug he’s been given and proceeds to either pass out or die whereupon, through a simple double-exposure effect, a doppelganger — who we’ll soon learn is the entity carried to our time by the red object in the sky — emerges from his body (and the title, Pass Thru can have several meanings; the passing through the border by the migrants, the passing through our world by the entity calling himself Thgil, and the passing away of the drug addict whose form Thgil apparently takes).
This moment provides the same nodal point as the scene in which Dylan is hit by the Rolls Royce in Fateful Findings; from this point on, are we watching reality or the hallucinations/dreams of a dying/passed out narcotics user? Visually, the effect of Thgil emerging from the heroin user’s body is similar to the one commonly used in early cinema to denote a sleeper entering a dream world; see, for example, the moment where the hero of Carl Dyer’s Vampyr (1931) falls asleep on a bench and his dream-self arises from his body to go off and experience a nightmarish adventure of its own.
Pass Thru is probably Breen’s most consciously surreal and dreamlike work, and for the first time in a Neil Breen film, he actually seems to acknowledge his own quirky, creepy oddness with self-deprecating humour, so much so that lead actress Kathy Corpus commented on her own Instagram post from the premier that she didn’t know it was going to be a comedy (fascinatingly, in another post she divulges that she never saw a script and was given her lines on the spot; an interesting glimpse into Breen’s process). Although about 85% the hilarity is still (probably) unintentional, the early interactions between Thgil, Amanda and Kim, just after the two women have escaped from the people traffickers, are genuinely played for laughs. The scene in which a traumatised Amanda hysterically shrieks, “No! We can’t stay here!” as Thgil throws trash out of his rusting, derelict trailer that’s furnished with only a soiled mattress whilst psychotically grinning at her and saying, “It’ll be fine! I’ll clean it for you! See! All clean!” does raise a chuckle, and not at the expense of Breen’s film making inexperience.
Similarly, there’s a running gag where various characters point out to the drug addict/Thgil that has dirt on his face, which is actually quite dark when one bares in mind that it’s actually a bruise as a result of him being rifled butted in the face. Just after seeing Thgil return from a spirit journey by emerging from a rock face covered in petroglyphs, Kim informs him, “You’re a weird dude.” It’s clearly Breen, not his character, who grins by way of acknowledgement. Highlights of unintentional comedy include the moment when the leader of the people traffickers murders a woman and her young grandson whilst exclaiming “I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO VALUE FOR YOU! ON! THE! STREETS!” The hand in which she holds her gun changes from shot to shot. Later, there’s a scene where she’s confronted by Thgil in her hideout; “THIS! IS! MY! HOUSE!” she protests. “THIS! IS! MY! UNIVERSE!” comes the reply before Breen helpfully backs out of shot to allow for a cross-fade as she’s wiped from existence.
The best sequence is the aforementioned high society cocktail party in front of terribly chroma keyed stock photos; as the evil corporate types spill their guts out and gloat over how evil they are, Thgil retorts things like, “Isn’t that corrupt?” or, “Isn’t that betraying the public’s trust?” A Big Pharma executive casually reveals that the cure for cancer has been suppressed for 75 years. Finally, in a moment of true special effects failure glory, he leaves the mansion (well, a picture of it anyway), swapping his tux for denim and decreeing, “If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth,” before obliterating the place with clip-art explosions.
Rumour has it that Breen is uncomfortable with people laughing at his films but, by now, it’s pretty evident that he couldn’t give two hoots what the audience think of him. Due to his sincerity, all of his films do benefit from a serious watch and considered analysis, regardless of their amateurishness. The whole purpose of these articles has been to encourage the re-evaluation of his work from the point of view of outsider art; it’s Breen’s ideas—regardless of execution—that are interesting. Pass Thru is no exception; while there are many instances during which Breen literally shouts his message at the audience (such as when Thgil takes over the TV station and rants about just about everything and encourages people to revolt even though thanks to him, there’s no one left to revolt against, leading us to presume he’s addressing the audience of the film, not the audience of the in-universe news programme), and his solutions (like eliminating millions of “bad people”) are both megalomaniacal and reductive, there’s also many instances of him taking us on an odyssey through the Jungian collective unconscious.
There are moments that somehow feel deeply yet inexplicably profound, and while they might feel pretentious, isn’t pretension common to all art? Much is made of the mysterious ancient petroglyphs that are dotted about the landscapes of Nevada (although here, they’re mostly recreations); there’s a truly magical scene in which Thgil and Kim find an abandoned piano in the desert and attempt to play it; Amanda has a tiger tattoo that somehow equates her with Viad the Tiger, which somehow equates both with the strength sleeping within humanity; an extended panning shot in which Thgil stands in the middle of a huge Laughlin-style stone labyrinth and slowly spins around with his arms stretched out as the camera explores the mountains surrounding him is both baffling and epic; the black smoke ghosts we see haunting the desert throughout the film are bizarrely revealed to be the work of the homeless Veteran waving a piece of rope in front of a lantern in a derelict mine. The idea is patently absurd and utterly surreal; “I am the creator of the shadows,” he says to Kim, which feels like it has a far deeper meaning than the circumstantial evidence would suggest, particularly since the shadow-ghosts heralded Thgil’s arrival by drifting over the heroin addict’s unconscious body just before Thgil took his form. Is Breen giving us a modern interpretation of the Platonic Cave? Or is the Veteran somehow the one really responsible for the film’s events? Is it all his delusion?
The most interesting aspect of the film—and possibly, all of Breen’s work to date—is a seemingly throwaway moment that most viewers would take as a cute little nod to past glories, but which may in fact be a major fragment of the Rosetta Stone with which we can decipher Breen’s work. As the camera pans around the cave we glimpse the medal-emblazoned denim cut-off jacket worn by Breen’s character, Aaron Brand, in Double Down. Could it be that Brand and the Veteran are one and the same? In Double Down, we see his idealised, fantasy self played by Neil Breen, but here, played by Jason James, he’s deconstructed and laid bare; he’s revealed to be the broken, damaged fantasist he really is. In fact, once they emerge from the cave, Thgil frees the Veteran of whatever traumas he carries with the words, “You are now free of P.T.S.D.”
It’s almost as if Breen’s entire oeuvre depicts other people’s idealisation of themselves, with Breen inserting himself as their fantasy-self in a sort of metaficitional wish-fulfilment scenario—both for the fictional character he’s depicting and for Breen himself—and what general audience mistake as “so-bad-it’s-good” film-making is really the result of how fragile and imperfect such fantasies really are; Breen himself might not even be aware of it, but the works themselves are. In this case, such a reading becomes a metafiction within a metafiction within a metafiction that would make even Borges baulk; a heroin addict played by Neil Breen hallucinates that he’s a time-travelling artificial intelligence who meets another figment of the heroin addict’s imagination in the form of the Veteran who imagines himself to be a hyper-competent, anarchic international terrorist also played by Neil Breen. It’s almost as if Breen, consciously or unconsciously, is acknowledging his messiahs are really powerless fictional archetypes, but that each of us has a true messiah of untapped potential within, if only we had the strength and bravery to let it loose like a tiger.
❉ Support the artist! You can order Pass Thru directly from Neil Breen at http://www.pass-thru-film.com/
❉ Neil’s latest film Twisted Pair (2018) is now available on DVD at http://www.twisted-pair-film.com/
❉ You can follow him 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