❉ It’s been a long time. But finally… Our oddysey reaches the bonkers filmmaker’s latest offering (for now!).
A long haired, eagle-hugging middle-aged man in a leather jacket lurks about Nevada State Collage in the middle of the night whilst dealing with a mysterious criminal genius and his own evil doppelganger! At night! And No! It’s not Twin Peaks: The Return! It’s far weirder!
As with all of Neil Breen’s films, working out how to approach a serious critical analysis of Twisted Pair (2018) is as challenging as watching the film itself. Usually when writing for We Are Cult, I have a pretty good grip on all the points I wish to make, but honestly, the Neil Breen Spectacular has probably been one of the most befuddling pieces of criticism I’ve ever undertaken. When each entry goes live, and it’s posted on all the usual social media channels, I repost it in some of Facebook’s Neil Breen fan groups, and I’ve been surprised by how many of his fans agree with my appraisal of him as an outsider artist (a label I’m sure Breen himself would reject), rather than as a “so-bad-it’s-good” hack. But a comment from one of his detractors in particular stood out; “Stop acting like he’s Stanley Kubrick!” it said.
Ironically, that one comment pretty much sums up the trouble with Breen’s work in general; it’s judged by the measure of other film makers, but there really hasn’t ever been anyone like Breen before. More problematically, though, each of his films tend to be judged by the measure of the one immediately preceding it. Not only that, they’re so bonkers, and their presentation so maddeningly bizarre, that one cannot help speculate upon their production history and what was going through the mind of the man who conceived them.
And so we come, finally, to his most recent offering, Twisted Pair, the tale of twin brothers, Cale and Cade, who, as children, are abducted by a mysterious force and converted into advanced A.I. superheroes with the mission to end corruption (naturally). While Cade has gone on to become a super-secret agent (“I don’t need to carry a weapon. I am the weapon!”) working for a shadowy security organisation, Cale has had his powers revoked for failing in his missions and is now a druggy, bitter criminal sleazebag who kidnaps corrupt businessmen and politicians to torture and murder. Oddly enough, the plot refuses to follow the obvious line, in that the two never face off against each other; the film mostly focuses on Cade, his relationship with his girlfriend Alana (Sara Meritt) and his various missions, principally, his efforts to stop the bizarre Cuzzx (mostly played by Greg Smith Burns, but played by an uncredited actor in one scene for reasons that aren’t explicit, but it’s hinted that Cuzzx is some form of shape-shifter, since he can change his collection of natty silk scarves with the power of cross dissolves, or maybe Breen just wasn’t able to get the same actor back) from taking over the world.
Along the way, we’re treated to Cade (yes, our hero) perpetrating an aborted near-rape which is interrupted by Alana whacking him over the head with a suspiciously breakable framed picture only for him to ask, “what’s for dinner?” (it turns out it’s all role play, you see, but instead of the whole thing turning into some form of kinky sex game, it ends in a rather platonic cuddle, but it does make you wonder if Breen had just got done reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead; he is an architect after all, but given the preceding scene where he aggressively begs Alana to meet him for a drink and she pretends not to know him, perhaps he’s taking some sort of satirical stab at incels).
Of course, this being a Neil Breen film, their tender romance goes badly wrong and she betrays him, and Cale doesn’t have too much luck with the ladies either, going through a succession of drug-fuelled toxic relationships. This sort of culminates in Alana getting the wrong idea when she spies Cade interacting with one of Cale’s exes (whilst he’s violently screaming, “I! NEVER! HAD! A! BEARD!”), but by this time, she seems to be batting for the baddies anyway.
In fact, there’s a lot of Breenian ambiguity in Twisted Pair; at one point, Cade goes undercover to meet Cuzzx (who’s constantly seen playing with a large bowl of diamonds) and the villain shows him his “special art” which takes the form of a magic picture frame that displays moving paintings. Cuzzx is accompanied by a mysterious Winged Muse (Ada Masters), but who seems to be some form of supernatural figure, despite the spiky stripper heels, and who’s seen toward the end of the film viewing the end of Pass Thru in a screening room, which, upon first viewing comes as quite a shock, but after a re-watch, you pick up hints that Breen isn’t simply being randomly meta.
Despite the fact that the film fades to black on a Bond-like title card promising, “Cade Altair Will Return,” Breen has confirmed that his next film won’t be a direct sequel and that he doesn’t like to revisit old characters, and while he may be deliberately misleading his audience to put us off the scent as to what’s coming next, the seemingly inexplicable scene in which the Muse watches the end of Pass Thru might be a cryptic hint at the fact Cade Altair has already returned and that Twisted Pair may, in fact, be a veiled prequel to Pass Thru. After all, along the way we’re treated, for the first time in a Neil Breen film, to explicit references to his previous film. Duel moons appear in the night’s sky (harking back to I am Here… Now as well as hinting, perhaps, that the film isn’t actually set on Earth) and, at one point, the red dot that carried The Being to the Navada desert in Pass Thru can be seen in the background. There’s even a scene where Cade interacts with a stock footage eagle via greenscreen highly reminiscent of the tiger sequences in the earlier film.
Upon the release of the trailer, many fans speculated that Twisted Pair marked Breen’s moment of “self awareness,” ie, that he’d got to the point where, having watched all the reviews and read all the blogs, he was now doing it all — the overabundance of stock footage, the cartoonish greenscreen, the joke shop facial hair (Cale’s broom bristle beard; one character sports a moustache that appears to be a piece of white masking tape upon which hair has been scribbled using a marker pen), and the universally stilted acting — on purpose.
Indeed, in their criminally under-subscribed YouTube show Good Bad or Bad Bad, Bryan Schilligo and Kyle Hinton muse that Breen’s character in Double Down (2005) could only have earned his Purple Heart by being injured in combat by “Bizarro Neil Breen”; cue picture of Breen sporting a Photoshopped moustache and beard of evil; a couple of years later, we really do get a facially hirsute Bizarro Neil Breen. This really doesn’t seem to be the case, though, since Breen has claimed in numerous Q&As that he never reads or watches reviews, and the film is played completely straight, even when it serves up a couple of immobile rubber squeaky toys to represent a homeless man’s pet rats (unless they’re really meant to be just toys; this being Breen it’s hard to say).
I actually suspect this actually might mean something in itself, since Cuzzx has a set of three Chinese lucky cat statues that glide about on his table under their own power. It’s as if Breen is acknowledging the film’s own artifice, but unlike his other films, there’s no hint that this all might be going on in the main character’s head; it’s more that the world around him is some sort of artificial construct almost as though Breen has no interest in disguising the fact that we’re watching a movie, but narratively, it’s tempting to conclude that we’re watching someone play their way through a fully immersive digital experience, or that the world in which the characters occupy is entirely a digital domain, especially given Cade’s closing speech about how we will live in “A virtual metaverse; a virtual universe, living in our own world, every day.”
Seen in this light, some of the shaky special effects seem less like pandering to his fanbase — especially given that Breen claims to make his films first and foremost for himself — and more like attempts to replicate the look of video games. When we see a montage of Cade’s missions early on, there are a few shots of him leading armed marines into combat, but it’s just stock footage with Breen superimposed into it and the marines are frozen in place until he arrives on the scene, as though he’s a player in some form of interactive VR experience. The shots where he’s jumping and flying around buildings to avoid clipart CGI explosions à la both Superman and Super Mario have a platform game sensibility about them. It’s never convincing, of course, and is most likely a result of Breen’s limited resources, but the artificiality of the experience somehow seems appropriate. There are self referential aspects too, but they have the culminative effect of Breen seemingly drawing a line under the first phase of his career. There’s a mirror scene similar to a moment in Fateful Findings; a mysterious figure occasionally appears who seems to serve a similar function to the one in both Fateful Findings and Double Down; we’ve already examined the explicit shout-outs to Pass Thru.
Overall, the film seems to be a bridge between what Breen has done in the past, and whatever might come in the future. There are no deserts or animal skulls, and Breen’s philosophy has matured beyond positing that the world’s problems can be solved by wiping out hundreds of millions of evil doers. Instead, we get what sounds like it’s going to be a sci-spy thriller in the James Bond mould, but which mixes Lynchian crypticism with a Cronenbergesque obsession with rival morally dubious institutions, all shot at night in and around Nevada State College and scored with a quite beautiful Philip Glass-ish Piano/Orchestral library track.
It’s still very much a Neil Breen film, of course, but it’s a step in a different direction. It’s also his most commercially successful film, having enjoyed cinematic engagements in over 50 cities around the world, and has certainly pleased his fans, but, personally, I miss the sweeping desert vistas. Apparently, Breen has vowed that he’ll never self-finance a movie again and is looking for investors who’ll not only put up the budget he needs (and deserves), but who’ll allow him complete artistic freedom as well.
I’d love to see him make some bonkers epic with a cast of thousands whilst returning to his sweeping desert vistas. It could be the 21st century’s The Holy Mountain (1972), except that film probably qualifies as one of the best films ever made. Certainly, Breen would at least deliver one of the most baffling.
Breen is intending to release a two-disc retrospective focussing on the production side of his first five features in January 2020, so perhaps more answers will be forthcoming then.
❉ 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. Visit his website.